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Virtual Reference: Still Looking for the Answers

I had promised a response to the Maxwell thread about VR on DIG-REF; this post, a response to two exchanges on Web4Lib, will have to do.

— Karen


> Bernie salvoed:
> > So…there are millions of potential users familiar with the basic
> > technology (using the Web/Internet, e-mail and chat), and 80% of
> > them use the Internet to find answers to “specific questions”. And
> > yet we hear reports of some VR services closing or reducing hours
> > due to lack of use. And most VR services don’t report busy workloads.
> I don’t see the “and yet” connection, to be honest.
> Familiarity with basic technology + specific question <> need for
> virtual reference in most situations.
> If my specific question is, what’s my state’s flower, I’ll go to Yahoo
> or Google, pop in “massachusetts state flower,” and find out it’s the
> mayflower in a couple of seconds.

But when it’s not that simple, what do you do? And more to the point, what do users do? What kind of behavior do they engage in for the kind of question we *can* help them with?

VR is a potentially powerful service with some major usability problems. Most VR relies on “killer app” software that is stuck in two silos: type of application (proprietary, unknown by most people) and location (library Web sites). (I assume Elana was being wry about library Web sites.) This requires the user discover this service through Web sites most of them don’t know about and be willing to use it even though it is usually poorly described. Then VR is marketed by librarians, which is a tragic flaw right there; we don’t know how to market, we don’t know who to market to, and when we’re told what to do we don’t do it anyway. Most library services could be well served by the motto, “We Hide It, You Find It.”

Librarians have a lot to offer general users, the poor struggling satisficing masses who deserve better information than they find. To dismiss our users’ needs is to dismiss what we know deep down, which is that there is a higher standard of information access, there is value to information provided by the public for the public, and there is a need for objective information provided in the public interest.

We just don’t know how to share what we know; we’re trapped within our institutional autism. I know this from my “real world” activities, where people I come in contact with in other arenas–students, professors, parishioners, neighbors, even journalists–are surprised and delighted at what libraries and librarians offer. I’m at a university where I swear I am the only student in my program who knows how to access the library databases, or understands what they offer (a lot, it turns out). When I told some of my peers we could access the OED and books of quotation through our library Web site, from home, it was as if I had discovered fire. You might think that a matriculating class of graduate students might benefit from even a half-page flyer announcing glorious library services within fingertip access. This library also offers VR, and I have used it, with great results. But you could walk across campus all day and not find a student at any level, undergraduate or graduate, who knows about this service. You don’t need to know the name of this school, because it could be any school. Name me the school that is factually proven as the exception to these statements. And yet then name me the school where most students are not fully wired, from dorm room to classroom, and expect to receive and manage most of their information this way. Where are we, to these students?

If we cared about actually reaching users where they are, we would be flocking to real IM, spending money for links on Google, and fighting our way to the front of Yahoo–or at least, aggressively seeking a presence equal to these services. A recent study demonstrated 4 out of 10 Americans are using IM. I would estimate .0000000004 out of 10 Americans have even heard of VR. We should be very unhappy about this and trying to figure out how to fix that problem, even if it destroys some of our most cherished assumptions about VR.

As Anne Lipow frequently commented, we treat the user as if he or she were remote, when in fact we are the ones at a distance. We also treat the user as if he or she were broken, and needed to be repaired; the resulting user would look and act suspiciously like a librarian, fond of searching (but not finding), accepting of bizarre hurdles to search results, not bewildered by “citation” indexes that then require users go on wild-goose chases for documents the library then cannot retrieve in the timeframes that have become acceptable in our fast-forward culture. But the user is not broken. *We* are broken, in that part of our collective body that should be able to see librarianship in terms of what it is–a service for others.

I also re-read the VR “critical literature” Bernie Sloan posted last week. I had meant to write a long piece but got sidetracked by real-world work and my own non-librarian activities. Nonetheless I have some thoughts.

The bibliography, taken as a whole, is an intriguing insight into our limitations as a profession. I read the articles available online, and also read Nancy Maxwell’s recent article in American Libraries. What struck me is that as a body, how weak these articles are, and how unhelpful to the cause of improving (or even derailing) VR, and how overall they represent the decline and fall of librarian scholarship.

First, the articles, as a body, are devoid of research, missing user interviews, lacking in any data. Second, the articles are full of vague and conflicting advice.

Maxwell’s is the worst of the bunch, and the most recent, suggesting a late-era deterioration in scholarship reminiscent of the decline of the brachiopods. She begins by pointing out that she earlier wrote a piece on VR for the same publication though she had no experience with the service–a bad start, since this confession raises questions about the publication’s judgment (“Is anyone an instant authority?” wondered Gentle Reader). It goes downhill from there, yawing and lurching through a series of anecdotes about how technology Done Her Wrong, presented in a crushingly formulaic list of Seven Deadly Sins (why not be fresh, and have six or eight?) that speaks more to the fallout from a really poor technology implementation at Maxwell’s own library than to any insight into the service she claims to describe. The section comparing telephone voting in Florida with virtual reference has a conclusion dumbfounding in its irrelevance: “when people do not care to vote, allowing them to do so from home does not help.” People care about information; they just don’t have a clue about VR, and that’s our fault. This is also an example of a missed opportunity in Maxwell’s piece, because the words “voting” and “Florida” immediately conjure up the 2000 elections, when it was obvious that many Floridians did indeed care to vote but were stymied by organizations that wilfully or through neglect stood between them and their right to participate. Maxwell had a good story–an interesting new service stymied by techno-fascist idiots–but it was submerged in her diffuse and misdirected vitriole.

Still, Maxwell is in good company. Overall I see very little concrete guidance in the “critical” articles; most studies rehash the usual points that usage of these sites is low. So now tell us why, and try to do it from the user’s point of view. “Whoa,” says one writer, then interrupts himself to remind us that librarians are “running out of time,” something that makes me feel like a parking meter. What is it? Whoa, or speed up? And what is the advice in this or any article, beyond “market” and “watch your costs?” There is indeed room to explore the oft-muttered observation that librarians came to VR before they had addressed the quality problems with their “traditional” reference, but I don’t see that discussed.

I’m not saying these articles are entirely wrong or off-course in their intent. VR is too often presented as an answer to a question we haven’t yet fully fleshed out. But I have yet to see a consistent flow of truly insightful observations and conclusions. And until we are willing to start from the assumption that something much larger than VR is broken and needs to be fixed, what’s wrong with VR will also continue to be a good description of what’s wrong with librarianship in general.

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