Virtual Reference: A Librarian at your Fingertips?

The ALA defines virtual reference as reference services initiated electronically, where patrons employ computers or other technologies to communicate with reference staff, without having to be present at a library.  Virtual reference technologies may be synchronous or asynchronous and may include chat, video chat or conferencing, voice-over IP, co-browsing, instant messaging, SMS, online guides or tutorials, and email.  While virtual reference interviews may be conducted in real time, they may also take place in the form of emails or form request submissions.

Virtual reference services have a number of potential benefits for the library and for library patrons.  Virtual reference can reach out to patrons in and out of the library, invite new users to the library, and take the library to users.  It supports the need for real-time assistance, extends library service hours, and  may help library users learn how to find information for themselves.

The relative effectiveness of virtual reference may vary, depending upon the services provided as well as the degree of technological sophistication of library staff.  Training also plays a major role.  Virtual reference is different than face-to-face reference in a number of ways, and the skills required to conduct a successful reference interview may differ from those employed in a face-to-face scenario.

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I learned about Virtual Reference.  I learned about the various synchronous and asynchronous technologies that libraries use to provide remote reference services.  Some synchronous technologies include IM, SMS, chat, video conferencing, and traditional phone calls.  Asynchronous technologies include email, web-forms, and online guides or tutorials.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

A majority of libraries employ some type of virtual reference; many offer multiple types of virtual reference services.  I can use what I have learned—particularly the suggestions on how to provide better virtual reference services—to make sure that I know how to self-evaluate services that I provide in the future.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

Virtual reference relates directly to library work as it is a vital component of many libraries’ reference services.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

American Library Association.  (2016).  Virtual Reference: A Selected Annotated Bibliography: ALA Library Fact Sheet 19.  Retrieved from

Khobragade, A. y., & Lihitkar, S. s. (2016). Evaluation of Virtual Reference Service Provided by IIT Libraries: A Survey. DESIDOC Journal Of Library & Information Technology, 36(1), 23-28.

Schwartz, H. R., & Trott, B. b. (2014). The Application of RUSA Standards to the Virtual Reference Interview. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 54(1), 8-11.

Yang, S. Q., & Dalai, H. A. (2015). VIRTUAL REFERENCE: WHERE DO ACADEMIC LIBRARIES STAND?. Computers In Libraries, 35(4), 4-10 7p.


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