It has been called by many names: chat reference, e-reference, and virtual reference, ask-a-librarian. Whatever the name, digital reference has formed a component of library service for over a decade, and while there is a large body of literature that has been written on the subject, it is nevertheless a mode of service that is often not well-understood and, more significantly, difficult to put into practice.

SWFLN’s DigiRef Academy is focused on helping members of the SWFLN community understand and provide for this now long-standing yet not-well-understood mode of reference service. Its purpose is to offer substantial hands-on training in the concrete practices that make up digital reference.

Providing digital reference well and skillfully demands a very specific and well-developed skill-set: reference interviewing, a rapid and broad grasp of online resource, the ability to type quickly and accurately, the ability to maintain contact with the patron while simultaneously remaining engaged in searches, and the ability to manage more than one online transaction at a time. In addition, and very importantly, this form of reference demands enhanced communication skills, because the patron does not have the benefit of observing the librarian’s body language or tone of voice. The librarian must put forth particular effort to demonstrate that he or she is present to and actively working with the patron. Digital reference, therefore, is not a form of reference that can be undertaken well without explicit training and practice.

SWFLN’s DigiRef Academy will offer training via both webinar and face-to-face workshops in essential Digital Reference skills: the mechanics of performing the service, specific practices for communicating effectively via chat, and in-depth examination of a variety of online sources.

These sessions will integrate instruction with a substantial amount of practical, hands-on experience. Specifically, this means that we will be developing and honing particular skills and our knowledge of reference resources. We will also be engaging in a critical approach to Digital Reference, and considering the ways in which it is and sometimes is not a viable form of reference for certain types of patron queries.

In the DigiRef Academy inaugural webinar on October 15, we will have a short overview of the history of the service, learn about a series of best practices for the type of online communication that should be applied in Digital Reference. We will discuss participants’ experiences with this type of reference, brainstorming a variety of questions that participants can be addressing to each other in future breakout sessions.

Subsequent webinar and face-to-face sessions will build on this material with substantial hand-on practice and exploration of web-based resources. Practice sessions will take place in a collegial and supportive learning environment in which participants can feel comfortable building their skills.

Participants will emerge from these sessions with significant levels of experience in providing Digital Reference, enhanced knowledge of online resources, and greater confidence about providing the service and sharing their skills with colleagues.