Submitted by Vera Fullerton
December 2002

IFLA Project: Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

Many libraries around the world now offer digital reference services,
or are in the process of considering whether or not to offer a digital
reference service. During the IFLA 2001 Conference in Boston, the
Reference Section submitted a project proposal to identify and monitor
the progress of digital reference guidelines and policies. The project
was approved and the report that follows provides an overview of the
state of digital reference guidelines and policies.

The Current State of Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

While interest in creating digital reference standards and
guidelines exists, official guidelines and policies have not been
developed to date. This is most likely due to the fact that libraries
offering digital reference services are at different stages. Some
libraries have been offering the service for two or more years while
others are still exploring whether or not they have the resources and
interest to offer the service. Library literature, list serv
discussions, and professional conference agendas reveal a profession
engaged in the early stages of planning and implementing digital
reference services. Many librarians are still engaged in debate
regarding the merits of the service, when to offer it, how to staff it,
and which software to select while others have implemented the service
and looking for ways to improve it.

Most libraries offering a virtual reference service are at the pilot
or early post-pilot stage. If digital reference standards and
guidelines have been created, they tend to be in the form of internal
documents, informal in nature, and closely reflect those used for
general reference services and email reference. In most cases, if any
policies or guidelines are made available to the public, they tend to
address issues of patron privacy and service restrictions, but fail to
address guidelines and standards that a librarian would consult, such
as those approved by the American Library Association for other
service. These are available at the following URL:

The wealth of literature regarding standards of traditional
reference and email 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

However, certain groups and individuals have taken steps toward the
development of digital reference policies and guidelines. The following
provides a summary of current activities and resources.

Groups and Individuals Involved in Creating Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

Virtual Reference Desk (VRD)
The Virtual Reference Desk (VRD), a project dedicated to the
advancement of digital reference and sponsored by the U.S. Department
of Education, has taken the lead in working towards the development of
standards. Large consortial-based virtual reference services, such as
CDRS, have looked towards VRD for the development of standards. VRD’s
current version of digital standards, entitled "Facets of Quality" is
available at the following URL: The 4th VRD Conference will be held in November 2002.

Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS)
Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS) is a part of the Reference
and User Services Association of the American Library Association. MARS
created a Digital Reference Guidelines ad hoc committee charged with
producing guidelines for digital reference services. According to
minutes from the MARS January 2002 Conference, "substantial
progress is anticipated by Annual (June 2002). Completion was
rescheduled with an eye toward the Virtual Reference Desk Conference
this Fall"

The National Information Standards Organization (NISO)
The National Information Standards Organization (NISO) is also
exploring the issues and opportunities associated with the development
of digital reference standards. In April 2001, the Networked Reference
Services Standards Committee was charged with the following: 1.)
Develop a question processing transaction protocol for interchange of
messages between digital reference domains; 2.) Develop metadata
element sets to identify and describe key components of both question
and answer data and institutional and personal data; 3. Conduct
experimentation and/or research in both areas to test the proposed

Assessing Quality in Digital Reference Services
Described as "a study to develop methods to assess the quality of
digital reference services, test and refine measures and quality
standards to describe digital reference services, and to produce a
guidebook that describes how to collect and report data for these
measures and standards." Participants include: OCLC Online Computer
Library Center, Inc., Florida State University, School of Information
Studies, Digital Library Federation, Syracuse University, School of
Information Studies, Multnomah County Library, Library of Congress,
Strozer Library, Florida State University, Cleveland Public Library,
Pennsylvania Office of Commonwealth Libraries, Bureau of Library
Development, State Library of Florida, Division of Library and
Information Services, and Reference and User Services Association.

Digital Reference Guidelines and Standards

The following links provide access to digital reference guidelines
and standards developed by libraries and associations. Overall, the
guidelines are general in scope and informal, but serve as a useful
starting point in developing official guidelines and standards and
reflect the interest of the library profession in developing official
guidelines and standards.

Virtual Reference Desk (VRD): Facet’s of Quality
VRD’s current version of digital standards, entitled "Facets of Quality" is available at:

UCLA Digital Reference Project

Guidelines for Information Specialists of K-12 Digital Reference Services
Created by Abby S. Kasowitz (1998)

Washington Research Libraries Consortium (WRLC) Virtual Reference Project

Chat Communication Tips from the University of Florida

Electronic Reference Service: Some Suggested Guidelines
Sloan, Bernie. "Electronic Reference Services: Some Suggested
Guidelines," Reference and User Services Quarterly 38:77-81 (Summer
1998). Reproduced with the permission of the American Library

Other Resources

"Working Towards Digital Reference Guidelines."
This is the transcript of a presentation given by Bernie Sloan at the
Reference Service in a Digital Age Conference, held at the Library of
Congress. Washington, D.C., June 30, 1998.

Digital Reference Services Bibliography
Compiled by Bernie Sloan.

List Servs

The Virtual Reference Desk ( sponsors the DIG_REF
Listserv and provides a forum for the growing number of people and
organizations answering the questions of users via the Internet. From
Ask-an-Expert (AskA) services to libraries, an increasing number of
organizations are creating digital reference services to provide expert
information and reference help.

This listserv provides a moderated discussion of issues related to
reference librarianship, including, but not limited to virtual

Live Reference eGroup
This Yahoo Group discusses live reference services for librarians