Career Strategies for Librarians
Being a Reference Librarian in a Virtual Library
by Tanzi Merritt
The Kentucky Virtual Library is a consortium of libraries in Kentucky that have joined together to purchase
access to online databases and library management software, and provide a statewide courier service
for interlibrary loan. KYVL also provides library services to students of the Kentucky Virtual University,
citizens of Kentucky, and often residents of other states and countries. As a Reference Librarian in a
virtual library that also serves as a state library consortium, my day includes a wide variety of activities.
These activities, while typical job responsibilities for a librarian, are unique due to the nature of the
consortium and virtual library settings.
As one might expect, as a Reference Librarian one of my primary responsibilities is to provide reference
services. At the Kentucky Virtual Library we are in a unique situation in that we provide reference
assistance solely by phone and through email. We are also unique in that we do not have a print
collection and must rely solely on Internet resources and electronic databases. It is a constant challenge
to provide quality reference services without the benefit of a face-to-face reference interview, and a large
portion of the questions that I attempt to answer are answered with partial information and a referral to a
nearby public or academic library for print resources. An additional aspect of providing reference
services that adds to the challenge is the restrictions placed on KYVL by the vendors providing electronic
databases. Because of contractual obligations, the electronic databases available through KYVL are
only legally accessible by residents of the state of Kentucky and students of Kentucky colleges and
universities who might not be residing in Kentucky. When answering questions it is important to evaluate
the information provided by the patron to determine what information they are able to access through
KYVL so that the information that I provide to them is of use. It is useless to provide instructions for
accessing and searching electronic databases to patrons that are not allowed to access these
databases, while it is important to provide this instruction to those who are allowed access. Because
they are not required to provide this information, answering questions can often require a series of
emails between KYVL and the patron.
As the consortium providing database access to libraries throughout the state, I am often called upon to
troubleshoot technical problems and act as a liaison between Kentucky librarians and vendors’
technical support departments. Providing access to the databases and other services to libraries
requires that we provide training sessions periodically for librarians throughout the state. I am the
coordinator for KYVL training services, which requires that I schedule the sessions, create training
materials, and travel throughout the state providing the majority of the training services. We also do
training sessions on-demand, and provide sessions for non-librarians as marketing and public
relations tools, and I often make presentations at state library conferences. Sessions can be any length:
twenty minutes to six hours depending on the audience. I am currently designing an online tutorial on the
Kentucky Virtual Library’s site that can be used by librarians and by end-users. Creating the tutorial
requires that I understand HTML.
As part of the Kentucky Virtual University, we contract with various state agencies to provide services in
online course development. Since joining the Kentucky Virtual Library I have learned to use special
course management software to create courses on finding, evaluating, and using information, and will
use this software to create a course on using the Kentucky Virtual Library. I also recently acted as the
Kentucky Virtual Library’s representative to a Kentucky Virtual University committee to evaluate proposals
for a new course management software system to be used by the academic institutions throughout the
state for the delivery of online courses, and to be used by the state agencies that we contract with to put
their course materials online.
KYVL has six full-time employees, including four librarians, a programmer, and an executive secretary.
Because there are so many initiatives that require the services of our small staff, and because we want
the input of the librarians that we are serving, we have several workgroups that have been formed to
advise us on initiatives, programs, and services. I am currently serving as a member of two workgroups,
and am leading two other workgroups. These workgroups include a group of librarians that are advising
me on the development of the training programs and materials that we offer, a group of librarians that
evaluates database usage and content and advises KYVL on the database that should be included in
the statewide contract, and a group that evaluates websites and recommends them for inclusion in
KYVL’s Virtual Reference Desk.
Working at the Kentucky Virtual Library is at times similar to working at an academic library, sometimes
like working at a public library, and sometimes similar to working at a special library. The duties of the
position are challenging and require that I understand the job responsibilities of librarians in all types of
libraries, and have the ability to consider the needs of each type of library when making decisions about
KYVL services. The duties described are those that I spend most of my time performing, but there are
other programs that KYVL sponsors, such as the statewide provision of an interlibrary loan courier
service and Internet faxing service for journal articles, as well as a statewide contract for library
management software. I do not have daily involvement with these services, but other librarians at the
Kentucky Virtual Library are involved in these projects on a daily basis. A job description for another
member of the KYVL staff will look quite different than mine, as would the job descriptions of librarians
working for other virtual librarians and consortiums. Because of the wide range of duties that might be
part of a job like mine, this area of librarianship is exciting and challenging, and brings something new
About the Author:
Tanzi Merritt is a Reference Librarian at the Kentucky Virtual Library (http://www.kyvl.org). See more about
Tanzi at http://www.kyvl.org/html/ref/vrdmerritt.html.
Article submitted April 2002
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