Now I See It, Now You Don’t: 

a report on the Virtual Reference Environment


Bryna Coonin

East Carolina University

Greenville, N.C.



Virtual reference, sometimes also referred to as “digital reference,” has become an increasingly significant component of the services academic libraries provide to its user community.  I am an academic librarian with nearly two decades of experience in reference and public service, and have also served for nearly a decade as the point person for users with disabilities in my libraries.”  This perspective informs my study of the current virtual reference environment, and I think it provides us with some important insights as we develop strategies to improve the electronic environment for users with disabilities.


Reference staff are the individuals who generally interact directly with users attempting to do library research.  Interaction takes place in the library, or in a classroom setting, over the phone, by correspondence, e-mail, and increasingly via live chat.  The goal is to connect the user with the appropriate library resources.


So what is “virtual reference”?  The State Library of North Carolina’s state-wide Virtual Reference Advisory Committee defines the computer-mediated service component of this as covering the spectrum of services from e-mail reference to online web forms to the increasingly popular live chat [ ]. In plain language, it’s the electronic means used to contact reference staff for assistance in accessing and using library resources.


“Virtual reference” also refers to the various electronic formats in which the content of reference material exists, such as web sites, electronic databases, online encyclopedias, and e-journals. These are resources made available via the libraries’ web sites 24 hours a day.


One of the core values of a good reference librarian is inclusion – the notion that the library’s resources should be available to all of the authorized users in the primary user community; that no one who is supposed to be included in that circle is left out  Yet, each day, our libraries offer up a slew of valuable electronic resources and services which cannot be readily accessed by users with disabilities, and these users are left out. Let’s take a closer look.



Many libraries have created “virtual reference desks” consisting of a collection of Web resources particularly geared to the type of information needs of that library.  A well-designed virtual reference desk can be an enormous time saver for staff and users, if the resources are carefully pre-selected and organized in a coherent fashion.


The Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) at my own library at East Carolina University [] consists of 342 web sites collected and arranged into 23 categories, available publicly off the library’s web page.  The purpose behind this was the perceived need by our reference staff for ready access to quality web sites in selected areas that would help with quick answers to recurring questions.  A good bit of time and effort went into assembling the “best” sites.  The sites come from educational institutions, government, non-profits, as well as commercial publishers and providers.  The VRD has in fact proven to be a valuable research tool for staff assisting users in person, over the phone, and by e-mail. Is this service fully accessible? Unfortunately, no. At least, not yet.


I tested these 342 cites by running the initial web pages of each site through the Pennsylvania Initiative on Assistive Technology’s accessibility checker, WAVE 2.01

[ ].  Using WAVE’s equivalent of Bobby’s priority #1 errors, I found that 81% of these sites were not accessible -- lots of missing ALT-TEXTs, frame problems, and problematic table displays.


What’s the strategy for improving this situation? It helps no one to dismantle the Virtual Reference Desk.  Instead we will attempt to contact the webmasters of the inaccessible sites and encourage them to correct the problems.  Using such information as we do receive in response to our inquiries, we will have to make some decisions regarding the sites on our Virtual Reference Desk.  For those sites that remain inaccessible we will investigate alternatives where they exist.  If the inaccessibility of the site is due solely to purely decorative logos without ALT-TEXTs and the site is unique and without a good substitute we will include a caveat in our description of the site.


Online public access catalogs (OPACs)

Traditionally online public access catalogs include information about which books, journals, perhaps government documents, videos, DVDs, and audio recordings have been acquired by the library.  Increasingly many online catalogs include not just material permanently owned by the library but also material made accessible through the libraries, such as links out to electronic journals provided by vendors, databases, subscribed to, and perhaps even links to quality web sites, as determined by library staff. 


Two recent studies address accessibility of OPACs.  Robert Axtell and Judith Dixon  examined WebVoyage 2000, the public access component of Voyager 2000 from Endeavor.  In general Axtell & Dixon had a favorable experience with WebVoyage, finding that it could be successfully navigated by users with disabilities who are experienced in the use of assistive technology.  Susan Johns examined epixtech’s Horizon, iPac 2.0, in its beta iteration, which is currently in use in my own library.  Johns finds iPac 2.0 to be reasonably accessible, but calls attention to problematic action buttons and tables used for formatting.


If your library’s catalog is not accessible, or not fully accessible, please complain about it.  Library staff may not be able to fix the problem(s) locally, but they can, and must, raise the issue with the company through whatever communication channels are available to them.



Here let’s consider some database resources of particular use to undergraduates doing term papers, such as aggregator article databases offering a wide range of magazines and journals available full-text, and online encyclopedias.


In a recent issue of Library Hi Tech, Suzanne Byerly and Mary Beth Chambers examine two such article databases, OCLC’s FirstSearch Periodicals Index and Gale Group’s Expanded Academic Index ASAP.  The authors found that the search engines provided a high degree of accessibility overall.


In another article in that same issue of Library Hi Tech, Vibiana Bowman examines several similar aggregator databases, including EBSCO and Proquest, two more or less direct competitors in this arena.  Bowman found EBSCO to be accessible, but had some difficulty with the ProQuest product.


Cheryl Riley also contributed to this Library Hi Tech issue.  She recently examined several aggregator databases, including EBSCO (same as above) and InfoTrac. She confirmed the general accessibility of the EBSCO product, but reports more serious problems with InfoTrac.


Jennifer Horwath’s recent Library Hi Tech article included an evaluation of Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  She found it moderately accessible.  I used WAVE 2.01 to examine the online version of the Funk & Wagnall’s New World Encyclopedia, which is produced by the EBSCO company discussed above, and found it generally accessible.  I used a similar strategy to examine the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia and found it seriously inaccessible throughout.


So what are we saying?  That for someone doing undergraduate research, some accessible article databases and encyclopedias are available, and there is some competition among the products.  So we can help by purchasing accessible databases and encyclopedias for this user group (undergrads), and when we provide more than one of these competing products (as many larger libraries do), we must be aware of which ones will potentially offer problems and which will be more accessible.


Libraries usually develop a checklist of some kind to use when selections of databases and other full-text products are being considered for purchase – accounting for technical specs, congenial licensing arrangements, price.  It is up to library staff involved in selection to make accessibility an important consideration and to inquire of each company if and how they assure accessibility. 



The databases mentioned above are particularly aimed at the undergraduate population. Advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty will need access to the research literature reflected in the core journals for their disciplines.  Many of these titles are not available through the vendors described above.  These are more often offered solely by the publishers of the journals themselves, such as Elsevier, Academic Press, or Springer.  Or they may be published by professional or scholarly societies and made web accessible by services such as JSTOR, Johns Hopkins University’s Project MUSE, or Stanford University’s HighWire.  Often, to the researcher, these are not interchangeable.  If there is a particular article or researcher’s work they need, that’s what they need, so the option of substituting a more accessible version of something for a less accessible one is not viable.


In my own Library Hi Tech article on e-journal accessibility I examined eleven major providers of these types of research journals.  At that time I found only one service accessible, the Kluwer Academic journals.  Interestingly, when I repeated this study about eight months later using the same methodology, Kluwer no longer passed the test!  The site underwent a “redesign” and users with disabilities are the worse for it. 


This incident was actually the most instructive result of my study, though it came well after the study itself was published.  What I learned from this was that there exists something which I can best describe as “accidental accessibility.”  The product may be accessible only because the web developer was not sufficiently sophisticated to add all sorts of (inaccessible) special effects and features.  When a publisher or provider calls for a fancy new “redesign” but is not committed to accessibility, it is possible that accessibility itself will become a casualty.  “Now you see it, later you won’t.”


Live Chat

The technology currently the “darling” of reference departments consists of software that not only allows instant messaging but also gives the librarian power to control the user’s browser.  This allows the librarian to “push” recommended pages to the user’s display and to include search strategies, essentially allowing a quick instructional session to take place.  As this is occurring a chat window appears on both the user and the librarian’s screen, so a typed conversation can take place about the pages sent.


I contacted several of the leading providers of live chat software currently marketing to libraries for this purpose.  Here’s the scoop, beginning with the less satisfactory responses and working up to some more encouraging words:


OCLC’s Questionpoint admitted that only limited access to Questionpoint is available to patrons with disabilities. Web and chat forms can be customized to allow libraries to provide multi-lingual and ADA compliant interfaces to the service using the base template provided with the service – so it will be the individual library’s responsibility to take care of this at their end.


24/7 Reference -- The underlying software of 24/7 is eGain. The software has been tested with IBM Homepage Reader and JAWS and they claim it is complicated to use with adaptive software, but possible.  Frames are not intuitively labeled, according to the rep, but 24/7 is aware of the problems and is pursuing this with eGain.


Docutek -- According to the representative I talked to, Docutek’s VRLPlus“satisfies well over 80% of the criteria outlined in the 1999 W3C guidelines,” and they “continue to work toward full compliance.”


LSSI -- According to the rep, LSSI has spent considerable time and effort testing their Virtual Reference software with adaptive technologies. The chat log area is still a problem  -- the last message sent to the patron cannot be read if the patron was typing. LSSI is experimenting with pop-up windows for the chat rather than frames, and is testing with JAWS and Naturally Speaking.


Steve Coffman, a key project manager at LSSI, recently published an article in Information Technology and Libraries called “We’ll Take it From Here: Further Developments We’d Like to See in Virtual Reference Software.”  One option he describes is the Voice Over Internet Protocal (VoIP), which would allow voice communication between the librarian and the library user seeking assistance.  This might eliminate some problems for some users with disabilities who cannot manage the pop-up screens and chat boxes waiting to have the message typed into them.  Librarians should consider using the presence or absence of this feature as a factor in the decision of which software to purchase.



Now I See It, Now You Don’t.  Right now, if I can see and can control a mouse, all of the products and services we have discussed will be readily available to me.  If you cannot see, or cannot see well, or you have difficulty controlling a mouse, you will not have full, independent access to all of these same library resources at this time. 


Libraries and librarians have an important role to play in creating awareness of accessibility issues in the virtual reference environment. Librarians can be vocal for accessibility in the product selection process and when we discover that an electronic resource or service we are making available to our users is not accessible, we can and must, contact the provider of that product. 


So why don’t more libraries and library staff get involved in this effort?  I think that somehow that connection hasn’t been made between the core value of inclusion and the situation as it exists, as summarized in this and other EASI presentations at this conference.  If you are a librarian, recall that core value and act on it.  If you are a campus adminstrator or faculty member, talk to library staff, confident that somewhere in your library there are those who will share it.



Axtell, Robert and Judith Dixon. “Voyager 2000: a review of accessibility for persons with visual disabilities,” Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 2, 2002: 141-147.


Bowman, Vibiana.  “Reading Between the Lines,” Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 2, 2002:  162-168.


Byerley, Suzanne and Mary Beth Chambers. “Accessibility and Usability of Web-based Library Databases for Non-Visual Users,” Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 2, 2002: 169-178.


Coffman, Steve. “We’ll Take it from Here: Further Developments We’d Like to See in Virtual Reference Software,” Information Technologies and Libraries, Vol. 20 Issue 3, Sept. 2001: 149-153.


Coonin, Bryna. “Establishing Accessibility for E-Journals: a suggested approach,”

Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 2, 2002: 207-220.


Horwath, Jennifer. “ Evaluating Opportunities for Expanded Information Access: a study of the accessibility of four online databases,” Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 3, 2002: 199-206.


Jackson-Sanborn, Emily, Kerri Odess-Harnish, and Nikki Warren.  “Web site accessibility: a study of six genres,” Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 3, 2002: 308-317.


Johns, Susan M. “Viewing the Sunrise: iPac 2.0 accessibility,” Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 2, 2002: 148-161


Riley, Cheryl A. “Libraries, Aggregator Databases, Screen Readers and Clients with Disabilities,” Library Hi Tech, Vol. 20 No. 2, 2002: 179 –187.