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Once upon a time, law firm libraries served as gathering places where attorneys came to use the books, ask questions, and hang out with colleagues and the morning paper. Not anymore. Armed with electronic information on the desktop, e-mail, fax and phone, there is little need for attorneys to leave their office until it’s time to go home. As a result, the patron becomes remote from the library staff — or the patron views the library staff as remote from them. (Even someone who works down the hall can be forgotten if they are never seen.) Librarians must figure out how to serve users in this distributed environment where resources, patrons and library staff are scattered in multiple physical locations and in cyberspace. One particular challenge librarians are dealing with is how to provide reference and research services. Any reference project has at least three stages. First is the reference interview, where patron and librarian negotiate the question to make sure the requirements (scope, cost limitations, turnaround time) are understood. Next, the librarian researches the answer, a task that may take anywhere from a minute to many days (or longer) and that may require nothing more than the librarian’s memory or a whole array of primary and secondary sources. Lastly, an answer is communicated to the patron. The process is then repeated as necessary until the patron’s information need is met. So how do you provide reference services when you are never face to face with your patrons? The telephone, a great way to conduct a reference interview, cannot be used to transmit documents. Faxes may be used to transmit documents but are a cumbersome way to conduct a reference interview. E-mail is a good way to work around time zones but still an awkward way to work out the details of a reference question. None of these instruments provide what is really needed: a method of collaborating, live and in real time, so that patron and staff members can talk, view documents and Web pages, illustrate search techniques, and do all the other things librarians used to do when they and their patrons shared the same space. MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER? One solution is to use Web-based call-center software. This software was originally developed for use on e-commerce sites such as L.L.Bean’s to allow the companies to interact with their customers, to take orders and to answer questions, in real time. A growing number of public and academic libraries are using call-center software products to provide reference services. With a few exceptions, these products are not yet widely used by law firm or other business libraries. And yet law firms are using collaborative software products for videoconferencing, co-browsing of documents, application sharing and other tasks. Why not take advantage of this technology, which allows librarians to offer a similar level of service to patrons, regardless of location? In fact, the technology allows librarians to offer new and different services unavailable to anyone before. The products have a variety of features, including interactive tools to allow collaborative browsing and collaborative completion of forms and search screens. These tools also allow the librarian to push Web pages and other types of documents to the patron’s desktop so that both can view the same information at the same time. Built-in databases (called knowledge bases) allow the staff to capture and reuse answers. Calls are queued and routed to ensure that they are handled in the proper order and that they reach their proper destination. Creating scripted messages to commonly asked questions saves staff from having to retype the same information many times each day. A transcript of the session, with live links to Web sites and documents, is automatically sent to the patron after the session ends. Other features that may be available include the ability to create customer profiles to document preferences and requirements, and reporting and analysis tools for tracking and assessing system usage. Some products allow customization so that they reflect the look and feel of the organization rather than that of the software vendor. LIBRARY REFERENCE SOFTWARE Although there are a number of products on the market, most are not designed with libraries in mind. There are three exceptions: � Library Systems and Services Inc. offers a range of services that include outsourcing. LSSI’s software product is called the Virtual Reference Desk. � The Metropolitan Cooperative Library System in California developed the 24/7 Reference product for its own use and now sells the software to others. � Convey Systems has developed a product called OnDemand. All three work approximately the same way: The user connects to the service, a plug-in is downloaded to the user’s PC (unless it has been downloaded in advance), the user completes a form with basic data (name, e-mail address, etc.), and then types a reference question. The reference librarian and the user communicate via chat software, which means typing and sending your comments and then waiting for the other person to reply. Depending on the length of the comments, and the proficiency of the typists, this can go quickly or slowly. The librarian and user may also be able to talk on the phone. Depending on the question, the librarian will push to the user’s desktop Web pages or word processing documents or even PowerPoint slide shows. These three products incorporate some or all of the features described above, as well as others not addressed here. The best way to get a sense of how they work is to try them. For LSSI’s Virtual Reference Desk (VRD), go to http://vrhome.virtualreference.net/and click on Software Demo. In the question box, explain that you want a demonstration of the software. Note that this is not a reference service, so you cannot test the software by acting like a regular customer. I started my VRD interactive session using just the chat software. Those who spend time in chat rooms will find this easy. The rest may require a minute to get into the rhythm of typing a comment; waiting for an answer; looking at the screen to see what information has been pushed there; then responding to the pushed information, the typed message, or both, and so on. After a few minutes, I asked the librarian to give me a call, which works only if you have a second line or a high-speed Internet connection. Voice-to-voice is much easier than typing, but it does have a disadvantage: At the end of the session, the caller receives a complete chat transcript with live links to the Web pages and documents discussed during the session. But the transcript does not capture voice transmissions, so unless you are a good note-taker, the verbal record is lost. During the demo, you are sitting on the patron’s side of the reference desk. To get a view from the librarian’s side, ask to see a shot of the screen viewed by the VRD librarians. To try out 24/7 Reference, go to the Web site ( http://www.247ref.org/) and click on Connect With a Librarian on the home page. A split screen contains a welcome message on one side and a form for your reference question on the other. On this site, you can try a real reference question or just tell the 24/7 librarian that you are interested in a product demonstration. Or to contact one of the libraries that offer this service directly to the general public, click on Communities. For a demonstration of OnDemand, go to http://www.conveysystems.com/library.aspand click on the Ask Me Now icon. An interesting feature of this product is what the company calls a persistent button, which can appear on any third-party database Web page. When patrons click on the button Call Now, they are routed to a predetermined expert on the subject. So, for example, libraries could route their patrons with patent questions to IP specialists located in one city, and route patrons with antitrust questions to specialists located in another. Prices and pricing models vary. All three companies offer a “per seat” price consisting of one-time installation and training fees and an annual maintenance fee to cover technical support and upgrades. With a single seat, the library can serve one person at a time for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Two or more organizations can share one seat, which works well if they are located in different time zones. For this pricing model, basic first-year costs will vary from less than $4,000 to about $15,000. Convey Systems and OnDemand also offer alternative models and all three offer quantity discounts based on the number of seats. FOR MORE INFORMATION The Web has lots of information, including an excellent bibliography compiled by Bernie Sloan of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ( http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/ ~b-sloan/digiref.html). Sloan estimates that 45 percent of the 400-plus items in his bibliography are available on the Web. LiveRef: A Registry of Real-Time Digital Reference Services ( http://www.public.iastate.edu/ ~CYBERSTACKS/homepage.html) contains a listing of libraries by category “that offer real-time reference services using chat software, live interactive communications utilities, call center management software, customer interaction management software, Web contact center software, bulletin board services, interactive customer assistance system, or related Internet technologies.” The site also contains links to companies that provide the software. For all its advantages, call-center software is far from a perfect solution. Despite the seemingly unshakable belief of many to the contrary, not everything is available online. Print products must be scanned or transmitted using other methods. Reliable, high-speed transmission is essential to keep the process from bogging down. Some of the features are clunky and need refinement. And, as with any system, this one is only as good as the people who operate it. Despite these issues, the software makes it possible to provide a level of reference service to patrons near and far that was not possible before. Joan L. Axelroth is president of Axelroth & Associates, an information and library management consulting firm serving law firms and businesses located nationwide. She may be reached at [email protected].

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