IFLA: Reference Work Section
Digital Reference Service Guidelines: An Introduction
"...The wealth of literature regarding standards of
traditional reference and e-mail reference services will serve as
a useful resource during the development of digital reference standards.
However, the unique nature of digital reference introduces a new
realm of issues and challenges. The need for guidelines and standards
becomes even more important as consortium-wide digital reference
services continue to evolve... ."
--Vera Fullerton, IFLA Digital Reference Standards
Project, 12/2002. http://www.ifla.org/VII/s36/pubs/drsp.htm
Purpose of Guidelines
[The purpose of these guidelines is to promote digital reference
best practices on an international basis. The online environment
is uniquely suited to consortial models of work and to the development
of shared resources. Libraries in different countries may have different
traditions of public service, which both affect their current reference
practices and their patrons' expectations. But it is also important
to recognize that new technologies will enable librarians to redefine
the scope of their public services. These guidelines are an attempt
to create some common standards from diverse traditions in the hope
that this will allow the worldwide community of librarians to freely
explore the possibilities.
Defining a user base: Before establishing a digital
reference service, it is a good idea to clarify one's target clientele.
With the use of online technologies, this user base may change.
Location is of less importance with an online presence. In addition
to the Library's traditional users, new and different types of users
may choose to take advantage of online services. It may be necessary
to revisit long-held service policies, clarify and adapt them for
a new environment.]
[Placeholder text: revise as necessary]
Digital Reference Guidelines
1.1 Reference Policy
1.5 Interface & Architecture
1.6 Legal Issues
2.1 General Guidelines
2.2 Content Guidelines
2.4 Guidelines for Chat Sessions
The Administration of Digital Reference Services
Before establishing a digital reference service, examine existing
institutional procedures and policies. Determine how these might
be affected by a transition to a digital environment.
- 1.1 Reference Policy
1.1.1. Clarify goals for this new reference service. Draft
applicable guidelines by integrating existing policies and procedures
with these goals, making sure they are consistent with the overall
mission of the institution.
1.1.2. Consider how often a review of these policies should
take place, describe procedure and designate responsibility.
1.1.3. Provide for compliance with copyright and all other applicable
1.1.4. Determine who can use the service. Define and target
primary clientele. If you serve everyone regardless of age,
race, gender, sexual preference, religion, social status, economic
status or disability, say so. If there are persons excluded
(e.g. clients from outside of a particular community)
-- enforcement should be uniform.
1.1.5. Determine whether there are types of questions the institution
will or will not answer. For example: "We will answer factual
and ready-reference questions. We will not answer questions
asking for medical or legal advice. Questions from our primary
clientele are given priority over others..."
1.1.6. Develop policy for client misbehavior. Persons using
the service should do so in a manner consistent with its purposes
[Review IFLA Aims and Core Values: http://www.ifla.org/III/intro00.htm:
"...IFLA embraces the following core values:
- The endorsement of the principles of freedom of access to
information. Ideas and works of imagination and freedom of
expression embodied in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html.
- The belief that people, communities and organizations need
universal and equitable access to information, ideas and works
of imagination for their social, educational, cultural, democratic
and economic well-being
The conviction that delivery of high quality library and information
services helps guarantee that access..."]
- The scope of the service provided should be based on the available
financial resources, as well as on the perceived needs of the
1.2.1. Establish priorities.
1.2.2. Draft an action plan.
1.2.3. Develop concrete goals--a vision--how will this service
serve the needs of the community? How might this service develop
1.2.4. Evaluate available software and services.
1.2.5. Determine the likeliest sources of funding.
1.2.6. Determine whether other institutions (locally, regionally,
etc.) might be interested in pooling resources to develop a
[See: Revision of IFLA's Guidelines for Public
Libraries: Funding: http://www.ifla.org/VII/s8/proj/gpl.htm]
[To Be Discussed]
1.3.1. Select participating staff upon the basis of interest
(this is key), ability, availability, computer skills, and interpersonal
communication skills. Clearly define their specific responsibilities
126.96.36.199. Consider how many full time librarians are required,
as well as how many technicians, if any, to distribute questions,
188.8.131.52. If a 24-hour-a-day service cannot be achieved or is
not desired, schedule the staffing during the hours that best
meet patrons' information needs and expectations. This is especially
important if using chat reference tools.
184.108.40.206. Examine and evaluate scheduling and librarian workload
distribution on an on-going basis. Adjust whenever necessary
220.127.116.11. Create a centralized schedule for primary participants
as well as relief and/or backup participants.
1.3.2. Determine who within the institution or consortium will
provide the necessary technical support [an organized technical
support group is vital to the success of a digital reference
1.3.3. .Determine which staff member/s will oversee the observance
of any limitations on use such as any contained in licensing
1.3.4. Determine which staff member/s will be responsible for
making sure that reference standards are maintained.
1.3.5. Plan for the integration of the service into daily procedures
and workflow. Standardize procedures so that when staff members
take leave, no reference questions will be lost.
1.4 Training: The Basics:
1.4.1. Determine who will train staff, and set aside time for
staff training and orientation and professional development.
Key skills a digital reference librarian should have include:
- Clear communication skills, especially in writing.
- Database and online searching skills.
- Interviewing skills - to compensate for lack of visual and
- Knowledge of reference resources.
- Familiarity with software package selected.
1.4.2. Update training as necessary. Encourage and enable staff
members to keep abreast of new developments in the field.
1.5 Interface Design: The Online Reference Desk
Access: Should be designed to allow access to resources and expertise
for the greatest number of people, regardless of language, technical
capability & physical impediments.
Interface Design Recommendations
In addition to setting up the actual workspace required to provide
digital reference efficiently--providing elements such as space,
furnishings, hardware, software, Internet access, a web browser
and an email account, it is also important to set up your virtual
work space properly:
1.5.1. Exemplify "user friendly" interface and easy navigation.
18.104.22.168. Establish standard structure and design, and apply
it consistently throughout the site, so that a first-time user
can figure out how to navigate the site after using one or two
screens. Position the link to the service [the "Ask A Librarian"
button] consistently on all institution web pages.
22.214.171.124. Use icons and images as much as possible to orient
the user. Try not to fill the page with long blocks of text.
126.96.36.199. Identify the institution clearly, and provide a link
to the library's home page.
188.8.131.52. Include a brief paragraph defining the scope of the
institution's reference services and state how long users can
expect to wait for a reply/response to their inquiries (e.g.
"...all questions submitted to this service will be answered within
5 business days...").
184.108.40.206. Provide information to guide the user through the
form. (i.e. The "Resources Consulted" field should contain at
least one example showing the user that it's important to include
vol. number, Page number and date, title and author information,
220.127.116.11. Common fields of information that you might consider
adding to your web form include essential ones like "email address,"
and "Question Text," as well as optional fields such as: "Name,"
"Phone Number," "Education Level" [of desired answer], and "Reason
for Research," etc...
[Create fields for whatever information you feel you'll need
in order to provide the most effective service, but not so many
fields as to be off-putting.]
18.104.22.168. Provide Links to relevant internal and external online
resources (reviewed and updated regularly)--Home Pages, Online
Catalogs, Databases, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
22.214.171.124. Provide a link to details on institution's general
For example: service guidelines:
"...nondiscriminatory and nonjudgmental on the basis of age, race,
gender, sexual preference, religion, social status, economic
status or disability, etc..."
126.96.36.199. Identify and provide contact information for all means
of communicating with library staff: via live chat service,
email, web form, fax, postal mail, telephone, etc...
1.5.2. Take the potential limitations of hardware and technical
sophistication of end users into consideration when planning
1.5.3. [Comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)--are
there international standards that apply here?]
1.5.4. Clearly state who answers the questions and state what
the service will not do. For example:
"Due to time constraints, and the volume of questions we receive
- Fax material to patrons.
- Create bibliographies.
- Conduct extensive research.
- Renew materials via this service...
1.5.5. Privacy Statement, disclaimer, etc... [Based on legal
British Library website: http://www.bl.uk/privacy.html
"The purpose of this statement is to inform users of this website
what information is collected about them when they visit this
site, how this information is used and if it is disclosed.
In common with most websites, the British Library website automatically
logs certain information about every request sent to it. This
information is used for system administration and for producing
usage statistics. Summary statistics are extracted from this
data and some of these may be made publicly available, but these
do not include information from which individuals could be identified.
Relevant subsets of this data may be used as part of investigations
of computer misuse involving this site (see also our guidelines
1.5.6. Determine how long chat transcripts and questions will
be archived, and who will have access to them. Determine whether
it is necessary to maintain patron anonymity by stripping away
all personal information. Establish a maintenance process and
1.5.7. Provide a means for patrons to provide feedback-survey,
1.6 Legal Issues
- It is important for all librarians to familiarize themselves
with the current state of public information legislation in
their region, and, when it affects the scope of services offered,
to share this information with their patrons.
1.6.1. Digital Reference and Freedom of Information/Local Culture.
1.6.2. National Information Policies--What is the political
1.6.3. Public Information Legislation.
1.6.4. Related Legislation.
1.6.6. Privacy and confidentiality issues.
1.6.7. Licensing Agreements.
1.6.8. Consortial Relationships.
[See: Revision of IFLA Public Library Guidelines http://www.ifla.org/VII/s8/proj/gpl.htm]
1.7. Publicity and Promotion
1.8.1. Conduct user surveys of both patrons and staff. Monitor
concerns, problems, and questions from staff and patrons.
1.8.2. Compile and evaluate statistics of service activity,
as well as possible technical or policy issues.
1.8.3. Implement changes to services based upon statistical
analysis, and librarian and patron feedback.
- Online tools enable libraries to share their resources with
other similar or complementary institutions. This allows them
to offer their patrons a greater range of services and expertise.
But collaborative work is not without its challenges. Collaborators
1.9.1. Establish a common vision of the services the new entity
1.9.2. Develop common guidelines for practice and procedures.
1.9.3. Build trust between partners - establish accountability.
1.9.4. Think through the issues that may get in the way of
the delivery of shared resources, including: copyright law,
licensing agreements, liability, national information policies,
professional pride, etc...
See: Implementing Online Reference Services:
Co-operation and Resource Sharing (From: IFLA Public Library
Guidelines < http://www.ifla.org/VII/s8/news/pg01.htm
The Practice of Digital Reference
2.1 General Guidelines
- Digital reference services must meet the same standards as
traditional reference services. Participants should:
2.1.1. Be committed to providing the most effective assistance.
2.1.2. Show professional courtesy and respect when answering
2.1.3. Uphold the principles of intellectual freedom.
2.1.4. Acknowledge receipt of patron question. Provide patrons
with responses as quickly as possible. Letters and other forms
of communication should be answered promptly and courteously
(IFLA PL Website)
2.1.5. Create and adhere to stated response turnaround policy.
2.1.6. Comply with contractual licensing agreements, for both
electronic and print materials, as well as specific restrictions
of use, and any copyright laws governing the materials in question.
2.1.7. Practice good search strategies.
(See RUSA document: Guidelines
for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services
Professionals. Section 4.0 Searching. RASD Ad Hoc Committee
on Behavioral Guidelines for Reference and Information Services.
Approved by the RASD Board of Directors, January 1996.
2.1.8. Respond to 100% of questions that are assigned, if only
to say, "I'm sorry I don't know, but you can try...
2.1.9. For questions requiring more in-depth answers, assistance
may be provided if appropriate. Search time should be limited
to the amount of time that supervisor recommends.
2.2. Content Guidelines (asynchronous)
2.2.1. Digital reference service should be informative; Promote
information literacy by providing patrons with information on
how you found an answer to their question.
2.2.2. Maintain objectivity and do not interject value judgments
about subject matter or the nature of the question into the
2.2.3. Use a neutral questioning interview technique to determine
"the real question," and once this is determined, provide users
with accurate answers, appropriate in length, level, and completeness
to the need. Include notification that the question may be forwarded
to consortial partners, if this is the case.
2.2.4. A well-structured response has a heading, body and closure.
188.8.131.52. Heading: Greet patron, include a generic
notice of thanks for using the service, refer directly to subject
of patron's inquiry: Example: "Information on_________may be
found________," To find out more about___________, we would
184.108.40.206. Body:Cite sources fully, and describe all
materials (if any) sent under separate cover or attached. Explain
how the relevant information was found, its placement with regard
to the suggested resource, if this is not immediately evident.
220.127.116.11. Signature: should be a part of every closure,
and saved in a librarian script. The librarian signature may
contain librarian name or initials, title, institution and any
contact information, as is prescribed by supervisor. Examples:
"We hope the information we've provided will assist you with
your research"; "I hope you find this information helpful";
"We hope this answers your question. If you have further questions,
please contact us again and we will be glad to provide additional
2.2.5. Avoid using jargon, acronyms, or Internet shortcuts
(such as: BTW, IMHO).
2.2.6. Write all responses clearly and relate them to the level
of the inquiry (as much as possible).
2.2.7. Offer accurate responses--check facts and know (evaluate)
2.2.8. Check spelling and validate URLS.
2.2.9. Select and cite only from authoritative resources:
18.104.22.168. Evaluation criteria for paper-based resources: Author,
Date of Publication, Edition or Revision, Publisher, Title,
Intended Audience, Coverage, Writing Style.
22.214.171.124. Evaluation criteria for reviews, Accuracy, Authority,
126.96.36.199. Evaluation criteria for web resources: Author, Content,
Domain Name, Date of Last Revision, Objectivity, Authority,
2.2.10. Always cite sources of information completely, whether
web page, reference book, database, or other. Use a consistent
citation style institution-wide, if possible.
2.2.11. When information from a source is not immediately useful,
the librarian should add value to that information either through
analysis, description, keywords, pathways, or rewording. Avoid
manipulating information that is likely to mislead.
2.2.12. The librarian should do his or her best to locate and
recommend at least one resource for every question.
2.3. General Chat Service Guidelines
2.3.1. Chat with a patron should be initiated as soon as the
patron enters the chat queue.
2.3.2. Chat queries should be responded to in the order that
they are received.
2.3.3. Librarians serving chat patrons should identify themselves
immediately upon initiation of conversation. This introduction
should be scripted in the librarian's scripts. (See section
2.3.4. Research from various chat projects has indicated an
average session may be expected to be about 15 minutes long.
Librarians may use their own judgment in this area. Be aware
of other patrons waiting.
2.3.5. Intervals of 45 seconds or less between responses are
suggested, so as to confirm to the user that they have not been
2.3.6. Bookmark URLs used frequently.
2.3.7. Use spelling, grammar and capitalization appropriately--but
be aware that "chat speak" is generally more conversational
than formally written prose.
2.3.8. Develop generalized institutional scripts to help librarians
save time, and provide consistent service within an institution.
The service administrator should approve institutional scripts.
188.8.131.52. Encourage individual librarians to develop their own
unique scripts as needed. A librarian may want to use scripts
- Receives questions that require similar responses on topics
not handled by others.
- Has a subject specialty that merits a personalized script.
- Often makes the same reference to another institution, association,
resource or web site.
- Would like to establish a consistent form of greeting or
closure that is different from the institutional or group
184.108.40.206. If the session cannot be closed in a reasonable amount
of time and/or there is another patron in the queue, offer to
email a response, providing a time estimate, e.g. "I will continue
to search for an answer and I will send you an email within
X hours or minutes"; "Is this enough to get you started?" "May
I send you an answer via email?"
220.127.116.11. Work with more than one patron at a time. If you feel
comfortable, you may also pick up the second patron (it is recommended
that you use a separate browser). E.g. "I am currently working
with another patron. I will return to this chat session as soon
as I can." "Will you please hold for five minutes?"
2.4. Guidelines for Chat Sessions
2.4.1. Clarify the information need. Allow the patron to fully
explain his/her information need before responding.
2.4.2. Use open-ended questioning techniques to encourage the
patron to expand on the request, e.g. "Please tell me more about
your topic." or "What additional information can you give me?"
or "How much information do you need?"
2.4.3. Use questions to refine the search query. E.g. "What
have you already found?" or "What type of information do you
need (books, articles, etc.)?" or "Do you need current or historical
2.4.4. Break up long responses into a few blocks (e.g. 30 words
per block)--this avoids long pauses and the client can begin
reading your response while you are completing it.
2.4.5. Explain your search process to the patron and describe
what you are finding whenever possible. Remember that the patron
cannot see you. Let the patron know what you are looking for
and where you are looking.
2.4.6. If you are going to be checking printed sources or taking
a bit of time with the question, either provide patron w/ resource
to look at, or offer them the option of follow-up via email.
2.4.7. Use complete citations.
2.4.8. If an inquiry needs to be referred to another librarian,
give the patron detailed information about who to ask, how to
contact them and what to ask for.
2.4.9. Inappropriate behavior": When patron behavior is inappropriate
(as determined by institutional guidelines), send a scripted
warning message or terminate the call. Repeat offenders should
2.4.11 Type like you talk, in a conversational manner.
2.4.12 Use the client's name and ask them questions when appropriate.
2.4.13 Avoid yes/no responses. Yes/no's can be interpreted
as cold and unfriendly, just as in face-to-face reference.
2.4.14 Clarify confusing terminology and avoid excessive jargon.
Use terminology that is understandable to the patron.
Resources Used to Create Draft:
Reference And User Services Association (RUSA) Guidelines
[Scroll to bottom of page - Accessed 04/14/2003]
- IFLA Public Library Guidelines (Revised) http://www.ifla.org/VII/s8/proj/gpl.htm
- Library of Congress: QuestionPoint
Users Group Guidelines (DRAFT)
- Lipow, Anne G. The Virtual Reference Librarian's
Handbook. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2003.
- QuestionPoint Member Guidelines:http://www.questionpoint.org/web/members/memberguidelines.htm
- Sloan, Bernie, ed.. Digital Reference Services: Bibliography.
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~b-sloan/digiref.html
- Virtual Reference Desk: Facets of Quality for Digital