Trends reflection – the rise of virtual reference services

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    • #799
      Stacey Larner

      The reference service has a long tradition and provides varied levels of help to library patrons. My first encounter with reference services was during my PhD in 2002, when I sought the help from the QUT Creative Industries liaison librarian. I was having trouble coming up with excellent resources for my literature review, and after hearing how the library could help I booked in for a reference interview. The librarian asked me all sorts of questions, and it showed me the vagueness of my central topic. Through her questioning we were able to get right into the heart of the matter and she found some brilliant resources for me to borrow (and request via ILL). I have, however, been an avoider of the help desk, including the virtual reference service. I would rather find the information myself, and have anxiety around wasting people’s time.

      Use of virtual reference, however, is increasing. This has brought about a change in reference services. Patrons, especially in an academic setting, require more flexible delivery and access modes, and virtual reference attempts to meet those needs. It may also alleviate “fear of reference“. Some libraries may collaborate to offer 24/7 virtual reference and others, (such as QUT), offer extended VR chat hours (7am – 10pm in semester two, 2015) and an email service for out of hours enquiries. On the surface, there may be concerns that virtual reference will replace the traditional reference desk but from my (admittedly limited) experience working in both virtual reference and physical help desk the kinds of issues that form the bulk of queries seem to be different for each service. A criticism of VR is that it is more inefficient than face to face, however it seems to depend on the query. A simple question about citation style is just as easily answered online, and indeed may actually be more efficient, because the librarian can provide links that can be bookmarked by the patron that can referred to in future. Inability to access on online journal would be an issue understandably more likely to result in a VR chat than a physical help desk visit. For external or online students virtual reference is a way of increasing equality of access to library reference services.

      It would be difficult to reach the level of engagement I experienced my in 2002 reference interview online, however, and some of the kinds of directional queries encountered on the physical help desk would be trickier to explain in virtual reference too. Having stood behind the help desk and watched people hesitate to approach (as I have done in the past) and then been the one to initiate contact underscores for me that physical reference provides a different kind of (useful) interaction, and one I think is incredibly valuable in reassuring library patrons that librarians are there to help them.

      As a trend, virtual reference is definitely becoming more popular among patrons yet will never completely replace the physical reference desk. Instead, the two formats will complement and support each other and enable more patrons to meet their information needs effectively.


    • #932
      Lisa Schofeld

      Great points Stacey, I have been a distance ed student for many years and would have benefited from better virtual reference service than I have experienced personally. I think you are right on point that there are benefits for Virtual Referencing however face to face is sometimes still the best avenue and that as you say they can work to ‘complement’ each other. As a full-time worker it’s very difficult for me to access a face to face reference service as most of my study is completed in the evenings after hours. I think there is room for improvement and online support services have come a long way from when I first started study at university many years ago.

    • #934
      Stacey Larner

      Absolutely. I imagine a face to face skype reference service would assist distance learners to access the same kinds of reference interviews on-campus learners benefit from.

    • #941
      Shannon Franzway

      I do like the sound of a Skype reference service.  As an external student I’ve used the QUT virtual reference service a couple of times and I’ve had to really think about how I’m writing  my question to make sure the librarian understands what I’m looking for – there’s a lot to be said for face-to-face communication and the body language that can help get a message across (yes, I’m a big hand talker!!)

    • #996

      I really liked your post Stacey – it made me feel that my fear of wasting people’s time wasn’t limited to me alone! I find virtual reference service at the QUT library really helpful for that reason and certainly, as an online student for part of the time. However, as you say, there are times when a face to face interview cannot be replaced – I think the nuances are quite different and different messages can be relayed and received in person, especially when you are “stuck”. So it would definitely be comforting to think that the the 2 services could exist side by side. Let’s hope so!

    • #1020
      Sarah Ross

      Really interesting reflection and I suppose it sort of mirrors the discussion around e-books v. paper books.  I think the two can be relevant just as the two services should be.

    • #1199
      Caitlin .

      Hi Stacey,

      This is all very relevant and resonates with me as long time distance learner. I have never used a face to face reference service even though I live in a University town and always commenced my search using subject guides or references at the end of journal article.Its interesting the anxiety around asking for help in this way and clearly the skills required are not something many of us bring to the beginning of our studies.  I agree with Robynne that the two services should hopefully exist side by side, perhaps the online world can help demystify the face to face services and give more users the tools or courage to seek the assistance they need.

      In a world so full of information its the tools to navigate or the need of people to acquire these tools that make reference services relevant. The more information available sometimes the harder it is to find what you need.


    • #1988
      Samantha Maddox

      Interesting post. I like how you can reflect back on you own anxieties in regards to approaching the reference desk and now you are the one extending your hand (advice) to those who are not quite sure what they are asking for. As someone who has the same anxieties this is the first semester that i have embraced the online reference enquiry and it is great. The response is immediate and they are so helpful, thanks for being part of this and alleviating the anxiety 🙂

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