The development of virtual reference in China

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					The Development and challenges of Virtual Reference Service of library in China Zhang Shuguang Reference and Research Department National Library of China 33 Zhongguancun Nandajie Haidian district Beijing, 100081, P. R. China E-mail: Abstract: Virtual reference service emerged in some libraries in China along with the development of Internet. In this article, the author will give an outline of the development of virtual reference service of library in China, mainly on the aspects of its history, service technology and challenges it faces. Key Words: virtual reference, digital reference, development, China According to the “Survey on the Internet development in China, 2004”, the number of computer hosts has reached 308.9 million; and the number of Internet users has been up to 795 million in the mainland area. (CNNIC, 2004) Internet has becoming an indispensable channel for Chinese people to obtain information, increase knowledge or communicate with others. Along with the development of Internet, virtual reference service (VRS) emerged in some libraries in China some years ago, and it has enlarged the scope of traditional library services to a new level. Nowadays, virtual reference service has become a major service in some libraries, and more and more other libraries of various types are going to provide virtual service for their patrons. However, along with its rapid development, the virtual reference service of China’s library has met more and more challenges. In the following, I will give an outline of the development of virtual reference service of library in China, its service technology and, the challenges it faces. 1. The development of virtual reference service of library in China According to the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) in USA, the definition of virtual reference service is to allow a user to submit questions to, and be answered by a librarian, using electronic means. Virtual reference can be real-time via chat synchronously, email asynchronously, or a combination of both. Virtual reference is also called digital reference or online reference (NISO, 2001). According to this definition, The National Library of China (NLC) is the first one who implemented such service in China. In 1998, the NLC established a project of the National Collaborative Digital Reference Service and intended to supply online reference services with the cooperation of nation-wide libraries with each one’s featured advantages, sharing their

information or professional resources. 12 libraries in different types (public libraries, academic libraries and information centers of the government departments) were engaged in the project. Unfortunately, the project failed for the reason of the mode of operation and the lack of financial support. However, its idea of collaboration of reference services was an innovation at the very beginning of the digital age in China. Now, the NLC is constructing another project of Virtual Reference Desk (VRD). On this digital platform, the NLC will provide the governments, the academics and enterprises with advanced virtual services. In May 2001, based on the Shanghai Resource Sharing Network, together with other academic libraries, research libraries and related institutes in Shanghai, the Shanghai Library established a Virtual Reference Desk and started to supply cooperative online reference services aimed to provide general public with high-quality professional reference services and knowledge navigation. The Virtual Reference Desk consists of more than 20 reference librarians from Shanghai Library, Shanghai Jiaotong University Library, Fudan University Library, East China Normal University Library, etc. The Virtual Reference Desk also has the collaboration with Hong Kong Linnan University Library, National Library Board Singapore, and Macao Information Centre. According to the Librarians’ specialties, the users can select anyone of them to answer their questions. Depending on the 80 databases of those libraries, they also provide online retrieval and document delivery services. In August 2001, Zhongshan library of Guangdong province developed a platform of virtual reference services with the cooperation of the Super Star Virtual Library Co., Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Zhejiang library, Liaoning library, Shenzhen library, and Wenzhou library. On this platform, they provide real time online services by utilizing BBS, E-MAIL, HTML, Browsing and Downloading. The main feature of this online service is that it allows users to access information resources closely and directly. In 2002, the library of Peking University joined Question Point (QP) collaborative digital reference service that have been developed by the Library of Congress of USA and the OCLC Online Computer Library Center, and first started international cooperation in virtual reference services in China. Now, another 7 libraries joined QP service, which are library of Tshinghua University, Centre for Documentation and Information Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, etc. In 1998, with the approval of the State Development and Planning Commission of China, the China Academic Library and Information System (CALIS) were established as an academic library consortium to share nationwide resources. The CALIS integrated the state’s investment separated on each library by digitalizing their resources and constructing an information service network to realize sharing functions of multiple resources of participating libraries. The function of CALIS is included of online searching, interlibrary loan, document delivery, coordinated purchasing and cataloguing. Till now, the CALIS has made a lot of achievements in the first phase. It has fulfilled six functions drafted in the plan: coordinative acquisition, online cataloguing, OPAC,

ILL, document delivery and Internet navigating. Based on these achievements made in the first phase, the CALIS has developed a distributed cooperative virtual reference platform as a sub-plan in the second phase to realize a comprehensive reference corporation and resource sharing among the nationwide academic libraries. The platform includes three sub-systems: the CALIS general reference desk and knowledge base management system, local DRS system, and learning center system. Each of these systems is also included of three platforms: system platform, librarian platform, and user platform. The CALIS has an important influence on library cooperation and resource sharing in China. In April 2003, National Scientific Digital Library started to run the National Scientific Digital Library Distributed Reference Service System. This system is a virtual reference consortium of the scientific libraries in China. Based on the information resources and subject specialties of the libraries, the system provides its users with corporative online reference services and knowledge navigation.

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Figure 2 At the end of 2002, a survey of 109 investigated libraries of public and academic shows that 63 of them can supply virtual reference service; it accounts about 57.8% (figure 1). Among these 63 libraries, 48 are academic libraries and 15 public libraries. 34 of the samples supply the virtual reference via e-mail (academic libraries 25 and

public libraries 9), which account for 31.2% (figure 2). Only 7 libraries of the samples can supply reference service in real time (6 academic libraries and 1 public library), which account for 6.4%. (Cao Yuxia, 2003.) According to the survey, the virtual reference has developed rapidly in China, but the development in different areas varies greatly (Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are further ahead than other areas by at least 2 years on average) and the technical methods used in the public libraries are far behind the academic libraries. This fact reflects the different state of professional and fiscal resources of these libraries. The libraries in colleges, especially in those special universities, have much more funds than normal public libraries. The reason is that they are financed in different ways: the local governments finance the public libraries, while the libraries in colleges are financed with educational funds mainly supported by the central government. Speaking of the whole nation, virtual reference in China is still at its initial stage. 2. Service technology of virtual reference in China Usually, according to the question and answer whether exchange at the real time or not, the VRS are divided into synchronous service and asynchronous service. The asynchronous service is consisted of E-mail, BBS and web form based reference service. The synchronous service is consisted of ICQ, IRC, and DVC (Zhao Naixuan, 2003). The main service technologies of virtual reference in China are as following: a. E-mail is the main method of the VRS in China The main technologies of VRS in China include E-mail, BBS, and FAQ. For now, E-mail is the basic and most popular service in various libraries in China. More than 90% libraries provide E-mail service for patrons. “Questions to the Library” developed by Library of Tsinghua University is one of the first VRS in China. b. Some libraries have begun to provide real-time services using different software. The Library of Peking University has adopted the QP software, and the Library of Shanghai Jiaotong University has launched a Real-Time Reference System developed by its own technicians. Its virtual reference desk includes List of Reference Librarians, FAQ, Introduction of Chinese Library Classification, Real-Time Help, and Learning Center. The VRD of the National Library of China uses the software developed by CDI (China Digital Innovation Technology CO. LTD) to provide online service and web page push to its customers. c. Some collaborative consortiums of VRS have been established. The local resource share consortium of the VRS between the library and information institute is flourishing in China. The first corporative consortium in China is the National Collaborative Digital Reference Service launched by the National library of China in 1998. In May 2001, the Shanghai Library together with other academic libraries, research libraries, and related institutes in Shanghai, established the Virtual Reference Desk and began to supply cooperative knowledge navigation services. The CALIS system and the National Scientific Digital Library Distributed Reference Service System are the largest and most successful collaborative consortiums that have emerged in recent years. They will play a vital role in the academic study and

research in China. d. A few libraries attempt to import commercial model of VRS and supply value-added services to business. A few libraries tried to adopt the commercial model, like Google Answer, to extend the library services to a new stage. However, this kind of service is limited to public libraries such as the NLC. The VRD is based on the traditional reference services of the NLC, utilized the real-time and push technology of the web’s communication, and applied billing system for customers. Its many models are developed for business applications, such as the code-maker, image management, etc., which can help company to personalize the services. Along with this, the VRD also provides the customer with document delivery, subject–oriented service and the competitive intelligence scout services. The VRD desk is now still on the trial, but its web form and real-time services will open to the public this year. Till now, the virtual reference service has gradually brought about some changes nationwide: from E-mail service to real-time service; from single library to multiple libraries with cooperation, from academic library of featured patron to public library of multiple users. Except that, some libraries have already participated in the regional or institutional collaboration of VRS. For example, the National Scientific Digital Library Distributed Reference Service System has collaborated with all kinds of libraries and institutes within the scientific institutes of China with unified standard and platform, so that it could convene specialists of different subjects to provide collaborative virtual services for users. According to the different demands and different features of the customers, some other libraries pay more attention to the individualized service and develop different service models in virtual reference services. For example, the VRS of the National Library of China, based on the various demands of the government, high-tech business, and the academic institutes, have developed individualized models of the virtual reference services. Collaboration and individualized service will be the main trend of the virtual reference services in the future. Technology of virtual reference service has developed very quickly in China, especially from the year 2003. More and more libraries have bought or developed software to trial, or provide the services to patrons. The virtual reference service has also become the hot topic of the librarianship in China. 3. Challenges facing virtual reference in China Virtual reference service is developing quickly in China, but it is also confronted with many challenges, such as standardization, collaboration and resource sharing, backend specialist support, resource support, and sustainable development, etc. Standardization is one of the most difficult issues facing virtual reference in developed countries which constituted of protocol issues, knowledge base issue, and profiling issues (NISO, 2001). Compared with developed countries, there are similar obstacles in some developing countries. While VRS is still at the initial stage of development in China, it is very important to pay attention to these issues. In my opinion, funding may not be the biggest problem for the development of VRS

in China; effective construction of knowledge base and resource database with uniform standards will be of the utmost importance. As we know, the development of VRS need to be supported by the development of large and various knowledge bases, so developing featured bases and sharing resources through Internet is the core issues of VRS. Certainly, standardization is the foundation of share. Nowadays, many institutes in China have built up knowledge bases and databases of various kinds, but they are all isolated to each other. Different institutions adopt different systems and different standards. Standardization of virtual reference has yet to be scheduled by government, thus no unanimous standards for the development of virtual reference in China. Along with the development of virtual reference, this issue will become more and more difficult to deal with. Collaboration and resource sharing are the core contents of the virtual reference. In the web-based environment, information has exploded chaotically, the user’s demand have become more and more individualized. No single library can fully satisfy all of our user’s demand. Thus, collaboration is the ideal solution for this problem. Collaboration will not only cut the cost, but also make it easier to generate a unified criterion. However, in China, the library and information institutes are isolated in different systems and governed by different departments, so collaboration and resource sharing on a national level are still at the discussion stage. Therefore, there is an enormous amount of work to be done before the utilization and allocation of resources are optimized. Besides the issue of standardization and collaboration, the legal system, the protection of the intellectual rights and the cultural heritage are also important issues that virtual reference is facing in China, and not like lack of funds, these issues need national and international cooperation to be dealt with effectively. At last, I think it is worth mentioning that the virtual reference cannot sever the connection between the traditional reference service and the non-digital resources. Least ways, in the era of hybrid library, the virtual reference will still depend on the traditional resources for long time to meet the user’s demand. Therefore, we may as well pay attention to the mining of the non-digital resources along with the fast growth of VRS in Developing countries such as China. References China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Survey on the Internet development in China, 2004.1 ( Cao Yuxia. The survey of digital reference service in library of China and its development trend, Journal of Sichuan Library, 2003.4 Zhao Naixuan. On Digital Reference Services in Library of China, New Century Library,2003.1 NISO. Report on the NISO Workshop on Networked Digital Reference Services, 2001.4 (

Lu Haiyan, Zhang Shuguang. On Some Issues in Digital Reference Services, Journal of the National Library of China, 2003.4 Xu Yinchi, Huang Ying. Public-private Cooperation Pattern of Digital library Development. Journal of Library Science in China, 2003.3 Xiao Long , Luo Lili. A Comparative Study on Model of Cooperative Virtual Reference Service. Journal of Shanghai Jiaotong University, 2003.S1 Zhang Zhixiong, Li Guangjian, Zhou Ningli, Li Zhen, Liu Xiaojuan. Design and Implementation of CSDL Digital Reference System. Journal of Academic Libraries, 2003.05 Zhang Xiaolin. Digital Reference Services. Journal of Sichuan Library,2001.01 Chu Jingli, Meng Liansheng. Development and Problem of Digital Reference Service. Journal of Library Science in China, 2003.2


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