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NOW THAT LIBRARIES have substantial digital collections available to users from their homes or offices, it isn't surprising that remote access ("virtual") reference services are the latest trend. LJ recently provided an overview of virtual reference services and reported on local progress and national initiatives to implement online reference help 24 hours a day, seven days a week (see "The Shape of E-Reference," LJ 2/1/01 p. 46ff.).
Recently, I asked the directors of reference in the academic member libraries of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) to describe changes in their reference services over the last three years and how electronic resources have impacted them. Although most do not yet offer real-time virtual reference services, all offer some reference services to their remote users, and expanding virtual reference services is in the planning stages at many more.
Range of reference services
Librarians in 70 libraries responded to my questionnaire, which also included detailed questions on their electronic collections. These university libraries allow their patrons to pose reference questions in a variety of ways. All still maintain reference desk/drop-in reference services and telephone reference, while practically all now offer e-mail reference (99 percent) and reference by appointment (96 percent). The newest option, real-time virtual reference, is already offered by 20 of the 70 libraries (29 percent).
Although they all report that drop-in service at the reference desk is still used the most, over 84 percent of these libraries reported a decrease in the total number of reference questions asked at the desk. Patrons now have access to a wider array of resources and can more easily answer basic questions on their own.
Still, the questions that come to the reference …