The Teaching Librarian

Back to
Digital Reference

Collaborative Networks

Libraries have much to gain from teaming up to provide reference services to their combined user populations. There's a jumble of terminology used to describe this kind of reference service: collaborative reference, networked reference, consortial reference, reference partnerships. I'm not really sure yet how to distinguish the language many are using nor can I tell if one of these terms is the most commonly used.

Many of the issues and sticking points of such collaborative work parallel those that libraries contended with when launching cooperative cataloguing and also interlibrary loan services.

Assume for sake of discussion that library A and library B have decided to team up together to form a partnership (or collaborative or consortium) in the provision of reference to patrons from both libraries. This partnership may already be built on consortial relationships already established for other services (e.g., interlibrary loan) or for other reasons (e.g., proximity, part of the same college system or public library network). In other cases, though, the partnership may be between two libraries that have never interacted before but are joining up so that they may both enjoy extended hours for their digital reference service. In such a case, one library may be in New York and offer chat reference in the mornings and early afternoons and the other library may be in Hawaii and picks up the chat service first thing in the morning Hawaii time (which would be early evening New York time). The partnership may be highly formalized (or not) and fit in to an already existing network or consortium (or not).

Here are some of the tricky questions libraries A and B will have to work out in developing their collaborative service:

  • Will the service be e-mail only or will it also be chat?
  • How does one make sure patrons from library A are given quality service when their questions are answered by staff from library B? How can one make sure the staff of library B knows enough about library A's resources and user needs to give service that will make the patrons from library A return for help again?
  • How does one make sure that library A and library B both feel like they are working equally in providing assistance to the combined user population?
  • How does one get staff from library A and B together for training and professional development?
  • Who at library A and library B will staff the service? Will there be a special location set up in both libraries where the staff will do their work? Will a select team from both libraries work from a third location? Will one library cover the entire service or the bulk of it?
  • How will costs be shared?

There are of course dozens of other questions to resolve. The ones I mention are just provided to give a sense of the complexity of the issues (which does not mean that they are not without solution, but just that they are challenging).

Digital collaborative reference can be provided via e-mail or chat. For a list of library consortia and partnerships offering chat reference, I've put together an index of such services.

Links Related to Reference Consortia and Collaborative Networks

Collaborative Digital Reference Service
This project is being led by the Library of Congress and includes over 200 libraries and half a dozen organizations (such as OCLC and RLG). As envisioned, it will allow a user to submit a question to a member library, which in turn submits the question to networked database so that question can be assigned to most appropriate member library for reference help. The library that ultimately handles the question will then send their reply via e-mail to the user.

Further Reading
Kresh, Diane Nester. (2000). Offering high quality reference service on the web: The Collaborative Digital Reference Service (CDRS). D-Lib, 6(6). Retrieved December 28, 2001, from

Langlois, Greg. (2001). A need to know. Federal Computer Week.Retrieved December 28, 2001, from

Report on the NISO Workshop on Networked Digital Reference Services
On April 25-26, 2001, the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) held a workshop that invited attendees to explore what standards might be needed for a networked or collaborative digital reference service.
Forms of Digital Reference

E-mail Reference

Chat Reference Collaborative Networks

E-mail your comments or suggestions to Stephen Francoeur

Last updated: December 27, 2001