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Over the course of the past five years, researchers and practitioners have demonstrated that digital reference services can indeed work well and have developed much of the necessary technology. The next step we must take is to figure out how to optimize the design and operation of our services. A useful step in this direction is the development of consensus models that describe the digital reference process. The authors have developed a model that describes the various roles played by participants in this process and the ways in which those roles interact. This model is illustrated by several case studies: the Internet Public Library, the Saskatchewan Provincial Library, and the Virtual Reference Desk network. The authors hope that the model will facilitate further research by providing a framework and terminology for discussion about the digital reference process. Furthermore, it may be useful to practitioners in the field who are engaged in designing and evaluating policies and procedures for digital reference.
Over the course of the past five years, the nascent field of digital reference has matured greatly. Early on, the primary goal was to demonstrate that online reference services could actually work, and to develop the technology necessary to do so. This initial goal has been achieved. There is now no doubt that digital reference can be very effective, and furthermore that services can work collaboratively and on a large scale. Several organizations, including our own project, have developed successful software tools for digital reference work.
The next step for digital reference research, as with any field in which the demonstration phase has passed, is to figure out how to optimize the design and operation of our services. In order to do this, it is necessary to develop consensus models that describe the digital reference process. Such models will serve as a common basis for discussion, and will also provide the degree of abstraction necessary for high-level reasoning about any system. They must be sufficiently genetic to apply to the wide range of procedures that are used by various projects around the world, and at the same time specific enough to serve as the basis for concrete analysis and experimentation.
There are many facets to digital reference work that are amenable to modeling. In this paper, we will consider the roles that are played by the participants in the process. These roles define both the interaction between the various participants and their functions with respect to the operation of the service. Thus, they provide a good basis for future discussion and for the modeling of other facets of the field. One productive way to use these roles is as a basis for organizing the kinds of policy decisions that are necessary in order to develop a digital reference service.
* The Model
Many of the decisions that go into building a digital reference service are ones with which librarians are already familiar: developing an efficient staffing schedule, offering a tiered versus nontiered service, setting up a system for keeping usage statistics, and so on. Librarians, in particular, have developed a great deal of experience over the years in creating reference service models that match the available resources and the needs of their community. Making the transition to the digital environment involves building on this expertise, while at the same time keeping in mind that the new environment imposes radically different conditions and raises important new questions.
One good way to consider these new constraints is to focus on the various roles played by participants in the digital reference process. These roles are familiar to those involved in the traditional reference process. Each has some new twists imposed by the digital environment and should not be considered to be exclusive. However, the separation helps us illustrate some of the issues that ought to be considered.
The fundamental role in the reference process is the asking of questions. Whether these individuals are referred to as "users," "customers," or "patrons" in the digital world, they require the same level of service as if they had walked in through a door, though providing much less information about themselves. In the classical model of reference, the patron interacts with a librarian in person or over the telephone, and can be thoroughly interviewed and ascertained to be a member of the community to be served. The librarian can respond to visual or voice cues--young or old, happy …