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IMLS issues grant for further collaborative study of Virtual Reference Services

DUBLIN, Ohio, USA, 7 October 2011—The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency, has awarded a National Leadership Grant for a collaborative research project between OCLC Research and the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information (SC&I) to investigate library-based Virtual Reference Services (VRS).

OCLC Senior Research Scientist Lynn Silipigni Connaway will join Rutgers University SC&I faculty members Marie L. Radford and Chirag Shah as Co-Principal Investigators in a study of new models that permit more collaborative and sustainable delivery of virtual reference services. The $250,000 National Leadership Grant recently announced by IMLS will support the project for two years beginning this month. The grant, which was made to Rutgers, represents about 45 percent of overall funding for the project, with the remainder coming from Rutgers and OCLC.

This project, titled “Cyber Synergy: Seeking Sustainability through Collaboration between Virtual Reference and Social Q&A Sites,” builds on an earlier IMLS-funded collaboration between Rutgers and OCLC, and includes investigation of models that rely upon more extensive collaboration among librarians and subject experts. The earlier effort, “Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User and Librarian Perspectives,” was led by Radford and Connaway and spanned a five-year period. The findings were recently summarized for a broad audience in a report published by OCLC, "Seeking Synchronicity: Revelations and Recommendations for Virtual Reference".

Over the past decade, many libraries successfully introduced live chat and instant messaging reference services to supplement traditional face-to-face services. These services are popular with the public, but are hard to maintain in today’s environment of reduced funding. The new project will generate findings and recommendations to help members of the library community better understand their options as they implement the next generation of virtual reference services (VRS).

“I am excited by this opportunity for Rutgers University to continue to collaborate with OCLC in researching virtual reference service through this grant from IMLS,” Radford said. “Our previous joint venture, ‘Seeking Synchronicity,’ has been highly productive in discovering new insights and recommendations to enhance service. ‘Cyber Synergy’ will allow us to now push our inquiry into longitudinal study of VRS as well as into the area of social question and answer services.”

The current project proposes a new model that enables virtual reference services to remain viable despite today’s environment of reduced resources. It will investigate the possibility of seamless collaboration between knowledge institutions such as libraries and the Social Q&A (SQA) community. Use statistics indicate that VRS continues to grow as most libraries now offer VRS as popular alternatives to traditional face-to-face reference.

Connaway commented, “I am very happy that we are receiving this funding from IMLS and that we have the opportunity to work with Marie and Chirag at Rutgers to investigate the possibility of linking Social Q&A services with library virtual reference services. It’s also a great opportunity for us to build on our previous research findings from the ‘Seeking Synchronicity’ project that also was funded by IMLS, Rutgers, and OCLC.”

The new project’s three phases will identify VRS system enhancements to help achieve sustainability and to collaboratively leverage subject knowledge to meet user needs and heightened expectations. Phase I (Transcript Content Analysis) consists of a longitudinal analysis of 500 randomly selected VRS transcripts and 1000 SQA site transcripts. Phase II (Telephone Interviews and Analysis) includes in-depth phone interviews with 150 subjects from key user and information provider populations. Phase III (Constructing Design Specifications) focuses on creating design specifications to link VRS and SQA to explore solutions for VRS sustainability.

”I am thrilled to be a part of what promises to be a very productive and meaningful collaboration between Rutgers University and OCLC,” said Shah. “Our joint venture will provide insights into both Social Q&A and virtual referencing services, focusing on key aspects of content as well as content providers and consumers. These insights could then help create innovative ways to provide synergic solutions to both knowledge institutions and end-users.”

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. http://www.imls.gov/.

About the Rutgers School of Communication and Information (SC&I)

Established in 1982, SC&I’s educational, scholarly and public mission affirms the premise that communication and information processes must put people first. SC&I faculty and graduates shape the communication, journalism, media, library and information science fields. The sum of this expertise forms the heart of SC&I’s teaching success. The communication and information scholarship at SC&I aims to understand such pressing issues as: the new media and democracy; social networks; virtual environments and collaborative design; health and wellness; leadership and policy. http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/.

About OCLC

Founded in 1967, OCLC is a nonprofit, membership, computer library service and research organization dedicated to the public purposes of furthering access to the world’s information and reducing library costs. More than 72,000 libraries in 170 countries have used OCLC services to locate, acquire, catalog, lend, preserve and manage library materials. Researchers, students, faculty, scholars, professional librarians and other information seekers use OCLC services to obtain bibliographic, abstract and full-text information when and where they need it. OCLC and its member libraries cooperatively produce and maintain WorldCat, the world’s largest online database for discovery of library resources. Search WorldCat on the Web at www.worldcat.org.

OCLC Research is one of the world’s leading centers devoted exclusively to the challenges facing libraries in a rapidly changing information technology environment. Its diverse staff of research scientists and program officers investigates trends in technology and library practice to identify technological advances that will enhance the value of library services and improve the productivity of librarians and library users. www.oclc.org/research.

OCLC, WorldCat and WorldCat.org are trademarks/service marks of OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. Third-party product, service and business names are trademarks/service marks of their respective owners.

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