"Virtual reference", the ability to assist patrons remotely with their research, is critical to our continued effectiveness and future employment. The attorneys simply aren't coming to the library in droves anymore, so we must assist them where they are working, in their offices, on the road, or at home.
But the virtual reference tools that were high profile a few years back, used mainly in public and academic libraries, are falling out of favor. I was initially interested in features such as co-browsing and IM-like conversations with patrons. But on analyzing the potential usefulness of VL apps in a law firm environment, I realized that we could conduct virtual reference using the tools we already had in-house, including the remote access utility that is used by technology and the libraries to connect to the desktop of anyone on the firm's network.
The more difficult task is to manage the process of routing, logging, assigning and responding to reference requests in an efficient manner. If you have a pool of reference librarians in different physical locations, blanket emails to the whole group via a common distribution list can quickly become unwieldy, causing duplicate effort and a general influx of unnecessary email. Separate inboxes can work, but it's not easy to keep your eye on a secondary inbox, especially since the Outlook notification features works only for the primary mailbox, not the secondary one, so requests can potentially languish. The solution, it seems to me, is some kind of email queuing system. I've been on the watch for some such thing for a while now, and haven't been able to find the right application.
The two products that I spotted at SLA aren't exactly email queuing systems, but they both handle reference desk requests submitted via a webform. The first one called "Ask ALA" was presented by the librarian at ALA (American Libraries Association) at an exhibit hall program called "Supercharge Your Reference Desk." She used the Sydney Plus' Information Manager to build the application. The system is set up to automatically route questions to the best person/department to handle the research, includes a knowledgebase to recycle comman answers, and also has a feature I especially like, the ability to respond to frequently asked questions with a template answer. See the PowerPoint for screenshots and more details.
I came across RefTracker in the exhibit hall. This application can be installed inhouse or the vendor (Altarama) can run it for you on their own servers. In addition to managing reference requests, the stats that are captured would be incredibly valuable. I definitely want to look at this program more closely. It seems powerful, effective and easy to use.
The downside to both these systems? Requests must be entered via a webform. While it can be hard to get patrons to abandon email for entering via the web, the librarians can also enter the information themselves regardless of how the request makes its way to the library. The bottomline is that we need to collect specific pieces of information, including the client-matter number, the request, the timeframe, that does require a more fielded solution than email allows, so perhaps this isn't really a downside, but rather, a training issue.
We've automated a wide variety of library functions. It's time to look an automating reference to provide the best possible service.