Infrastructure needed for digital
reference service (DRS)
in university libraries
An exploratory survey in the Punjab, Pakistan
Amara Malik and Khalid Mahmood
Department of Library and Information Science,
University of the Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan
Purpose – Modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) are transforming
reference service (RS) from physical to virtual. The paper aims to explore the current status of ICT
infrastructure necessary for delivering effective digital reference service (DRS) in university libraries
of the Punjab.
Design/methodology/approach – This exploratory study used questionnaire survey method to
probe the current status. The questionnaire was worded to achieve an ofﬁcial organizational response.
For ensuring the content validity, comments from some well-known LIS professionals were sought.
In the light of experts’ opinions, necessary modiﬁcations were made to the instrument. University
libraries of the Punjab province (n¼40) recognized by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) were
identiﬁed as targeted population. The questionnaire was distributed through post and e-mail.
The researchers were able to get questionnaires ﬁlled from 38 universities.
Findings – The ﬁndings reveal that the ICT infrastructure needed for designing and implementing
an effective DRS in libraries is better than before but it needs further improvement. Many libraries also
own general and reference collection in electronic format. Only a few libraries have started DRS while
most of them are still using face to face channel for reference transactions.
Practical implications – This study is an attempt to ﬁll a gap in the local literature on the topic and
provides baseline information to design and implement DRS in academic libraries.
Originality/value – The ﬁndings will be helpful in designing better and more effective DRS systems
in Pakistan as well as in other developing countries.
Keywords Pakistan, Libraries, Reference service
Paper type Research paper
The phenomenon of reference service (RS) is all about providing the right information
to the right users at the right time through formal personal assistance. The idea of
direct personal help to the users in using library resources was conceived for the ﬁrst
time by Green in 1876 and it gained recognition especially in academic libraries as a
signiﬁcant service feature. Prior to this, traditional libraries were more like stockpile,
just determined on systematic preservation and users were expected to ﬁnd
independently what they needed.
Since last decade, computers and the internet have become an integral part of RS as
a smarter, better and faster way of making information available by affecting its
sources, format and delivery channels. Reference sources are available in digital format
such as CD-ROMs, DVDs, web sites, databases, library portals and digital repositories.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 7 December 2012
Revised 14 February 2013
Accepted 11 March 2013
Vol. 62 No. 6/7, 2013
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
Reference librarians usually assist users by using search engines such as Google,
Yahoo, AltaVista, etc. and different web sites. OPACs, databases, tutorials, FAQs, and
web forms are the simplest forms of interacting and communicating with users in
digital environment. Farmer (2007) rightly suggested that technology has expanded
the basic philosophy of RS and improved John Cotton Dana’s quote “the right
information to the right person at the right time” by incorporating the “right format”.
The concept of using the internet for reference means to take it not only as “information
resource” but as a “way” of delivering and exchanging information as well (Fagan and
Desai, 2003; Kresh, 2003). Fax, e-mail, chatting and instant messaging (IM), Facebook,
and Twitter are the viable means of delivering RS to remote users. So, physical
constraints of time and space have been reduced by developing virtual RSs. Thus, the
internet is playing a key role in quick transformation of RS from human to digital and
from physical to virtual.
However, the pace of this transformation is varying in different parts of the globe.
It is comparatively very slow in developing countries like Pakistan, facing many
internal problems. Certainly, during the last decade government has made various
efforts to develop ICT infrastructure to support and promote education and research
culture. But still these efforts are at infancy stage. Pakistani libraries are far behind as
compared with modern developed libraries in terms of their resources, services and
ICT infrastructure. So this study is an attempt to examine the current status of ICT
infrastructure available in university libraries of the Punjab, Pakistan.
The use of digital technology in universities of Pakistan is the phenomenon of 1980s
when automation was introduced and several libraries were computerised during and
after 1987. The Netherlands Library Development Project (NLDP) with the
collaboration of Pakistan Library Association (PLA) proved very helpful for
developing computerisation culture in Pakistan by providing hardware, software,
IT literature and training (Mahmood, 1999; Ramzan and Singh, 2009). Lahore
University of Management Sciences (LUMS) is considered as the ﬁrst university
library that took automation initiative in real sense with INMAGIC software
(Riaz, 1990). However, a survey of 23 university libraries in Pakistan, conducted by
Khalid (1998) showed limited application and use of technology for various library
activities and functions (namely, cataloging, acquisition, serial control, circulation,
bibliographic services, indexing and abstracting services). Haider (2004) also reported
limited application of computer technology in university libraries of Pakistan. At
present, various library management softwares like Virtua, LIMS, MLIMS, and Koha
are being used in Pakistani university libraries. Lack of uniformity and
standardisation in library software is also an issue (Shaﬁque and Mahmood, 2007).
A recent study by Ramzan and Singh (2009) about the status of information technology
application in 219 Pakistani academic and research libraries revealed a somewhat
encouraging situation as the majority of the respondent libraries had computers,
e-mail and internet facility with good bandwidth. Still, very few academic libraries are
fully automated. The study also reported lack of other technologies like CD/DVD
players, digital cameras, fax machines, microﬁlm readers and multimedia projectors in
several libraries. Very few libraries had their web OPACs and web sites. They
concluded that “the libraries are far behind to achieve excellent IT levels”.
needed for DRS
The importance of the internet technology for higher education is obvious. Keeping
this in view, the government of Pakistan has taken special steps for providing internet
connectivity to universities and other institutions of higher education through
Pakistan Education and Research Network (PERN). The research repository of Pakistan
is a far-reaching initiative of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to promote
international visibility of intellectual output of Pakistani institutes of higher education
by maintaining a digital archive of all indigenous PhD theses. These are considered a
valuable addition in promoting technological revolution and research culture at
university level in the country. The National Digital Library Program, also called HEC
digital library and other online resources were reported extensively useful and
comprehensive in several studies (Midrarullah and Shaﬁullah, 2011; Ramzan and Singh,
2009; Warraich and Ameen, 2008). Before the initiatives of HEC only 50 percent of
Pakistani university libraries had internet access (Saeed et al., 2000). Now almost all HEC
recognised universities have this facility. Various studies clearly state the increasing
tendency of internet availability and usage among university students for academic
purposes (Bashir et al., 2008; Malik and Mahmood, 2009; Mirza and Mahmood, 2009). All
the above situation has made university libraries to respond dynamically towards
catering for users’ needs in IT sophisticated environment.
However, the idea of applying digital technology in delivering RS is still at infancy
stage in Pakistan. A review of the HEC recognised university library web sites in the
region of Punjab indicates the limited presence of digital reference resources and
services in various libraries. A case study conducted by Saddique (2006) partially
explored the technological aspects of RS provided by the Information Resource Centre
(IRC) at the University of the Punjab Library. Naseer and Siddique (2008) have explored
the challenges and opportunities in delivering library and information services in digital
age in terms of collection development, preservation and retrieval of digital resources,
ﬁnancial management and trained manpower. Among a number of opportunities
provided by the digital era, online document delivery, digital resources, library software,
OPAC and real time services are also included. Another study on web-based library
services in the universities of Pakistan, by Mirza and Mahmood (2009), indicated a low
trend of delivering web-based services generally and reference and information services
particularly. Rehman and Mahmood (2010) has reported a less developed culture of
delivering RS through e-mail and other electronic means of communication due to the
lack of IT skills and professional knowledge on the part of librarians. Another study
conducted by Butt et al. (2011), regarding the access and use of the internet in
75 academic, special and public libraries of Lahore, reported somehow satisfactory
results as a good percentage of libraries have access to the internet. It is noticeable that
RS is one of the functions mostly performed by using internet as receiving and
answering queries, accessing reference sources, SDI, CAS, etc.
A recent survey of user perception and satisfaction with RS regarding collection,
resources, services and staff in university libraries of the Punjab, conducted by
Rehman et al. (2011), also examined the aspect of (e-mail and chat) DRSs. They also
mentioned the informative, helpful and easy to use library web pages as a good source
of e-RSs. After seeking suggestions from the respondents, they strongly recommended
the initiation of ICT based DRS to satisfy users effectively in the information age.
So this study is an attempt to check the current status of ICT infrastructure necessary
for designing and developing DRS in university libraries of Pakistan.
The emergence of modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) has
revolutionised functions and services of libraries. These technologies have removed
the barriers of time and space in reference and information services in libraries.
Keeping in view the importance of digital technology in RS it was pertinent to conduct
an exploratory survey of university libraries in the Punjab to ﬁnd out what was the
current status of ICT infrastructure necessary for providing an effective DRS and what
types of DRS were already being provided. This study was an attempt to ﬁll a gap in
the local literature on the topic and provide baseline information to design and
implement DRS in academic libraries.
Following particular research questions were set for this study:
RQ1. What is the current status of ICT infrastructure vital for providing DRS in
university libraries of the Punjab?
RQ2. Do the libraries have any general and reference collection in electronic
RQ3. Which delivery channels do these libraries use for digital/non-digital
Research design and procedure
This exploratory study used survey method for data collection. A questionnaire was
designed on the basis of literature review. It was worded to achieve an ofﬁcial
organisational response (as opposed to individual response). The instrument included
the variables mentioned in research questions. For ensuring the content validity of the
data collection instrument some senior well known LIS professionals of national level
were requested to comment on a draft of the questionnaire. In the light of experts’
opinions necessary modiﬁcations were made to the draft.
University libraries of the Punjab province (n¼40) recognized by the HEC were
identiﬁed as targeted population. A list of universities was prepared from the HEC web
site. The questionnaire was distributed through post and e-mail. To ensure better
response the mailing was augmented by follow-up telephone calls and personal visits
to some institutions. One university did not have any central library. The researchers
were able to get questionnaires ﬁlled from 38 universities out of 39 with the response
rate of 97 percent. Among 38 participating university libraries 18 were from public
(government) sector while 20 belonged to private sector.
Results and discussion
The participating libraries were asked to provide information about various items in
ICT infrastructure necessary for designing and implementing an effective DRS.
The results are given in Table I. Computers are absolutely a fundamental tool for
this purpose. All libraries had this facility. A large number of libraries had their own
network servers (74 percent). Computers at 36 libraries were attached to each
other through local area network (LAN). All libraries had internet connectivity.
needed for DRS
These results are very encouraging as compared with that of the previous surveys of
university libraries in Pakistan. There were only 50 percent university libraries with
the internet facility 12 years before (Saeed et al., 2000). With these equipment and
accessibility many libraries can start online RS. However, the results are somewhat
similar with the study of Butt et al. (2011), which reported more internet access and
usage in academic libraries among others.
Cell phone technology as a source of instant interaction in the triangle of users,
librarians and library hasa great possibility of enhancing and improving library functions
and services. Short message service (SMS) is being used as an opportunity for creating
awareness among library users about new arrivals and upcoming events. Broadcast
facility is also available where one text message is sent to all contacts at once. University
libraries are one of the leading users of this technology as the young generation is much
more habitualand feel comfortable with this quick communication technology. IM canbe
used as a signiﬁcant feature of DRS. That is why there is an increasing trend of using
mobile technology in delivering library RSs in the world. 11 libraries in this study had
ofﬁcial connections of cell phones. The present results are similar to the study conducted
by Iwhiwhu et al. (2010) at the Delta State University Library to explore the prospects of
delivering library services through cell phone.
Fax machine is another speedy way of delivering documents from one place to
another. Only 11 libraries had this facility. Image scanners are useful for document
delivery to the distant library users. A large majority of the participants owned this
facility (76 percent).
Data regarding the availability of OPAC and library web sites do not present a good
picture. They were inadequate as many libraries were without them. A study of
219 academic and research libraries in Pakistan, conducted by Ramzan and
Singh (2009), reported the same situation about these two facilities.
Library collection in electronic format
The libraries provided information about collections they had in electronic format.
They owned electronic books and journals as well as had online access to them for their
users (Table II). CD-ROM is an electronic storage and retrieval medium based on laser
technology. During the 1990s a rapid growth had been witnessed in this technology.
32 libraries had books in this format. DVD is another optical storage medium. It is
Items Frequency %
Computer 38 100
Server 28 74
Ofﬁcial cell phone 11 29
Fax machine 11 29
Image scanner 29 76
Printer 37 97
Internet connectivity 38 100
Local area network (LAN) 36 95
Library web site 26 68
OPAC 21 55
Libraries with ICT
comparatively new with huge storage capacity. Half of the libraries had their
collections in this format.
Online resources, especially access to online databases having research journals, are
becoming popular in developing countries. In Pakista n, the HEC has launched a National
Digital Library Program that provides access to over 20,000, high quality, peer reviewed
online journals, 45,000 online books, British library document delivery service and other
open access resources. The data illustrate that the HEC databases were available to all
university libraries. Although the HEC has provided a wide range of resources yet there
is a need of subscribing more online resources speciﬁc to the need and genre of
universities to facilitate library users, e.g. EBSCO. A few libraries also subscribed to
e-journal and e-book databases other than the HEC digital library. Six libraries
purchased some e-books and copied to their hard drives for their users.
Reference collection in electronic format
Reference material is usually deﬁned as the type of material intended to be referred
or consulted within the premises of library. The reference material includes
dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, directories, yearbook, atlases, maps,
theses/dissertation, etc. The respondent libraries mentioned various type of reference
material available with them in digital format (Table III). Many libraries owned
Type of reference sources Frequency %
Dictionaries 26 68
Theses/dissertations 21 55
Encyclopedias 21 55
Handbooks 18 47
Abstracts 16 42
Directories 16 42
Yearbooks 15 40
Atlases 15 40
Statistical sources 14 37
Guidebooks 14 37
Maps 14 37
Indexes 12 32
Bibliographies 12 32
Almanacs 10 27
Government documents 8 22
Gazetteers 7 18
in electronic format
Collection Frequency %
Books on CD 32 84
Books on DVD 19 50
Access to HEC digital library 38 100
Subscribed e-journals databases 8 21
Subscribed e-book databases 7 18
E-books on hard-drive 6 100
Libraries with collection
in electronic format
needed for DRS
some type of digital reference sources. Availability of these sources is a good sign
for designing an effective DRS.
Delivery channels for reference transactions
The study inquired about the traditional as well as modern delivery channels being
currently used by university libraries for reference transactions. The respondents were
provided with ten choices on a four-point rating scale (i.e. 1 – not at all, 2 – to little
extent, 3 – to moderate extent, 4 – to great extent). The descriptive statistics,
presented in Table IV, show that most of the libraries were using face to face delivery
channel for providing RS (with the highest mean score of 3.32). The use of telephone
and e-mail as delivery channels was rated by the respondents to moderate extent with
the mean scores of 2.87 and 2.71, respectively. Other digital channels like IM and fax
were used to little extent. Use of social media and chatting for RS were almost
non-existent in university libraries. The data indicates that culture of providing RS
through traditional face to face method was still prevailing in most of the libraries
while modern means of communication like e-mail and IM were being adopted but at a
This study found that the ICT infrastructure was better than before but the overall
state of affairs still requires serious attention for designing and implementing
sophisticated RSs. Although all university libraries had computers, the internet
facility, and LANs, the situation of OPACs and library web sites is the murky area that
needs to be improved on urgent basis. The collection development policies in libraries
should consider the incorporation of electronic reference sources (i.e. CDs, DVDs and
online databases) as they are quick sources for providing RSs. Electronic means of
communication like e-mail, chatting and IM should be incorporated for delivering
better RSs. An awareness campaign regarding the beneﬁts and techniques of DRS is
needed to be planned for librarians at pre- and in-service training levels. Professional
library associations, library schools, vendors of ICTs, and other institutions working
for the development of libraries such as the Federal Department of Libraries, HEC, and
Punjab Library Foundation may join hands to promote state of the art technology in
academic libraries of Pakistan.
Rank Delivery channel Mean SD
1 Face to face 3.32 0.99
2 Telephone 2.87 1.17
3 E-mail 2.71 1.21
4 Post/courier 1.92 0.94
5 Instant messaging 1.82 1.04
6 E-mail discussion group 1.74 1.03
7 Fax 1.71 0.87
8 Facebook 1.55 0.95
9 Chatting 1.39 0.72
10 Twitter 1.24 0.54
Delivery channels for
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Amara Malik can be contacted at: email@example.com
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