Report of the Task Force on Services at a Distance submitted to University of Toronto Library Council, March 2000

The Big Picture: what the world is doing

An in-depth literature review was conducted to provide context and potential direction for the work of the Task Force. A number of themes appeared repeatedly throughout the literature, and are summarized below.

a) Background

Literature on reference service at a distance may be categorized in numerous ways, but for the purposes of this report, four perspectives will be outlined. The first is the formal, institutional picture where may be found official guidelines for library services at a distance: examples include the December 1999 draft of Guidelines for Library Support of Distance and Distributed Learning in Canada, a document initiated by the Library Services at a Distance Interest Group of the Canadian Library Association (see Appendix C), and ACRL Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services, approved July 1998. Australia too has similar national guidelines for library services at a distance. While these national guidelines are necessary and useful (particularly in their concern for equitable access), they are designed primarily for administrative purposes.

The second is the global perspective, or more accurately, compilations of area perspectives which together present a global picture. Discussions of national technical networks such as the superJANET system in Britain 1 , some Australian networks, and Sweden's "elaborate national communications technology infrastructure"2, all of which have been highly successful as communication networks permitting shared access to online materials, lead into the practical issues of best practice surrounding sharing both library services and materials. One example is the UNIverse Project, funded under the European Commission's Libraries Project3. Still in progress, it is "based on the concept of a virtual union catalogue for libraries, making distributed information resources accessible for searching, retrieving, requesting and delivery in an integrated environment…the Consortium combines some of Europe's leading developments of networked information systems with influential practitioners from the world of academic and national libraries" 4. Another ongoing European experiment is directed at material in one large discipline. The European Legislative Virtual Library (ELVIL) is designed to make "European legal and political information easily accessible" on the Internet, providing "one of the first attempts to truly link resources of law and politics in Europe to a 'one-stop-shop', and at the same time, add value to that information by using the full potential of both hypermedia and multimedia"5. These and other such successful national and international projects are worthy of investigation and emulation. The Task Force recommends that this be looked into by a separate group, as the issues are those of interinstitutional co-operation, funding on a high level, and building of infrastructures to support what we anticipate will be near-future delivery of library services.

The third category is the "hands-on", very practical perspective. Rather than descriptions of services like the Internet Public Library or "AskA" services, these documents tell one how to provide library services to remote users. ERIC's document The AskA Starter Kit: How to build and maintain digital reference services6 for instance, sets out a series of modules, which, if developed and followed, would give a framework for the provision of such services. Discussions and reports on the subject abound: an entire issue of Reference and User Services Quarterly (vol. 38, No. 1) is given over to reporting on and reproducing the papers presented at the "Reference Services in a Digital Age" conference sponsored by the Library of Congress in June 1998. The Association of Research Libraries journal Transforming Libraries7, now also accessible online, devotes its September 1998 issue to "Distance Learning", and consists of a series of updates from different ARL libraries. Likewise, Anne Lipow's article "'In your face' reference Service" states categorically what reference librarians must do to remain useful, viable service providers; namely, become "as convenient as search engines". In fact, she claims that if we made our work more visible, we would be chosen over search engines. This is a pivotal article, with practical advice for all involved in delivering reference and related services. It leads appropriately to one final category, which is information too recent to be found online or in print, and which describes "state of the art" delivery of services at a distance. This category may be called " recent conference reports".

As a result of the "Reference Services in a Digital Age" conference, the Library of Congress has spearheaded a pilot project called "Collaborative Digital Reference Service" (CDRS), to be conducted in three phases. Phase I will begin at the end of February, 2000 and will involve 10 American and 2 foreign libraries, the latter being the National Libraries of Australia and Canada. When Phase III begins in October 2000, it is hoped that there will be many participants from around the globe, the goal being to provide 24/7 online reference service. At the conference in January 2000 where LC's CDRS initiative was outlined, Steve Coffman, a librarian with the Los Angeles County Public Library System, described his FYI service. Using Webline software supported by Cisco Systems to provide access to LiveHelp, this 24/7 online service is accessed by 500,000 users daily, with 900 staff ready to answer the questions on receipt. During a video conference in November 1999, Coffmann suggested that libraries in the English-speaking world should be collaborating to build one big online catalogue, which he estimates could soon consist of some 45 million unique records. At the January 2000 ALA Conference, OCLC's sessions describing their Co-operative Online Resource Catalog (CORC) for electronic materials were filled to overflowing. The CORC catalogue accepts the application of metadata using MARC or Dublin Core, and is just the beginning of greater versatility and inclusiveness in organizing, cataloguing and providing access to electronic materials in a collaborative way. And for somewhat more than a year now, libraries from around the world have started to contribute to OCLC's electronic Pathfinders database, which will not only provide access to these pathfinders, but permit cloning and editing. The University of Toronto Libraries joined OCLC's CORC and Pathfinders ventures in January 2000.

b) Applications

An overview of the literature on services at a distance consistently points to the following issues as those that need to be addressed by any organization undertaking the provision of distance service:

i) Equitable service
This is seen as far and away the most important aspect of providing services at a distance. In order to ensure that such services are the same in quality as that delivered to the on-campus community:

  • there must be staff dedicated to the service
  • the services must be offered at times and in ways most useful to the remote user
  • there must be technology dedicated to making the services work efficiently
  • there must be effective advertising of the services

ii) Staffing
Good and equitable service cannot be achieved without adequate and well-trained staff. The following needs are discussed in the literature:

  • in-depth training of staff presently in place, to enable them to support new services delivered remotely
  • hiring staff with pertinent computer skills and knowledge of effective use of online and other distance education techniques
  • putting more staff in place to provide these services

iii) Reference Services
To provide any kind of effective service it is imperative to understand what users want and need, but this becomes an even greater challenge when there is no face-to-face interaction. Suggestions for helping maintain quality reference service in the remote context include:

  • conducting regular user surveys, and keeping in touch with users by all other practical means
  • keeping abreast of pertinent new technologies and assisting in their practical assessment and appropriate implementation
  • dedicating reference staff to the provision of remote services
  • helping to advertise services
  • doing all of this as well as or better than commercial "competitors" who are rapidly establishing "library-like" online services

iv) Technology
While much of the literature discussed difficulties such as those surrounding the support of both low and high-end technologies so that services may remain equitable, a great deal is being written about emerging technologies which are constantly transforming the ways and means we have of delivering services to remote users. In this area one finds discussions about:

  • the use of interactive technologies such as chat, voice, video, split screens and MOO's
  • examples of virtual libraries and online services, both commercial and free
  • comparison of different technologies attempting to do the same thing, such as the provision of synchronous online help
  • infrastructures to support incoming and future users
  • the wisdom and necessity of establishing partnerships of various kinds

v) Barriers
A variety of barriers can hinder progress in achieving the best of services to remote users, including:

  • conservative attitudes in academic libraries
  • traditional thinking among users, especially mature students or researchers under pressure
  • conventional approaches on the part of library staff
  • difficulties in achieving collaboration among libraries
  • costs involved in provision of these services

See Appendix E for a select bibliography of print and online literature.

1Frances Krivine, "Directory and Access Tools: strategic U.K. directions for the virtual library," in Networking and the Future of Libraries, ed. By John W.T. Smith (London: Meckler, 1993): 1-8.
2Louise Moran and B. Myringer, "Flexible Learning and University Change," in Higher Education through Open and Distance Learning, ed. By Keith Harry (London: Routledge, 1999): 57-71.
3Ian Pettman and S. Ward, "The UNIverse Project: global, distributed library services," in Libraries without Walls 2: the delivery of library services to distant users, ed. Peter Brophy et al. (London: Library Association, 1998): 159-170.
4Ibid., p. 159.
5The European Legislative Virtual Library: ELVIL. Available at (accessed September 1999).
6R. David Lankes and A.S. Kasowitz, The AskA Staarter Kit: how to build and maintain digital reference services (Syracuse: ERIC Clearringhouse on Information & Technology, 1998).
7"Distance Learning", Transforming Libraries, Issue 6: September, 1998. Also available at: (accessed February 2000).

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