Beating Siri at Her Own Game: What’s Next for Virtual Reference | ALA Annual 2012

Courtney Young

The librarians who attended Saturday’s What’s Next for Virtual Reference discussion group at ALA left with a lot to ponder. The program featured Courtney L. Young who is a librarian at Penn State University and a member of ALA’s executive board, but perhaps better known to the library world as the prolific Tweeter @librarycourtney.

Young, a 2011 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, was introduced by Jason Coleman of RUSA’s Virtual Reference Planning Committee. Her short but provocative outline of her vision of the future drew upon her experience in providing reference since 1999.

Young’s first prediction: Cloud computing will become more ubiquitous in virtual reference. Using the cloud, she explained, means taking advantage of storage and other functions that are offered by Internet companies instead of being limited to the functions that are available on your own computer. Young used a show of hands to demonstrate that while many librarians are using services such as DropBox to store their work or personal documents, they aren’t using them with patrons, a change she urged the librarians in the room to make. They could, she suggested, create a My Library Cloud area into which materials could be deposited for patron use. Young recognized that the exact mechanisms of how this should work aren’t certain, acknowledging, for example that ebooks are still shaking out, but maintained that patrons are used to using these services personally, and why wouldn’t they use them at the library?

Next was a call to arms: Siri is what we do, she said, noting that what Apple calls iPhone’s intelligent personal assistant is virtual reference embedded into a device that people are very attached to. While it isn’t very effective right now, Young asserted, it can only improve, and librarians need to position themselves as the alternatives to the service before they find themselves replaced.

The next point involved the recent chatter among virtual reference librarians about replacing the commonly used Meebo. The choices being considered are too many, she said, emphasizing that if virtual reference is to be more successful in the future, librarians must use products that patrons are already familiar with, such as Skype, instead of insisting that they learn something new. This point was echoed by an audience member who explained that librarians are overthinking the many ways in which to can reach students and that they “don’t want us in all of their spaces. Young reminded those present that its possible to do voice-only Skype if you don’t want to use the visual component. Above all, she said, it’s time to stop using the available technology as an excuse for not providing seamless service.

The helpful discussion at the end involved librarians describing the various virtual reference services they offer at their library, and at times became a troubleshooting session. The librarians present were particularly interested in a practice described by Lindsay Johnston of the University of Alberta Libraries, whose institution does what it calls summoning. Using this service, students who are in the library can text a librarian who will come to them.

Clearly, the future of virtual reference, while it may involve many of the changes that Courtney Young predicted, will still rely on librarians drawing on each others’ expertise.

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.


  1. Noel @ Mosio says:

    Great post Henrietta! There was definitely a lot of discussion at ALA this year about “what’s next” in virtual reference and supporting patrons. The Dropbox idea for sharing files is a great idea. Summoning sounds interesting, curious about how scalable that is.

    Regarding the comment about patrons not wanting libraries “in all of their spaces”, it sounds like I’m not the only one who disagrees. The key (echoed in customer service for companies and other organizations) is to be where patrons are, then give them the choice of which channel they’d like to use in their communications. Exciting times and libraries have an amazing opportunity to provide wonderful, personalized levels of service using great technologies.