Ask a librarian: The rise of virtual reference services

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    • #890
      Katherine Lee

      While reference services were pronounced “dead” at the start of the digital age and with the emergence of Google, libraries have  proved their resilience and evolutionary qualities by adopting technologies that allow them to provide references services in an online environment. Libraries are making use of both synchronous technologies, such as instant messaging, and asynchronous technologies, such as email, to meet their clients in the new digital space. While referred to as “virtual” reference, these services have encouraged real user-librarian interaction and added to libraries’ community value.

      These services have been popular with patrons as they allow clients to quickly and directly interact with a librarian to resolve their research or technological problems without physically entering a library. For academic libraries with a large number of external students, having a virtual reference service is essential to ensure that online students have access to the same support for their studies as their on-campus colleagues. Furthermore, virtual reference allows public libraries to reach users who live and work in geographically remote locations and are unable to physically access the library’s reference services.

      In addition to providing benefits to library users, the transcripts of virtual reference chats and email inquiries can be used by librarians to collect important data about the accessibility of their services and gaps in their clients’ knowledge. After undertaking an analysis of reference chat transcripts, librarians from Louisiana State University Library identified that a large number of the questions asked during chat sessions related to operational aspects of the library (such as how to return or borrow books), which was already provided on the library’s website. As a result, the LSU library decided to review the design of their website to make the library’s borrowing and returning policies easier for students to find and to provide further training to students in using the online catalogue. This data makes it easier for librarians to monitor the relevance and responsiveness of the library to their clients’ needs to ensure that their services are valuable to patrons.

      While being widely adopted by academic and public libraries, instant messaging services are less common in small and special libraries. While many special libraries offer asynchronous reference services to their internal clients, it is not feasible to provide instant messaging services. This is due to the smaller client base of these libraries and lack of resources. For example, the McGoogan Library of Medicine chose to discontinue its chat service due to high cost, inefficient technology and a lack of demand for the service from their clients. The findings from McGoogan Library of Medicine’s study indicate that chat services work best in large libraries that provide reference services across a number of different subject areas and have a large client and staff base.

      Virtual reference services have emerged as an effective way of enhancing librarian-client interaction in the digital age and libraries’ value in the community. Digital reference services are invaluable as they allow librarians to provide the same level of reference services online as in person. While generally only large public and academic libraries currently have the resources to provide instant messaging services, asynchronous technologies, such as email, are being used by small and special libraries to meet the reference needs of their clients.

    • #988
      Kate McKelliget

      Hi Katherine! Thanks for your great post. I enjoyed your post because it made me reflect on my own. I spoke in depth about the importance of in-class library lessons/services. This post reminded me, as you stated, that in fact many tertiary students are external. While I believe, out classes at QUT have created an exceptional solution for external students (real time, mediated lectures and new recordings each week) there are certainly many universities that do not yet provide this solution. I realise now, that in-class library lessons still may exclude many people!


      I particularly like your comment ‘libraries have proved their resilience and evolutionary qualities by adopting technologies that allow them to provide reference services in an online environment’. A lot of the literature speaks in a negative tone about how libraries are not evolving quickly enough, especially in the area of reference. It seems that many libraries are doing much better than they are given credit for. This seems particularly potent in your example of the McGoogan library. It seems that many libraries are at least trying to evolve, even though it may take many attempts to get to the perfect form (by which time, they most likely need to start evolving again).

    • #1012
      Katherine Lee

      Thanks for your insightful comment Kate. You made my reflection sound much better than it actually was!

      I agree with you that in-class library lessons and services are definitely still important. Sometimes nothing can beat being physically in a class room interacting with a librarian and other students, particularly with more complex referencing or research questions. I do feel that academic libraries are now in a strange situation where they are having to deal with a new kind of student who is physically remote to them. It can be difficult to get the resources and services to them, but I think that libraries are trying their best to come up with solutions.

      I also think  with special libraries, it’s not just a matter of not having enough resources and funds but also a lack of demand from patrons. From doing some work in a law library I found that there is not as great a demand for technological innovation from the patrons because they much prefer to use print resources. The culture of the law library was very different to academic libraries, which tend to place more emphasis on the library as a learning space, and was much more traditional. Depending on the patrons, it may not be necessary to adopt the latest innovation in library services.

    • #1052
      Deborah Fuller

      Hi Katherine, I enjoyed reading your post. It was interesting the Law Library where you worked still operates in a more traditional way, I imagine as law often relies upon precedents that print books are still heavily relied upon. I often see lawyers and their assistants carrying reams of paper and books when I am walking past the courts. I agree that virtual reference services, level the playing field for external students. I studied externally about 20 years ago and I really struggled to get access to resources, eventually having to subscribe to a medical database at significant expense.

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