A new player has entered the burgeoning field of virtual reference support. divine, Inc., a relative newcomer to the information industry, has announced that it will start marketing divine Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) software built around divine NetAgent, its customer interaction management software. Currently, the University of Florida's RefeXpress service for students and faculty uses the package, having originally used NetAgent when it was produced by eShare Communications, a company now owned by divine.
The divine Virtual Reference Desk package includes full chat and collaboration capabilities, a proprietary chat proxy server, e-mail reference support, a librarian-to-librarian instant messenger, session transfer, reference session transcripts, an FAQ repository or knowledge base facility, multilingual support, and extensive reporting. From a single screen, reference librarians can co-browse Web sites with clients and assist them in filling out forms. The proprietary chat proxy server eliminates difficulties in cookie sharing or database authentication. The FAQ repository can encompass staff-selected resources or information as well as record question/answer pairs from past reference transactions. At this point the system does not support direct use of the FAQ knowledge base by library patrons; it only does so as part of a librarian-assisted transaction. Teresa Gudger, divine's product manager for VRD, indicated however that some clients in library consortia have shared access to knowledge bases among members.
Users can license Virtual Reference Desk as a locally managed, licensed software product or as a Web-hosted solution by divine. The local software option only runs under Microsoft Windows NT or 2000. Since universities and academic institutions constitute a primary market for this service, I asked Gudger how divine handled the problem of alternative platforms in use at academic computing centers. She explained that the cost of the hardware had dropped to the point at which people could afford a purchase, but also pointed out that most users let divine host the Web version of the service.
In total, the divine NetAgent software now has over 450 installations in enterprise organizations. Gudger explained that originally most clients for the service came from the financial, telecom, and e-retailer fields. However, over the last year the company has refocused its marketing strategy.
"We have learned that our bread and butter comes in stable institutions like universities, academe, and libraries, and have made a commitment to those arenas," said Gudger. This past June, the staff at divine even took temporary pay cuts while the company re-oriented its marketing plans and business strategies. Library consortia constitute another target for sales, according to Gudger.
Pricing for the divine Virtual Reference Desk starts at under $500 per simultaneous librarian user for ASP implementation. A typical licensed configuration, installed at the client's site, could run from $20,000 to $50,000, according to a divine spokesperson. The price encompasses training, installation, configuration, documentation, support, and maintenance.
Founded in 1999, divine provides enterprise solutions through professional services, software, and business systems. It has targeted middle market firms, government agencies, and educational institutions. The company has followed a vigorous acquisition policy, buying such concerns as eShare Communications and the assets of Northern Light, among many others.
Gudger explained that the eShare version of NetAgent in use at the University of Florida had been enhanced by related software components from divine (an outbound predictive dialer and content server). Clients may choose which components of the package they will need, according to Gudger. For example, some may not need the content server. Although the system will support collaboration, unlike the new QuestionPoint software offered by OCLC and the Library of Congress, divine's Virtual Reference Desk does not assume collaboration. Gudger said that divine has found this aspect "a selling point. People don't want to purchase what they don't need or displace what they already have."
I spoke with Carol Turner, director for public services at the University of Florida's library system. She indicated that usage for RefeXpress was on the rise. In the first 6 months of this year, the service received 1,100 questions, almost as many as it had in all of 2001. RefeXpress operates under limited hours and is not 24/7 by any means. Turner said that she and her colleagues now serve on committees set up by the Association of Southeast Research Libraries to investigate options for collaboration. They prefer the NetAgent software to QuestionPoint because of its strong chat interaction features—unlike the earlier Library of Congress service's emphasis on reference service through e-mail.
Virtual reference is clearly a hot field. As I write this, an announcement appeared in the mail that SIRSI, a leading library automation vendor, has partnered with LSSI, a leading library outsourcing and system vendor, to incorporate LSSI's Virtual Reference Toolkit into its product line. If vendor offerings are any indication, it appears that providing online service is fast on its way to becoming a standard component of any respectable library reference service.