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Some of the foremost experts in digital reference offered insights into the future of Internet-based question-and-answer services at the Virtual Reference Desk's "Facets of Digital Reference" conference held October 16-17, 2000 in Seattle, WA.

The conference attracted over 500 information professionals from libraries, government agencies, higher education, business, and other industries. Participants from Australia, Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, and Japan, as well as the U.S., attended the event.

"It was an incredible conference," said R. David Lankes, director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology and founder of the Virtual Reference Desk project. "I was struck by the eagerness of the audience and excitement around digital reference."

The two-day conference featured seven concurrent track sessions, offering a variety of interactive panel discussions and presentations addressing key issues in digital reference. Over 40 presentations and 60 speakers were featured at the conference, the largest of its kind. Topics included software and synchronous technologies for real-time reference transactions, management and staffing issues, electronic resources, user needs in digital exchanges, legal liability, and emerging back-end applications for creating new services.

Several issues emerged from the conference as this year's "hot topics" in digital reference. The problem of scalability, or the ability of services to grow exponentially in response to user demands, was discussed in several presentations. Quality criteria for expert responses and evaluation methods were frequently noted, as was the proliferation of new commercial services and increased competition for libraries. Sessions devoted to new software technologies and tools to help automate and streamline Internet-based information exchanges were extremely popular with conference goers, and often resulted in standing room-only crowds. Web contact software, such as that demonstrated by Library Systems and Services' (LSSI) Steve Coffman, has been developed specifically for real-time reference transactions in libraries. Another real-time product, called LivePerson, was presented by Paul Constantine of Cornell University. LivePerson is an e-commerce software package that has been adapted for use in Cornell University Library's LiveHelp service. Additionally, Blythe Bennett, Learning Center Coordinator at the Virtual Reference Desk, demonstrated VRD's Incubator software. The Incubator is designed to help digital reference practitioners efficiently accept, route, and answer Web-based questions, displaying easy-to-use interfaces for both front-end (public) and back-end (administrator) views.

Each day of the conference began with an opening plenary session and focused on an issue of particular interest to today's digital reference provider. On Monday, October 16, David Lankes presented an overview of current initiatives in Internet-based Q&A, including collaborative efforts, service management models, and technology standards. The keynote speakers were Michael Eisenberg, director of the Information School at the University of Washington, and Charles McClure, Francis Eppes Professor at Florida State University's School of Information Studies. Eisenberg and McClure, renowned lecturers and authors on information problem solving and reference evaluation respectively, presented "Digital Reference Librarians: Who Needs 'Em?" In this lively session, Eisenberg and McClure discussed whether librarians are fighting a losing game in the increasingly competitive knowledge marketplace, or whether the new millennium offers exciting new possibilities for the profession.

The plenary session on Tuesday, May 17 featured a panel of digital reference experts that included representatives from Ask Jeeves, the National Agricultural Library, Library of Congress, the University of Washington, Multnomah County Library, and AskMe.com. Moderated by Lankes, the panel discussed privacy issues, collaborative reference efforts, fee-based services, and other issues that impact digital reference provision. The panel also explored whether human intermediation is vital for effective information retrieval, and the current problems of scalability as question volumes to electronic reference services continue to grow.

Speakers at this year's conference came from a variety of organizations, including public and academic libraries, government agencies, subject-specific digital reference services, and the commercial sector. Speakers included Penny Finnie, Vice President of Ideas at Ask Jeeves; Diane Kresh from Library of Congress; Pauline Lynch Shostack, coordinator of AskERIC; Joseph Janes and Stuart Sutton, assistant and associate professors at the University of Washington; Blane Ampthor of the Central Intelligence Agency; Michael McClennan from the Internet Public Library; Laura Brendon of Eisenhower National Clearinghouse; and Joan Stahl from the National Museum of American Art.

An awards ceremony and reception was held Monday evening to recognize excellence in the practice and research of Internet-based information provision. Recipients of the VRD 2000 Exemplary Digital Reference Service Awards were the Internet Public Library, sponsored by the School of Information at the University of Michigan; Ask a Hurricane Hunter, a service of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, U.S. Air Force Reserve; and Ask Us! Online, a service of the Multnomah County Library (Oregon). Steve Coffman, Product Development Manager at Library Systems and Services, Inc. (LSSI) and frequent author on digital reference issues, was awarded this year's Director's Award. Silvia Barcellos, a Ph.D. student in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, received the Best Student Paper Award for her paper "Understanding Intermediation in a Digital Environment: An Exploratory Case Study."

In its two-year history, the VRD Digital Reference Conference has emerged as the premier conference for electronic expert information and reference services. The next VRD conference is slated to be held in fall 2001 in Orlando, FL.

The Virtual Reference Desk is a project of the U.S. Department of Education, and is operated by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology at Syracuse University.

Joann M. Wasik is a consultant and communications officer for The Virtual Reference Desk project.

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