Email Reference Service Literature Review

by Moya K. Mason

This could be considered an overview of the early history of email reference service in Canada. I read the following articles, took the important points and wrote them in my own words.

Still, Julie, and Frank Campbell. "Librarian in a Box: The Use of Electronic Mail for Reference." Reference Services Review 21, no. 1 (1993): 15-18.

Interlibrary loan librarians have long been familiar with two forms of electronic mail, the OCLC interlibrary loan subsystem, and the National Library of Medicine's DOCLINE system, which allows librarians to communicate and borrow directly from librarians across the country and around the world. And online searchers can subscribe to DIALMAIL and communicate with Dialog or other searchers.

Reference librarians have begun investigating ways of integrating email into the reference process. An early example is a November-December 1988 ARL Spec Kit that received 79 responses to a survey concerning the use of email in research libraries. Of those 79 responses, 16 used email for reference questions.

Some of the services that libraries offer over email include, requesting items to be borrowed (ILL) or suggestions for purchase. Some libraries have email accounts set up so that patrons can ask a reference question electronically. Reference librarians find that it is difficult and time consuming to do a reference interview over email and patrons must be willing to wait for an answer.

Weise (1984) points out that some of the benefits of email services include the ability to access the library from remote sites, at any time of the day or night, and the ability to produce a printed record of the reference request, thus allowing for record-keeping. One big difference that email has made is making the internal operations of the library invisible to the patron; they are unaware of which department handles each request.

On August 31, 1990, one of the authors posted a message on Bitnet's library automation discussion group (PACS-L) requesting information on reference via email. Eighteen librarians responded. Two were also investigating the feasibility of offering such a service. Of those who had some experience, five commented that the service received little use. Three reported using online forms that allowed patrons to request interlibrary loans or computer searches through the system. Other individuals listed problems that they see in the system, including the inability to do a reference interview over email, and the fact that the patron must still come to the library to locate information. Some librarians merely replied that they had the service without going into detail.

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, is state-supported and has an enrollment of roughly 21, 764. The University Library Services is made up of two geographically separate libraries. It introduced email library service in April 1990, developing a detailed user's manual that was also offered electronically to allow patrons to print it off. When a user accesses the ULS email system via the university's VAX, a series of options is offered from an introductory menu. These options include book, journal, and audio-visual material purchase requests, online search requests, reference questions, and general suggestions and questions. The option selected determines where the email message will be sent. Overall, email use of reference services has not been heavy: April-December 1990, 31 valid reference questions were received, with 12 valid requests for online searches to be performed. From January-September 1991, 31 valid reference questions were sent in, with a total of 6 valid online search requests.

An informal survey of ten academic libraries in and around Philadelphia in April 1992 found that few have formalized email reference systems. Only two currently offer that service, both having an email address for the reference desk. However, neither library receives many questions through that format. Some of those surveyed were hesitant to offer ILL ordering over email because of the need for a signature on copyright compliance forms.

At present, traditional reference queries are seldom asked over email, however, librarians will need to continue investigating and fine-tuning library services via email. They will also need to continue investing in education and training to maintain and implement the best service for their patrons.

Abels, Eileen G., and Peter Liebscher. "A New Challenge for Intermediary-Client Communication: The Electronic Network." The Reference Librarian 41/42 (1994): 185-196.

The continuing growth in the number of libraries with access to electronic data networks is beginning to impact the way these organizations conduct their business. For library clients, this promises more convenient access to information and to library professionals. Clients will increasingly expect to access information and the services of librarians at work and at home. Libraries will increasingly have new opportunities to deliver services, such as reference services, to users who now find it difficult or inconvenient to visit the library. However, if remote reference services are to become common, it is necessary for the information profession to prepare now by identifying both advantages and problems for clients and reference intermediaries alike. Library education's critical role in this process is to ensure that information professionals are adequately prepared to offer remote reference services.

Adoption of remote services provides great opportunities to reach new clients and to enhance services in a number of ways. For example, the Health Science Library at the University of Maryland uses a menu driven email system (Electronic Access to Reference Services, EARS) to allow users to request a variety of reference services from their homes or places of work. However, Weise and Borgendale found that where these services are offered, users may be slow to take advantage of them. The EARS service, for example, is used very heavily for requesting photocopy services and very little for requesting reference services such as literature searches (91% of requests were for photocopy services). More recently, an email survey conducted to determine which institutions offer electronic reference services, indicated that few libraries offer such services. With some exception, those that do, appear to attach less importance to these services. For example, almost all respondent libraries report offering only 24 hour turn-around-time for queries. This may not be acceptable to many users and may result in the low usage reported by libraries offering the service.

A vital part of the reference process is the reference interview. White made a detailed analysis of the reference interview, and concluded that: "The reference interview plays a critical role in information retrieval systems. It is an adaptive mechanism, i.e., it allows for adapting the system to the client or vice versa so that a reasonably congruent match between what the client needs and what the system can identify occurs." -- (see: White, Marilyn Domas. "Evaluation of the Reference Interview." RQ 25, no. 1 (1985): 76-83).

One problem then in providing reference service over an electronic data network is replacing the face-to-face reference interview, whose interactive nature allows for immediate clarification, with an electronic interaction that is equally effective. As White points out, information flows across several channels, of which verbal communication is but one. Other, non-verbal channels, such as inflections and paralinguistic devices are often equally important. Many of these cues are, of course, not present in an electronic interview although, some standardized iconic representations of non-verbal communications are beginning to appear, such as smileys, etc., but these are still quite limiting. New and rich protocols for communicating non-verbal signals will no doubt develop to fill the void.

Conducting an effective reference interview for a complex information problem is a difficult task. Many factors affect the outcome of the reference interview, for example, interpersonal skills, subject expertise, and prior experience. Friendliness, eagerness, kindness, and approachability on the part of the reference staff all help to establish a positive rapport.

There is evidence that asking clients to consider and write out their requests for information is beneficial to the end result. Even early research in retrieval effectiveness indicated that formal, written requests by users that stated their information problems were important components of a successful reference process, since there is often miscommunication in an oral transaction, wherein the librarians may or may not hear/understand the request. Writing it down in natural language terms helps to clear up some of the confusion, and it also forces users to think about and then state their information needs in a more concise manner. Therefore, there may be definite advantages to using electronic reference templates completed by the user.

Follow-up interactions - as important as the initial reference interview is, it does not stand alone in the reference librarian-client interaction. Ideally, follow-up interactions take place whenever the need arises. However, in the traditional process: face-to-face interview followed by a search, it is difficult to establish follow-up contact because the client has left the library. Telephone contact is not always possible or satisfactory, as both parties have to be engaged simultaneously. Additional visits to the library by the client may not be practical. Follow-up, using electronic communication such as email, allows one party to send a message when most convenient and the other party to read that message, also when most convenient. When a search has retrieved more than a few items, discussions centered on modifying the search strategy are difficult if both parties don't have access to the retrieved items. Intermediate search results can be sent to clients for inspection and comment using email or FTP. Such complete feedback is not possible using telephones and is cumbersome using fax. This suggests an additional potential advantage for both reference staff and clients. Time wasted on fruitless telephone calls or waiting for clients to arrive for interviews is eliminated, allowing the intermediary to devote more time to clients' information needs or to provide services to more clients, or both.

And transmitting results to a user electronically saves time for the librarian who otherwise has to print the results and mail or fax them to a remotely located client. When the search does not involve accessing electronic databases, the librarian is faced with the problem of transmitting other reference output, such as pages of information from a print source, or the photocopy of a document. Use of scanners can alleviate some problems, but not all. Traditional channels of communication such as snail mail will continue to play an important role in reference. (Also, many libraries do not have scanners and are very hesitant to scan too many pages of a single resource because of copyright restrictions).

Library schools should play an important role in developing instruments for electronic reference interactions, and in educating and training information professionals in communicating with clients over electronic channels.

"To the responsibility for developing new tools should be added understanding and mastering the communications process over the new electronic medium. Library schools can conduct research and evaluate various implementations of the electronic reference process. In terms of their function as educators and trainers of library professionals, library schools can apply the results of their research to preparing new reference librarians to understand and operate effectively in this environment. To date this challenge has not, generally, been recognized" (page 193).

Tomer, C. "MIME and Electronic Reference Service." The Reference Librarian 41/42 (1994): 347-373.

Tomer asks how successful electronic reference services have been to date? There is no conclusive data, but the results of a limited survey conducted by Daphne Flanagan, of the University of Windsor suggests that usually electronic reference services have been of no more than limited effect on the more general provision of reference services. She reports that the impact on service has been minimal, partly because use has been limited, with an average of 1-2 questions a day.

A study at SUNY done by Ghidiu corroborates Flanagan's findings about how reference services available and transacted by electronic mail are used. According to the study, only about fifteen percent of the libraries providing reference service via electronic mail receive requests daily. Why?

Four primary reasons: 1.) There are other less sophisticated forms of reference service that are often more effective and efficient, such as the telephone, 2.) Insufficient interoperability, meaning that email is currently limited by the lack of standardization or implementation of standards in several key areas, 3.) The third problem is the extent to which mail services are available or used - the numbers of people and organizations making frequent use of email are quite low. (remember this was 1994), and 4.) There is the fact that until recently email systems using the Internet did not have the capacity of sending and receiving the complex documents that make up much of a library's resources. Users definitely want to be able to transmit and receive documents generated by word processing, audio clips, graphics, digitized facsimiles -- multimedia mail, as the author calls it.

Efficiency is one of the hallmarks of librarianship. As Ross Atkinson has noted: The primary purpose of information services has always been and will always be to reduce to a minimum the amount of time required by local users to obtain access to that information that they need to do their work. All information service activities are intended ultimately to achieve that single objective. As we move into an increasingly online environment, those service activities will change, but that primary objective will remain the same. (from "Networks, Hypertext, and Academic Information Services: Some Longer-Range Implications." College & Research Libraries 54 (1993): 200.

So, it may be argued from this perspective that the success of digital libraries and electronic library services will depend to a significant degree on which digital technologies may be employed to increase the efficiency of the relationship between libraries and their users by enabling users to ask for and receive a full range of information and document delivery services on a remote basis.

MIME is a freely available specification offering a means of interchanging text in languages with different character sets and multi-media mail among the many different computer systems that support the SMTP standard. MIME represents a way of encoding, in ASCII, a multi-part message structure, in a UNIX environment. The parts may be nested and may be of seven different types: text, audio, image, video, message, application, and multi-part.

How could MIME-compliant, multimedia mail alter the conduct of reference services? It is hard to know to what extent this medium will change and enhance reference services in the short term because many librarians view the newer information technologies will fear and loathing. Many libraries are mired in what appears more and more to be a chronic financial crisis, and the publishing industry has long been seized by the view that without close regulation, use of various information technologies is a direct, serious threat to its survival.

Perhaps more to the point, in the long run, the ability to exchange messages that consist of or include complex documents is going to add a new dimension to the reference process. Reference librarians will continue to conduct interviews, analyze questions, and plot search strategies, but they will also have the opportunity to take relevant data and files and present them in arrays whose quality and usefulness will depend in significant measure on their creative compositional talents.

Abels, Eileen G. "The E-mail Reference Interview." RQ 35, no. 3 (1996): 345-58.

While the objective of any reference interview is the same: to find out the information needs of a client, techniques may vary based on communication forms. Since email communication is a somewhat distinctive media form, there are both opportunities and challenges presented when using it. This study was conducted at CLIS at the University of Maryland in three phases and is based on an informal analysis of email reference interviews conducted by student intermediaries.

Over three semesters, students from an online reference course at the College of Library and Information Services, University of Maryland, became the intermediaries for clients asking real reference questions. This was part of a final course project and was conducted over three different semesters, with modifications made in the second and third semesters based on the previous running. Fifty-six students took part in the study, having an equal number of clients.

Phase One took place in the fall of 1993. The clients were students from Palmer School of Library Science at Long Island University.

Phase Two took place in the spring of 1994, with student discussions focusing on the previous study. Clients were real this time: not students, but rather faculty and doctoral students.

Phase Three took place during the fall of 1994, and included real clients again and the use of a remote reference request form, which clients submitted via email, fax, or regular mail. Clients were finally allowed to choose the medium for further communication with the student because it became apparent to the researchers that in real life, no one would tell a client they could not use the telephone at any point during an interaction with a librarian.

All email was documented and copied, and passed along to the course instructor. In-person and telephone conversations were transcribed from notes or tapes.

Clients were then asked to rate the relevance of at least twenty-five randomly selected items and students were asked to critique the entire process, provide an independent relevance assessment, and calculate a precision ratio (number of relevant items divided by total number of items retrieved).

"In initiating a study of the e-mail reference interview, it was assumed that, independent of the medium used, the reference interview must achieve the objectives of "identifying the information needs and gathering information to permit a successful search for that information." (White, 1985). To achieve these objectives in a speedy manner is probably the biggest challenge of the remote interview...Although e-mail has some similarities with other means of communication, it has some distinguishing features. Email is generally considered to be less formal, more spontaneous, and more ephemeral than a letter...Email messages are not restricted to library hours and they can be sent at the convenience of the sender similarly to a voice mail message; e-mail creates a written trail of the interaction" (page 347-348).

Interesting points:

Although Lancaster (1968) suggested that clients expressed themselves better when they put their question down in writing, this study found that completeness and clarity of the e-mail varied greatly among the clients. For instance, doctoral students seemed "nebulous and vague." Experienced faculty members were clearer in their information needs.

The use of email to make a reference request may be quite foreign to some clients; broad requests are better suited to in-person interactions or by telephone negotiation; and many clients need to get used to this form of reference service.

As an asynchronous form of communication, email can impact the reference interview by its lack of real-time interaction. All questions were delayed, with some not being answered for days or weeks so as to facilitate a reference interview. These delays were sometimes seen as beneficial by some of the student intermediaries because they felt as if they had more of a chance to think about questions. Others indicated that the delays resulted in them not remembering the original message and them losing their train of thought.

In email interviews, nonresponses are quite common, and sometimes it makes one wonder if this is because the message did not get to where it was going or that a client has decided to intentionally not answer for some reason. In person, it is much harder for a client to ignore a question.

Since students were not given any guidelines for conducting the email reference interview in Phase One, five different approaches emerged: piecemeal -- questions asked ad hoc as they occurred to an intermediary, with unplanned responses flying through cyberspace. A common problem in this approach was that intermediaries did not always ask all the questions that would have helped clarify a request. Piecemeal approaches are thus, incomplete, unorganized, incoherent, and do not necessarily progress toward a goal.

Feedback Approach -- bombardment, assumption, and systematic. The email medium, with time lags between responses, permitted intermediaries to jump from the question negotiation stage to the feedback stage and back again. This approach tended to be used when responses to questions were not received quickly. The lack of a real-time interaction presents intermediaries with the opportunity to do research or search databases prior to responding to the client or continuing the dialogue.

The Bombardment Approach -- a series of questions fired off in one long email. Clients tended to respond to this approach in an incomplete manner, forgetting to address some of the questions. More messages had to be sent, with frustration running high on both sides. Remember when using: the format of questions is very important in eliciting complete responses from the client. Format in an email interview is a correlate to style of communication in an in-person interview.

The Assumption Approach - in an email setting, network unreliability, incompatibility of systems at different institutions, lack of frequent access to the network, and unforeseen travel demands on clients may result in lengthy delays between messages. For these reasons, the assumption-based approach is more likely to be used in the email reference interview. Assumptions were used as a replacement for the interview, and to allow the reference interview to continue. No question negotiation takes place when the intermediary assumes they know the information needs of the client. Results are mixed when this approach is used. Requests that are well stated in the beginning and contain few concepts seemed best suited to the assumption approach.

The Systematic Approach - posing all related questions in an organized fashion. Like an in -person interview, these questions were organized in a logical way and included both open and closed-ended questions. When used, the systematic approach yielded great success in reference interviews. Efficiency reigned high because the relevance assessments by client and intermediary were closely aligned, indicating that the intermediary had a clear understanding of the information need and answer required.

"...the systematic approach was selected as the most successful and worthy of further refinement. Rather than having a client initiate the interview process with an unstructured message, it seemed both effective and efficient to begin the process with a request form, as many institutions do for an in-person reference request. The remote reference request form is critical for several reasons. First, the form prompts the client to make a complete statement of the request at the outset. Second, it prompts the client to include information that might otherwise be omitted, such as language requirements of type of materials sought" (page 352).


1. Through class discussions and analysis of discussions of in-person reference interviews, a request form was developed.

2. The form was effective in reducing the number of email messages in the reference interview by eliminating the need to solicit easily answered but often overlooked information such as deadlines, type of information, language requirements, time periods, etc.

3. The request form had three sections: personal data, subject to be searched, and constraints on search results.


1. Some substantive reference questions can be successfully negotiated and answered via email.

2. The most effective approach to email interviews is the systematic one.

3. Design of a request form seems to be beneficial.

4. A model email reference interview consists of three messages: the problem statement by the client on the request form; a summarization of the information need by the intermediary; and a confirmation of the summary by the client. Additional messages might be needed for subject clarification; however, an alternative communication medium should be considered if the question negotiation continues beyond two messages.

Quote: "Computer networking is becoming more and more pervasive in organizations of all types. E-mail is the network service used by most network users and is considered to be an emerging form of communication. Services and functions once restricted to in-person interaction are now accomplished remotely. Libraries and information services have begun to offer remote reference services. These services currently emphasize ready reference rather than substantive queries. However, complex reference requests will become more commonplace as electronic information services are expanded. Information professionals must be prepared to conduct effective reference interviews via e-mail..." (page 355).

Bushallow-Wilbur, Lara, et al. "Electronic Mail Reference Service: A Study." RQ 35, no. 3 (1996): 359-71.

Key Points:

In 1988, Roysdon and Elliott presented the first significant discussion of the pros and cons of providing email reference service, and suggested that from a librarian's perspective, answering a question by email is preferable to telephone reference requests because it "encourages a more thoughtful, leisured, and coherent approach to question answering." And because it is more accurate. The authors also concluded that email reference is a very convenient way in which patrons can access information from librarians because they can be at home or at the office, and the time of day does not matter.

See Roysdon, C.M., and L.L. Elliott. "Electronic Integration of Library Services Through a Campuswide Network." RQ 28 (Fall 1988): 82-93.

As the above article points out, there are inherent difficulties involved when it comes to research type of questions being asked over email. Certainly, a reference interview/negotiation can be done, but it is dependent upon how often both parties check their email and can often be a painfully slow process to ascertain what information is actually needed.

Tomer concluded that the lack of nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, will always make face-to-face reference service the way to go, even if multimedia technologies that offer images electronically, etc. become a factor in the future.

See Tomer, C. "MIME and Electronic Reference Service." The Reference Librarian 41/42 (1994): 347-373.

The study written about in this article is concerned with determining who uses email reference; what types of questions are asked; when they are transmitted and from where; and whether those who use it prefer it to the more conventional means available.

Particulars of the study:

In 1992, three units of SUNY's University at Buffalo Libraries began offering email reference service. From January 1993 to June 1994, each email request was evaluated to establish the volume of questions; the growth pattern of service; the types of questions asked; and if there was any repeat business.

Questionnaires were sent out via email.


485 questions were received. Of that number, 70% or 338 were classified as reference questions; 147 or 30% were book renewal requests, etc. Interestingly, during that same 18 months, 172,383 questions were asked in person at the three libraries involved in the study.

174 people sent at least one email reference question; 56 or 32% of these sent more than one query, with 54% of these asking two.

Of the 338 questions, 74% or 251were reference questions that were answered using standard reference tools. Forty-two or 12% were questions regarding library policies and services. Twenty-three or 7% were questions related to the use of the OPAC. And twenty-two or 7% were suggestions for books or journals to be added to the collection.

The volume of queries increased over the 18 months, with declines during the summer and over semester breaks.

Most questions were asked between Monday and Friday (Wednesday being the busiest) during 10 AM and 5 PM. 90% of the questions were sent during hours that the reference desk was open.

The survey results: out of 174, 114 were completed - a 66% response rate. Grad students were the majority of respondents at 44%, with faculty coming next at 35%. Seventy-five percent were male. Of the 114, 58% ranked email as the most preferred method; 37% preferred in-person; and only 5% ranked the telephone as their first choice for asking a reference question.

When asked why they used the email service, the emphasis was on the ease and convenience of it. Immediacy seems tied into convenience, in the sense that a person could ask a question as soon as they thought of it.


At least when initially offered, an email reference service will unlikely overwhelm a library's staff since they constituted a small percentage of the questions asked over this study. And few people become regular users, as only one-third of those asking, asked more than once and even then, the majority asked only two.

Since one of the arguments for instituting an email reference service is because it enables people to ask questions whether the library is open or not, the results are surprising since the typical email patron in this study used the service during library hours. As the researchers point out, this could be because people do not have email access from home and therefore, must ask during business hours when they have use of their work computers. Or it could just be because peak hours of use are also peak hours for conducting business and research, and libraries need to be aware of this need.

And why such a low rate of telephone reference in comparison? The researchers believe it could be due to some having no convenient phone to use, or because so many have had the experience of reaching an answering machine more often than a librarian.

Very few of those surveyed indicated that they had heard about the service from a colleague, leading the authors to rethink the belief that the university grapevine is a robust system. Thus, librarians need to advertise the service.

What many email patrons believe is that the answer they eventually receive is more accurate because they have had time to write down what they want to know and had time to think about it, and the librarian who answers them has been chosen to do so and has had the needed time to answer correctly - more correctly than when on the desk.

Quote: "The offering of e-mail reference service is a significant step in the development of the concept of a virtual library. This study will assist librarians in beginning to understand who takes advantage of this service option and why. It should also serve as a reminder that relying on instincts in assessing the pros and cons of offering a new service may be misguided in many respects. For example, librarians offer email reference service because they want people to have the opportunity to contact them after hours, yet this study demonstrates that patrons primarily used the service when the reference desk was open. Librarians worry about accurately discerning users' information questions as expressed in the context of e-mail messages, yet this study indicates that patrons do not share this concern and perceive e-mail reference to be more accurate than traditional reference service. In sum, it is not possible to know too much about patrons' information seeking patterns - especially as librarians move into the uncharted territory of the virtual library" - page 370.

Philip, Brenda. "An Examination of the Past, Present and Future of Electronic Mail Reference Service."

A 1993 article in Wilson Library Bulletin that discusses electronic mail reference systems stated that "nearly everyone contacted said that they have at least taken tentative steps" in the direction of offering such a service (Mahony, 12). While the provision of electronic mail reference service may be more applicable to some library types than others, it seems that most libraries are considering the option. (Mahony, Alan P. "The Net and Reference Services: Capture the Question." Wilson Library Bulletin 69, no. 2 (1993): 12.)

Public Libraries: Now that many libraries, including public libraries, are seeking to capitalize on connectivity and remote access to other library catalogues for resource sharing, many libraries are mounting their catalogues on the Internet. It seems a natural development to then offer library services through the web-based catalogue. This can, and often does, include interlibrary loan requests, and now is beginning to include electronic mail reference service. Libraries, and in particular public libraries, are becoming more conscious of their need to justify their existence in terms of public funding and public support; in addition, there is a need to make attempts to provide comparable service to the Internet, which some have suggested will challenge libraries as the traditional provider of information. Anyone who has Internet access at home has the option of resolving an information need 24 hours per day with the Internet. The option of electronic reference at least provides the option of placing the information need request 24 hours per day.

Academic Libraries: Searches of the Internet would suggest that it is much more common for an academic library to offer electronic reference service to its users than for any other type of library. Although the University of Alberta is in the pilot project stage of offering its current formal electronic reference service, other universities have been offering such a service for some time. For example, Indiana University began offering electronic mail reference in 1987 (Bristow, 631). A 1988 survey of academic libraries concerning the use of electronic mail in reference service found that "of those 79 responses, 16 (20.25%) used e- mail for reference questions" (Still and Campbell 15-16).

(Bristow, Ann. "Academic Reference Service Over Electronic Mail." College and Research Libraries News 53 (1992): 631; Still, Julie and Frank Campbell. "Librarian in a Box: The Use of Electronic Mail for Reference." Reference Services Review 21.1 (1993): 15-18.)

Corporate Libraries: It is quite probable that the idea of electronic mail reference began in corporate libraries, for here was an environment in which there was a natural means in place for electronic mail communication between the library user and the library staff. As all employees could be linked via a common local area network, it would be as natural an activity to send an electronic message to the librarian requesting information as to send an electronic message to any other colleague.

Internet Library: Not only are "traditional" libraries offering electronic mail reference, but so too are Internet libraries. The Internet Public Library (IPL) is an example of a library designed solely to provide service through the Internet. The IPL, the result of a class project from the University of Michigan School of Information, has survived on the Internet for two years, thanks to funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Unlike academic and public libraries, which begin to offer reference service via electronic mail, the IPL does not have to struggle to limit the provision of electronic mail reference service to its traditional clientele: the Internet Public Library's community is the world (Whitwell, 56). According to IPL's own estimates, 2.4 million people have visited the site since it first opened in March 1995. The visitors come from 119 different countries, though it is estimated that 88.5% are from the United States (Whitwell, 59). The IPL is based on the traditional library system, using Dewey classification to organize its full-text files "reading room". In addition, there are over 3000 links to other online services and libraries. The IPL is open 24 hours per day, and it is at midnight each night that volunteer reference librarians from across the United States answer the 10-15 reference queries received each day (Whitwell, 56-9).

(Whitwell, Stuart C.A. "Internet Public Library: Same Metaphors, New Service." American Libraries 28, no. 2 (1997): 56-59.)

Advantages of Electronic Mail Reference: 1.) Telephone reference has traditionally been offered as a service to those who, for whatever reason, can not physically access the library. Reference service by electronic mail offers the same advantage, with the addition that the user can send and receive the reply at their convenience. Furthermore, telephone service is not always an option, either because the library does not offer such as service, it would require long distance charges, or it is simply too difficult to actually contact the library and receive its reply, 2.) The use of electronic mail for reference can help to alleviate some of the non-communication that occurs when a librarian and client end up playing telephone tag. With email, in order for the question to be placed and resolved, the two parties concerned do not have to be available at the same moment, 3.) A further advantage of electronic mail reference is the medium itself. Rather than having a verbal answer that the patron does not completely understand, or forgets within seconds, with electronic mail reference there is the option to print a copy of the entire transaction. Librarians have suggested that typing answers to some questions can seem quite labourious (Bristow and Buechley, 460) compared to providing a verbal response; in addition, there may be concern on the part of reference staff that through electronic mail they can be held more accountable for their answer. This, of course, seems like a further advantage to the user of electronic mail reference services, and, 4.) Anonymity: email reference service can provide a type of anonymity not possible with in- person reference service. For the patron who is "too shy or too proud to ask for help in person," electronic mail reference can be a welcome option (Bristow and Buechley, 460). Through electronic mail reference, the user can give their name, and does reveal their electronic mail address, but they do not physically reveal who they are. The opposite is true of in-person reference, where a user would rarely give their name but they could easily be recognized by the librarian the following weekend at the movie theatre as the user who asked about syphilis, or any other sensitive topic.

(Bristow, Ann and Mary Buechley. "Academic Reference Service Over E-mail: An Update." College and Research Libraries News 56 (1995): 459-462.)

Disadvantages of Electronic Mail Reference:

How to Increase Success of Electronic Mail Reference Systems: Ann Bristow has compiled a list of several tips to improve electronic mail reference service. These tips are the result of observation of approximately four years of offering the service, as well as the responses to a survey, conducted by electronic mail, which was sent to 51 different users who had placed electronic mail reference enquiries between May and July 1991. Seven important points to consider:


Although the provision of electronic mail reference service by libraries began over a decade ago, it is a service that is still very much in the developmental stage. The service seems most pervasive in academic and corporate libraries, where it can usually be assumed that potential users have access to electronic mail. It is more conducive to providing service to a clientele who can physically access the library, should the reference providers' instructions require such. When the technology is capable of providing a range of formats (multimedia, graphics, etc.), electronic mail reference might begin to challenge traditional in-person reference service. At the present time, however, as the University of Alberta Libraries have recognized, electronic mail reference service can only be considered as an addition to the other established means of in-person, or telephone service. Providing a choice in how library users can have their reference questions answered allows them to choose the means that is the most effective, the most comfortable, or the most convenient for them. In the future, as new technologies that are not yet widely accessible become more pervasive, these choices may include more dynamic electronic mail messaging, which would more closely approximate conversation. Video conferencing, which allows participants to view each other despite the possible miles between them, is also a reality.

Kresh, Diane, and Linda Arret. "Do Birds Fly? Some Thoughts After the Library of Congress Institute on Reference Service in a Digital Age." Reference & User Services Quarterly 38, no. 1 (1998): 17-21.

The Library of Congress Institute on "Reference Service in a Digital Age" offered reference professionals a chance to ask themselves how they can help make the transition to digital libraries and still ensure access to the best, most relevant, and most authoritative information resources.

The authors ask if there is anything we can learn from other types of organizations that provide services related to the Internet and digital resources? The K-12 AskA services apparently handle significantly more remote email questions than libraries do now. Some commercial services and Internet providers attempt to answer user questions via email, and some characterize themselves as library-like even while providing services to libraries. Most of these organizations do not have librarians answering the questions and most are not located in libraries. Should libraries compete with these nonlibrary services?

Also important is that some surveys have indicated that users prefer email interactions to phone and face-to-face interactions.

Sloan, Bernie. "Electronic Reference Services: Some Suggested Guidelines." Reference & User Services Quarterly 38, no. 1 (1998): 77-81.

It would seem that an activity like electronic reference service, which is widespread and well established, would have professionally prepared and accepted guidelines. This, however, is not the case. A visit in May 1998 to the websites of two American Library Association units likely to be concerned with remote reference: Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), revealed that, of the nearly forty guidelines and standards posted there, not one of them related to electronic reference service.

The following suggested guidelines are intended to help libraries formalize their electronic reference services. These guidelines are not intended to deal with librarian/user interactions (i.e., the remote reference interview). Rather, they are intended to define a more formal, stable role of electronic reference services in the overall framework of the library. These suggested guidelines draw on other guidelines, such as the CLA's Library Services for Distance Learning Interest Group, and the ALA's guidelines for Distance Learning Section. The suggested guidelines cover the following issues: administration/management; services; primary clientele; personnel; infrastructure/facilities; finances; and evaluation.

Administration and Management Issues need to be treated on a number of levels: Library Division/Department: obviously, the commitment and support for a remote reference services program needs to be strong at the reference and public services departmental level. In addition to commitment, department managers must make sure that such services are incorporated into the formal departmental administrative structure. It is the responsibility of the divisional manager to make sure that there is continuity and that the service does not fade away when a key person leaves. Library Administration: Remote reference services need to have the support of the library administration, in addition to that of the divisional supervisor, especially essential when it comes to obtaining fiscal support. Campus Administration: Why? Because electronic reference is highly dependent on infrastructure at the campus level. For the service to work effectively, collaboration with campus computing and networking facilities is essential. Academic Departments: The support of academic administrators, such as deans and department heads is a key factor, especially when the service is used largely by individuals in their academic offices.

Services - deciding what services to offer and how to offer them, are key to the success of an electronic reference program. How comprehensive? Will reference librarians provide more in -depth answers? Do research? Document delivery?

Primary Clientele - who is to be served? Only faculty? Will the focus be on faculty and graduate students, or will it serve the entire campus community? What about the local community? What about service to those who live in other cities or even other countries? Some libraries will handle questions from 'outsiders' on a time-available basis. Should the primary clientele of the electronic service mirror the primary clientele of the physical reference desk or should an attempt be made to target specific groups that do not frequent the library, as a way of providing complementary services? While studies have indicated that remote users are also likely to be library users, planners should carefully consider the idea that some lesser-served populations might be served by electronic reference services. Especially initially, it is essential to target groups that may be able to make the most effective use of the electronic reference service, such as faculty members and students who have been using email on a regular basis. In a sense, this smacks of rewarding the 'haves' and punishing the 'have-nots' but it is actually a logical approach. If a program is initiated with a target group that is ill prepared, the chances for failure are strong.

Personnel -- while not everyone is comfortable communicating electronically, some people enjoy it, but it's not simply a matter of giving all of the electronic reference work to a staff member who enjoys it. The work needs to be spread around, just as library instruction responsibilities are distributed among reference librarians in libraries. Responsibilities need to be formally stated, and should not be an add-on duty. It should be integrated into a reference librarian's assignments. Dividing up some of the duties by subject expertise should be another consideration.

Infrastructure/Facilities - electronic reference services should not be planned without first understanding the campus technical infrastructure. Email access is not universal, and all email is not created equal. The reference librarian can have a state-of-the-art email package and send a reference user an email message imbedded with hot links and attached files, only to have the user not be able to use them. It is not necessary to plan services based on the lowest common denominator, but it is essential to know what might and might not work in a given situation. Proper computers and network connections should be sufficiently quick, with physical space set aside for the librarians to answer the questions, away from a great number of distractions. Planners and administrators shouldn't confuse electronic reference service with electronic resources. Traditional resources can and do play a role in the electronic reference process. In one study, nearly three-fourths of the reference questions submitted via email were answered "using standard reference tools." Thus, the virtual reference librarian needs to be tethered to the physical reference collection.

Finances - to a certain extent, electronic reference services can be done economically because they can be piggybacked using existing computers and email programs, along with Internet connections that are already in place. Because this can be done, the temptation exists to run electronic reference services on the cheap. In the long run, this has the tendency to trivialize electronic reference services and make them a marginal or peripheral activity. If a service is to achieve any measure of continuity and success, the service needs to be integrated into an institution's administrative structure and therefore, requires a budget.

Evaluation - proper evaluation is critical. Many practitioners report that electronic reference services are used less frequently than might be expected. Others report that the services are used primarily for fairly basic questions. Most importantly, most of the information available on the impact of electronic reference services tends to be anecdotal in nature. So, when planning such a service, careful thought should go into how the service is to be evaluated. And how much of the transactions will be recorded? Demographics? Every question and answer? What about privacy issues and confidentiality? This could well become one of the key issues in electronic reference service. And when evaluating these services, to what should they be compared? Obviously, they should be looked at in terms of the goals and objectives of the program, but while in its infancy, how can we tell if these goals are realistic? What, if any, comparisons should be made to the traditional face-to-face reference services that libraries offer?

"As libraries move closer to the digital age, increased focus will be placed on providing reference services electronically. Only through the development of basic guidelines will librarians be able to ensure the continuity of the service perspective in the digital library" (page 80).

O'Neill, Nancy. "E-mail Reference Service in the Public Library: A Virtual Necessity." Public Libraries 38, no. 5 (1999): 302-305.

The author says that "[e]mail reference is a logical extension of library services. Libraries have traditionally responded to reference requests using the mail and later using technology including telephone, and, still later, fax, so e-mail is merely another vehicle to make services available...It has also been suggested that e-mail reference helps reduce barriers by providing a means for clients who read and write English more fluently than they speak it to better communicate their information needs" (page 302).

1. Email reference is another aspect of personal service, and with all the competition that exists in the information world, "personal service and equal access are an advantage." (page 302)

2. Email reference at Santa Monica Public Library began in 1989, just as the city instituted PEN (the Public Electronic Network), which helps citizens to access the information they need. The reference by email service was something that the library contributed to the initiative. However, the service was not very popular and few people used it, with fewer asking a second question. Eventually, email reference service requests were down to one or two a month. But in 1995, the library developed a website and added a "Submit a Question" option, and since then, the requests have steadily increased, with the present number fluctuating between 60 and 90 a month. Questions also come in via the library Research Center's website, and from the library's online catalogue that has a module offering email reference service.

3. SMPL does limit the type of reference service it offers through email. For example, the system offers short factual, basic ready reference; provides referrals to electronic resources, websites, books, and articles; will send appropriate citations from a check into electronic indexes; and develop search strategies for clients.

4. Librarians are expected to respond to email requests within 24 hours, six days a week, but the service is often much faster with "usual response time...within one or two hours of reading the question and often within fifteen to thirty minutes" (page 303).

5. Librarians take turns answering the email requests, and if they find that they are unable to provide an answer within 24 hours, the client is contacted. They are aware that there are limitations involved when dealing with email, especially when it comes to the reference email, and more especially when they get clients asking for everything they have on a particular subject. The librarians quickly point out that there are inherent limitations to the service and that they are unable to do extensive research on any topic via email. The librarians ask questions that help to focus the query and help the client redefine what their needs actually are. The email query forms found on the websites have large text boxes to encourage expansion of questions so that librarians are better able to ascertain what information is needed.


Since SMPL has a fairly low volume of email reference requests coming into the system, it has not felt the need to carry out a cost analysis of staff time for this reference service. At this point in time, "[r]elatively low use of the service poses the question of whether the service justifies staff time required. That time might be used to meet the needs of library clients with other, more traditional services. The changing shape of reference services requires constant reassessment of service" (page 305).

Service parameters: the addition of scanners could help email reference a great deal, but then there are always copyright issues to consider.

Staff training and the time it takes to answer email questions may indeed become a drain on library resources. "Describing the problems staff have integrating electronic resources into library service, Carol Tenopir points out that new technologies seldom neatly replace old ones and every new medium that appears seems to be added to the reference librarian's duties" (page 305).

But with all the considerations, the possibilities for email reference services are substantial because it can be a good public relations tool, may increase patron visits to the library, provides a good way for librarians to receive training with electronic resources, showcases the library as a player in an electronic world, and can help fine-tune the techniques needed to teach clients and colleagues the intricacies of electronic services.

SMPL Offers Suggestions to Other Libraries:

To get over the librarians' initial resistance to email reference, work closely with them. And be fair with scheduling: share the new responsibilities.

Work closely with administration to make them aware of both the advantages, and the possible strains on resources.

Having volunteers begin the service is a really good way to start because enthusiasm may have a spillover effect, and these pioneers may produce email reference service manuals for the others to follow.

Clearly define the procedures, with librarian input, and be willing to revise them when necessary for overall effectiveness and efficiency of the service.

Set limits to what librarians should be expected to answer over email since some clients will take advantage if you let them.

Train the staff and require skill in electronic resources for those involved.

As Carol Tenopir concluded in an article about integrating electronic reference: "Whether your library is a pioneer or a reluctant follower, electronic sources are just another part of reference work. Whether it occurs sooner or later, it's only a matter of time before complete integration takes place" (page 305).

See: Tenopir, Carol. "Integrating Electronic Reference." Library Journal 120, no. 6 (1995): 39.

Other Articles of Interest:

Fishman, Diane. "Managing the Virtual Reference Desk: How to Plan an Effective E-Mail System." Medical Reference Services Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1998): 1-10.

Harris, Howard. "Retraining Librarians to Meet the Needs of the Virtual Library Patron." Information Technology and Libraries 15, no. 1 (1996): 52.

Tsai, Bor-sheng. "The Effectiveness Measurement of Electronic Mail Communications Within a Special Professional Community." Proceedings of the 55th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science, October 26-29, 1992, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Ladner, S.J., and H.N. Tillman. "Using the Internet for Reference." Online (January 1993): 45-51.

Myers, Judy E. Reference Services in the Virtual Library. American Libraries 25 (July/Aug. 1994): 635-36.

Roysdon, C.M., and L.L. Elliott. "Electronic Integration of Library Services Through a Campuswide Network." RQ 28 (Fall 1988): 82-93.

Bristow, Ann. "Academic Reference Service Over Electronic Mail." College and Research Libraries News 53 (1992): 631.

Whitwell, Stuart C.A. "Internet Public Library: Same Metaphors, New Service." American Libraries 28, no. 2 (1997): 56-59.

Bristow, Ann, and Mary Buechley. "Academic Reference Service Over E-mail: An Update." College and Research Libraries News 56 (1995): 459-462.

Mahony, Alan P. "The Net and Reference Services: Capture the Question." Wilson Library Bulletin 69, no. 2 (1993): 12.

Tenopir, Carol. "Integrating Electronic Reference." Library Journal 120, no. 6 (1995): 39.

Schlachter, Gail A. "Thinking Out Loud: Who Will Give Reference Service in the Digital Environment?" Reference and User Services Quarterly 37, no. 2 (1997): 125-129.

Lewis, David W. "Traditional Reference is Dead, Now Let's Move on to Important Questions." Journal of Academic Librarianship 21, no. 1 (1995): 10-12.

Lankes, R. David. "AskA's: Lessons Learned from K-12 Digital Reference Services." Reference & User Services Quarterly 38, no. 1 (1998): 63-71.

Young, Courtney L., and Karen R. Diaz. "E-reference: Incorporating Electronic Publications into Reference." Library Hi Tech 17, no.1 (1999): 55.

Young, Courtney L., and Karen R. Diaz. "E-reference: Incorporating Electronic Publications into Reference." Library Hi Tech 17, no.1 (1999): 55.

Mendelsohn, J. "Learning Electronic Reference Resources: A Team-Learning Project for Reference Staff." College and Research Libraries 60, no. 4 (1999): 372-83.

Lanier, Don, and Walter Wilkins. "Ready Reference via the Internet." RQ (Spring 1994): 359-368.

Sawyer, Deborah C. "A Matter of Confidence: Asking Reference Questions over the Internet." Online (July 1993): 8-9.

Bertot, John Carlo, and Charles R. McClure. "Measuring Electronic Services in Public Libraries." Public Libraries (May/June 1998): 176-180.

St. Lifer, Evan, and Michael Rogers. "NCLIS Study Indicates 21% of Public Libraries on the Internet." Library Journal (June 1, 1994): 16-17.

Still, Julie, and Jan Alexander. "Integrating Internet into Reference: Policy Issues." College and Research Libraries News (March 1993): 139-140.

Silva, Marcos, and Glenn Cartwright. "The Internet and Reference Librarians: A Question of Leadership." The Reference Librarian (1994): 159-172.

Atkinson, Ross. "Networks, Hypertext, and Academic Information Services: Some Longer-Range Implications." College & Research Libraries 54 (1993): 200.

Lanier, D. "Ready Reference Via the Internet." RQ 3, no. 3 (1994): 359-368.

Kinder, R. "Librarians on the Internet: Impact on Reference Services." Reference Librarian 41/42 (1994): 1-385, entire issue.

Herbert, Lynn. "Using the Internet for Reference and Information Services." National Library News 27, no. 5 (1995): 14-15.

Henderson, Tona. "MOOving Towards a Virtual Reference Service." Reference Librarian 41/42 (1994): 173-184.

Dempsey, Lorcan. "Beyond the Internet: Developing Library Services." The Law Librarian 26, no. 1 (1995): 263-266.

Folger, Kathleen M. (1997) "Virtual Librarian: Using DesktopVideoconferencing to Provide Interactive Reference Assistance."

Kiefer, Scott, et al. (1996). "Electronic Mail Reference: More Questions Than Answers?"

Lessick, S., K. Kjaer, and S. Clancy. (1997). "Interactive Reference Service (IRS) at UC Irvine: Expanding Reference Service Beyond the Reference Desk."

Lipow, Anne G. (1999). "Serving the Remote User: Reference Service in the Digital Environment."

Lipow, Anne G. (1999). "Serving the Remote User: Reference Service in the Digital Environment."

McLean, Michelle. (July 1998). "IRIS."

McLean, Michelle. "Expanding Library Service Beyond the Walls." Reference and Information Service Section Conference and Exhibition 1999.

Tenopir, Carol, and Lisa Ennis. "Digital Reference World of Academic Libraries." Online (July 1998).

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