The Internet is invigorating reference and information services as no other development in this generation. Librarians now have the opportunity, using real-time virtual reference systems software, to demonstrate their professional expertise in new ways. If done well, virtual reference (VR), using computers to offer remote reference service, presents an opportunity to gain a new group of library supporters.
A few years ago many people, including myself, were not particularly optimistic about the future of library reference work. The sudden rise of the Internet and resources such as Ask Jeeves and Refdesk.com sent shock waves throughout the profession. These new services, available 24/7 from companies with seemingly deep pockets full of hard cash, caught the profession off-guard. How could libraries compete with these free, round-the-clock online resources? Even some public and academic library officials openly predicted the doom of libraries.
How in just a few short years did we get from discussions of our demise to the actual offering of 24/7 service? To the profession's credit, the shock and denial wore off quickly. Librarians did not intend to stand pat and deny the future. We began to act by capitalizing on our traditional strengths as information specialists. Who knows more about Web resources than almost any other profession? Who has the qualifications to mediate and evaluate information resources? Who has the knowledge to ensure that sources are relevant and authoritative? Librarians do, obviously.
Before long we began to read and hear about projects such as the 24/7 reference service launched by California's Metropolitan Cooperative Library System in July 2000. Then the Library of Congress announced its ambitious Collaborative Digital Reference Services (CDRS) project (AL, Jan. 2001, p. 22-23). This demonstration project is particularly significant because it can show the power of libraries working together to share scarce intellectual expertise. Even the commercial companies can't match such talent. Today over 1,000 libraries already offer some version of virtual reference, more are in the works, and over 30 versions of …