I’ve been reading a lot of great articles and posts about the viability of virtual reference and how we can make it better for our patrons. The Library Journal article, Virtual Reference: Alive and Well, by Brenda Bailey-Hainer, talks about how virtual reference services will only be cost effective when done as cooperative ventures between many libraries (most often state-wide initiatives). I agree with her that statewide library collaborations make the most sense in terms of the time and money involved in providing the services. Not too many libraries have the manpower to staff a virtual reference desk all the time. To those librarians who state that virtual reference is not worthwhile because usage is currently low, Bailey-Hainer suggests:

Don’t eliminate virtual reference on the grounds that usage is low and it’s not cost-effective. Virtual reference can be affordable and, through collaboration, will grow only more so. Usage can be high and grow higher. Libraries can continue to fulfill their missions but in new ways.

The article was designed to help refute To Chat Or Not to Chat — Taking Another Look at Virtual Reference, Parts 1 and 2, which questioned the efficacy of providing virtual reference services. It also is an interesting article, and makes some useful suggestions at the end regarding how to continue to provide the service while making it more effective.

Aaron Schmidt wrote about problems with the current state of virtual reference service provision and how it could be made better by communicating with users in their own communities (in this case, IM). He makes some interesting points about the reasons why we use vendor-created virtual spaces to conduct virtual reference and why, perhaps, we should reconsider. However, he also brings up some reasons why we don’t use IM, which, though they may be based on our needs as librarians, are still valid reasons.

Luke at lbr discussed Aaron’s post and made some very useful suggestions as to what the vendors could do to make VR more user-centric. He also mentions a new project, Off-the-Record Messaging, which might deal with the security and authentication problems inherent in IM:

essentially what they are creating is a system whereby two people can carry on an authenticated, encrypted conversation — both assured of each others’ identities and assured that no third party is “listening in” — but without the use of digital signatures, so once the conversation is over, there remains no definitive way to identify the participants in the conversation or the sender of a particular message. In the age of the USA PATRIOT Act and without the legal privilege enjoyed by other service professionals such as doctors, attorneys or clergy, this is essentially what librarians need — a technology that enables plausible deniability.

It’s a great post, so go check it out in its entirety. In fact, it’s a pretty cool blog.

I think there are going to be a lot of innovations made with virtual reference in the next few years to increase its usability and efficiency. For anyone today to think the “VR experiment” has been a failure is coming to a rather premature conclusion. Yes, right now it makes more sense to provide virtual reference services as part of a consortium, but that will probably change as virtual reference becomes as common a service as renewing books online. Keep an eye on Walking Paper and lbr, as they’ll probably be the first to tell us about fabulous innovations in virtual reference service.