Email Reference Service Policies

Our email reference service policy is referred to in our service code. It states "Information sought by mail (regular or email) should be answered within two weeks of receipt." Generally, an email question is answered quickly using basic reference sources. If it is a more complex question the customer is referred to other sources or services as we do not provide a research service.

Thank you for your inquiry. We do not have a formal email policy at this time. Our online questions come to the library through the Telefact Department. Are you looking to set up an online service for your library? If you have a specific question regarding our service, please forward your query to us.

Thank you for your query. As yet we have a very limited way of answering questions and this is done mainly through "Ask the Librarian" posted on the library's website and there is no written policy on this kind of service. Hope this helps you somewhat.

We are in the process of creating such a policy. When this is finished, I can send you a copy.

Thank you very much for your e-mail message, received yesterday via our E-Ref service, asking whether Edmonton Public Library has a policy governing reference service via electronic mail. At present, we do not have a policy that specifically governs e-mail reference. Rather, it is governed by a number of existing EPL policies. I have attached an information sheet I prepared about the service for presentation at the Alberta Library Conference, which was held last weekend. If you require further information on E-Ref, please don't hesitate to contact me directly.

Edmonton Public Library discussed reference by e-mail as a service possibility as early as 1996. In the fall of 1998, a proposal was developed by EPL's Internet Librarian, Mark Roesner, for the service to be adopted formally.

The proposal called for the development of the following:

On February 21, 1999, E-Ref was launched as a six-month pilot project. The EPL web site was amended to include a page describing the E-Ref service and a page of questions to be answered by potential E-Ref clients, serving the purpose of an e-mail reference interview. By the end of the pilot project, the service had received questions from a total of 71 different customers, or an average of 1 question per week. Nearly ninety per cent of customers responding to a questionnaire on their use of the service indicated that they would use the service again.


In 1999, E-Ref received 163 questions in total. Between January 1 and April 17, 2000, another 89 questions have been received.

The greatest number of questions received on a single day is six.

During the pilot project, nine of the questions (13%) were received from outside of Edmonton - locations included St. Albert; Lloydminster; Singapore; Grande Prairie; Muncie, IN; Vancouver; Calgary; and Norfolk, MA.. Fourteen (20%) were sent to EPL outside of normal operating hours; nearly half of these were submitted between 11 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.

Of the questions received during the pilot project, only 5 (7%) were determined to have been outside of the scope of EPL's reference service.

The E-Ref service has never been publicized externally as an EPL service. E-Ref is included on a list of over 90 libraries offering reference services via e-mail, compiled by Bernie Sloan of the School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Amount of work and workflow: since the service was introduced, one person-hour per weekday has been resourced to check for incoming mail, send outgoing mail, and perform account maintenance and statistical procedures. The E-Ref account is not monitored on weekends or holidays. E-Ref shifts are assigned to over 25 staff members in a regular rotation, and the Internet Librarian oversees the service, acting as the main contact, ensuring efficient workflow, tracking statistics and usage patterns, etc.

Staff response to the service has been generally positive, with a few concerns about the mechanics of Microsoft Outlook for running and maintaining the service. Common questions from staff involved in providing the service included:

Online reference interview:

Customers using the E-Ref service are asked to complete the following questions when submitting a question to the service. By completing the questions, customers conduct a preliminary "reference interview," avoiding the need to exchange multiple messages later on with E-Ref staff.

  1. What is your name?
  2. What is your e-mail address? We will use this address to identify your question.
  3. What is your phone number? Would you prefer that we call you back and can we leave you a message at this number? Please note that long distance phone calls cannot be made.
  4. Where do you live? (City, Province)
  5. Which branch of the Edmonton Public Library do you use most? We may refer you to a branch if they have materials you can use.
  6. Is there a date after which you will no longer need the information? Please remember that our turn around time is within three days after your question has been accepted. If you are in a hurry, you can phone us. Our operating hours are 9 to 9 during the week with limited service over weekends.
  7. What is your question? Remember, a human being will read your question, please use complete sentences! The more you tell us the better we can help you.
  8. How will you use this information? Why are you asking your question? It is okay if you are just curious! We can use our knowledge to think of creative ways of finding your information and it sometimes helps to know why you need the information.
  9. Please tell us what sources you have checked already. What words did you use to search? We don't want to duplicate any work that you have already done.

E-Ref search card: The form below is used to record and track progress on E-Ref questions.

Obstacles -- Major obstacles encountered with E-Ref include:

Lessons Learned: Keep in mind the following when developing your own E-Ref service

Spend a good deal of time developing policies and procedures. EPL's E-Ref service refers to no fewer than nine policies, guidelines, and official statements, and an 18-page manual was developed for the service.

Consider the "what-ifs" when planning the service: for example, what happens if the service is oversubscribed or overwhelmed? What happens when the service's key personnel are absent?

For larger organizations, staff training in delivering the service may be an issue.

Document procedures well with a staff manual for the service.

The service's e-mail address will become the default contact address for the organization: the service will receive questions of all types relating to accounts, holds, policies, etc., not merely reference inquiries.

Expect to receive questions from outside of your geographic service area. Make policy decisions on how to handle this sort of question before they arrive.

Expect a good number of local history, genealogy, and obituary/family search questions.

Future Developments: The following are intended for the E-Ref service in the future

1. The addition of a comprehensive privacy policy to the E-Ref area of the web site.

2. An online form for the submission of E-Ref questions, to add to the service's functionality; the form would also provide customers the opportunity to specify their preferred format for responses (e-mail or phone) and their preferred source type (web sites, magazine articles, library books).

3. A searchable archive of questions and answers for the web site.

4. The ability to receive and handle anonymous questions, to preserve confidentiality for those customers who are unwilling to provide an e-mail address for replies.

5. Comprehensive statistical reporting guidelines, to track service usage patterns and service needs.

6. A mechanism for customer referral to EPL service points.

A mechanism for customer referral to EPL librarians' subject pages, and to the SmartSearch fee-based business reference service.

7. More thorough integration of E-Ref into the daily workflow of the Information Division.

8. Comprehensive monitoring of the service included as a specific staff task.

9. Marketing the service.

10. Additional research into electronic delivery of reference services.

11. Consideration and integration of new technologies for delivery of the service, e.g. different e-mail formats, real-time chat (MOO), and voice over Internet.

No the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library doesn't have an email reference policy. Good luck with your research.

No, we do not have an e-mail policy.

I don't have an e-mail reference policy at this library. Sorry.

At this time we do not have any kind of email reference policy.

As the webmaster of a large organization, queries are referred to the appropriate person to respond and I will need more information before a response can be sent. Which organization are you doing the study for? Could you please provide your definition of email reference?

Thank you for using Answerline e-mail reference service. Our e-mail reference policy is currently under review, but for information on our current service, please visit our web site. Click on "Online reference," then "adult", then refer to our posted e-mail reference policy. You may also be interested in viewing the policy for the children's e-mail reference service. Click on "kids" at the search page.

We currently do not have a specific policy in regards to email reference questions. We basically treat it like any other questions we receive. Our in person patrons are first, telephone second and then email when time permits. We also charge for out of town reference questions and this applies to email as well. If the email received is from out of town we will reply back indicating there is a fee involved and would they like us to proceed. We check our library email account daily, and of course, keep statistics on how many questions we receive. Sorry I don't have anymore specific details to offer you.

Thank you for your interest in our email reference service. In order for us to fully address your question and provide information that fits within the scope of your study perhaps you could provide us with more information about your research needs. Who the study is for and what is your role within that framework? Any other pertinent information would be helpful.

We do reference by e-mail and we are delighted when the questions come in but we don't have a policy yet.

We do not have a formal policy, as such, nor even formal procedures. Rather, what we have are some general guidelines as follows:

Send us your request for BRIEF factual information such as:

  1. business addresses
  2. definitions
  3. dates
  4. biographical facts
  5. statistics

We usually reply with an email answer within 24 hours. A number of questions we get are not brief, in which case we ask that the individual mail us the question, and, if the research involved is lengthy, (as in genealogical or local history research, we do have fees for our time and for copying costs.)

At this time we do not have a firm E-reference policy. We have only been offering this service for about 6-7 months and will be reviewing it shortly. We do short answer questions for customers or refer them to the source for more lengthy questions.

No, we don't have a written policy. All requests come to my email address and I forward them to an available librarian. We receive about one email reference question a day on diverse topics and, with a team of twelve librarians usually manage to find answers.

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