Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Use of Virtual Reference Services in Academic Libraries

This paper summarizes the major research regarding users and use of virtual reference services at academic libraries. While the most recent research focuses on live synchronistic reference services, older papers analyzing online reference via e-mail and web forms are included. Issues surrounding the technology, users and question types are compared to give the reader a basic understanding of what has been studied and where the research may be going. The author argues that demographic and technological influences must be included in future research if the data is to be applicable to user studies.


Academic libraries, virtual reference, electronic mail, online computing, chat reference, digital reference services

Scope Note

This paper summarizes the major research done at academic libraries regarding use of their virtual reference services. While the most recent research focuses on live synchronistic virtual reference services (popularly known as chat reference), it is necessary to include articles that discuss asynchronistic online reference via e-mail and web forms as well. General studies on the usage of virtual reference services are summarized first, followed by several examples of more specific questions being tackled by recent research. This review is limited to articles published in English.


While use of correspondence through the postal service and conversations on the telephone are two traditional ways patrons have used library resources from a distance, the adaptation of computer technology to meet similar inquiries has been adopted by librarians much faster than by the populations they serve. However,while the amount of practical literature on virtual reference services in public and academic libraries is vast, research articles make up a much smaller portion of the literature and are characterized by researchers, staff, and patrons who are just beginning to understand the appeal, and challenges, of offering such a service (Lankes 2004 p. 2-3).

Some questions are repeated throughout the research: Is the number of virtual reference questions asked less than anticipated because students unaware of the services offered by virtual reference or convinced that if the information is available (especially online) they should find it without assistance? Is the service offered appropriate for user systems or do technological barriers to access exist? What types of limits are placed on questions, what questions are asked, and what questions cannot be answered in a virtual environment? Who uses virtual reference and what trends will librarians encounter in the future of this service?

While the earliest studies of virtual reference services raised and addressed these questions with various successes, the overall tone of the literature is of a general nature where both practitioners and users are exploring the area for the first time. Only more recent research has been able to take on more specific questions such as how the placement of links to the virtual reference service affects usage (Broughton 2003, Dee and Allen 2006).

However all of these questions may never have adequate answers as technology, and access to it continues to change the information landscape. Lankes (2004) proposed the “central research question indigital referencee” might be “How can human expertise be effectively aefficiently incorporatedted into information systems to answer user questions?” (p. 2), In this vast uncharted territory, focusingthe humanuman element in formal librarian mediated information exchange onlmay somedayeday provide answers for not only patrons, but researchers as well.

Research influences

Much of the available literature on virtual reference services is skewed in favor of the practical rather than the analytical, but practitioner experiences in the adoptation of virtual reference services have had a strong impact on the reasearch literature that is available. Some influential sources include Sara RyanÂ’s 1996 article Reference Service forInternet Communityunity that traces the developmentof remote reference services in libraries along with some of the challenges that were witnessed in the start up days of the Internet Public Library, Bernie SloanÂ’s online list of Digital Reference Resources(last updated in 2004), and Stephen FrancoeurÂ’s An Analytical Survey of Online Chat Reference Services (2001).

Sensing the lack of direction in virtual reference research published through the beginning of the twenty-first century, a symposium was held at Harvard University in 2002 in an attempt to define digital reference and to propose a central research question “to outline a research agenda centered on how the exploration of digital reference relates to other fields of inquiry” (Lankes 2004). Lankes identifies seven areas of “what is currently known and searched for in digital reference research” (p. 32): policy, instruction, systems,assumptions, question components, behavior, and evaluation. Yet the gap betweenthe symposium and the results being published two years later shows one of themany challenges traditional information paths in academia are confronting inthe digital environment. However, his framework may be looked to in identifying patterns in the literature when technology and users of academic virtual reference services have changed drastically in the past decade.

Early Virtual Reference Research

One of the earliest studies on virtual reference was an examination of electronic mail reference in three college libraries by Bushallow-Wilber, DeVinney, and Whitcombin 1996. Using questions submitted between January 1993 and June 1994, Bushallow-Wilber etal. sought to answer who used the system, what questions were asked, whenthe questions were transmitted, from where, and whether the users preferred e-mail over inquiries in person, telephone, or mail. While the authors were surprised to discover how many e-mail reference questions were transmitted when reference desks were open for both in-person question and telephone questions”,technological limitations of the early 90s such as not having e-mail access from home may have contributed to these results (1996).The authors attributed this phenomenon not to problems of technology ownership on college campuses, but poor marketing by relying on word of mouth to bring users to the service (Bushallow-Wilbur et al. 1996).
The incidental demographic data on the academic populations surveyed during theseearly days of virtual reference may be of greater interest to current and future research than the results of produced during the rapid changes in personal computing in the 1990s. For instance, Vander Meer,Fravel, Poole, and Van Valey (1997) estimated that in 1994 less than two-thirds of the faculty at Western Michigan University had access to electronic library resources from their departments and “were frustrated thatthey could not use wordprocessing [sic] in the library nor connect to databasesusing personal laptop computers while conducting research.” Instantaneous communication with a librarian via a personal computer must have been a far off idea to some faculty in 1994 when not using computer technology was even anoption to researchers. Furthermore, nearly ten years ago the authors predictedelectronic publishing would some day be necessary to further one’s career, a point that is still being debated rather than integrated into academia today. The impact computing would have on communication across all populations, not just in academia, was just starting to emerge as a scientific question, although researchers had little idea of just what to look for in drawing conclusions regarding computer users.

In 1999 Joseph Janes, David Carter, and Patricia Memmottsurveyed a random sample of 150 academic libraries and found that although half offered digital reference services by e-mail or web forms, none offered further services despite the availability of chat and video technologies (p. 148). The survey was carried out by librarians and advanced students at the University of Michigan, and each person had a limit of five minutes to locate a digital reference“digitalreference service” from the libraryÂ’s homepage (p. 146). One might assume that the subjects seeking the information for the survey were a bit more advanced than the general student and faculty who would use such services if offered (p. 146). Yet,whether by chance of their sample or the timing of the study, the tide wasabout to change in academic libraries in offering real time reference services;just two years later, Stephen Francoeur was able toidentify over one hundred academic libraries offering chat reference to their users in his Analytical Survey ofChat Reference Services (2001).
As technology improved, library researchers were beginning to see the limits of current services in what question types were being asked; yet they were not always visionaries in imagining what might improve their services. To try to better understand what kinds of questions virtual reference librarians were being asked, Diamond and Pease (2001) categorized questions received at California State University’s e-mail reference service over a twoyear period from August 1997 to May 1999. They noted, “there is no current consensus among libraries regarding the kinds of questions that are acceptable”(p. 212). Particularly difficult were the tech support questions the librarians answered which “can become unwieldy to [answer] using solely e-mail technology”but they did not elaborate on whether real-time virtual assistance might makeup for this instruction that “is fairly easy to provide…in person” (p. 213).
Yet even when services were limited to e-mail exchange, changes in both computer technology and patron’s comfort level were eventually noted. When Powell andBradigan (2001) reviewed five years worth of data from the e-mail referenceservices at the Ohio State University John. A. Prior Health Science Libraryfrom 1995 to 2000 they observed, “In recent years, some correspondence patronshave noted their e-mail addresses in letters, and many phone patrons have beenable to supply email addresses when asked.” The innovations in online reference including faster computer searching and easier dissemination of results also influenced librarypolicy: “As the technology available at the reference desk became moresophisticated and the electronic resources more comprehensive, librarians foundit easier and quicker to provide more extensive services to e-mail patrons thanthe official policy stated to be appropriate. (Powell &Bradigan 2001)” Because of the reduced cost of providing electronic searching, the library almost completely eliminated fee-based mediated searching for members of the campus community (Powell &Bradigan 2001).
Chat Services
Just as Francoeur (2001) published a record of the explosion of chat reference into virtual reference services in both public andacademic libraries, researchers began incorporating chat reference into their studies of virtual reference services. One difficulty in analyzing these studies however, lies in the fact that many libraries continue to offer e-mail service 24/7 while chat reference is often available for only a small portionof these hours.
A comparison of e-mail and chat reference usage wascreated by Marsteller and Neuhaus (2001) using datafrom seven months of a real-time virtual reference start up at Carnegie Mellon University in late 2000. Usability begins to come into play as the chat service saw an increase in e-mail questions when link to service was placed on front page (Marsteller& Neuhaus 2001). Here thelibrarians start to lament lack of visual or auditory clues and the time spenttyping as challenges to their comfort in providing virtual reference services,although they begin to explore the idea that the anonymity of online communication is seen as a benefit by some users (Marsteller& Neuhaus 2001).
BernieSloan (2001) had the opportunity to study a service thatwas available 24/7. The Ready For Reference pilot project was “a collaborative24x7 live reference service being piloted by eight academic libraries in the Alliance Library System in Illinois” (Sloan 2001). With nolimits on when questions could be asked toof theve librarian, less than half oft he questions were received during regular business hours and “more than twothirds of the users came form non-campus providers” (Sloan2001) The number of off campus users presents a new problem for satisfaction and usefulness of academic virtual reference services,authentication to ensure access to the reference service and proprietary databases the library subscribes to (Sloan 2001).
Inthe rush to provide real-time chat reference services, some libraries have implemented using popular chat software (such as AOL’s Instant Messenger orMicrosoft Network’s Messenger) although features are sacrificed in exchange forfamiliarity to patrons (Foley 2002). In Foley’s 2002 studyof General Libraries of the University at Buffalo began to observe what may be a trend towards the popularity of chat reference with younger users; she found that 70% of the users of chat reference were students between the ages of 18-25 (Foley 2002). While previous studies on virtual reference assumed the service would be most popular to people who could not make it to the actual library for service, Foley was surprised to note that a large number of userswere on campus (2002). Here a particular difficulty of documenting and researching this new field emerges, the lack of a cohesive vocabulary for describing services, as the study notes 69% of the on campus users were using computers inthe undefined “cybrary” (Foley 2002). Was this a computerin the library or a different type of library-like information center? Again,librarians expressed anxiety over lack of verbal and facial cues (p. 43), seemed more concern with delays than patrons (p. 43) and received negative feedback mostly from patrons who tried to access the service when it was closed (Foley 2002).
Kibbee, Ward and Ma (2002) studied a start up of auniversity virtual reference service that used more sophisticated software thatallowed for librarians to “push” pages to users, a service they found madeproviding such services much easier than reading off urls over the phone or assistingpatrons investigations via e-mail. Although instruction in using onlineservices was easier in this forum, the authors stated, “use of the service forinstruction rather than information requires a paradigm shift in the primaryintent of the service” (2002). Like Marstellerand Neuhaus (2001), Kibbee et al. found that thelocation of the link to the service made a big difference in promoting use, andthat multiple links showed that patrons used the service direction from thelibrary homepage and “relatively high use of the service form the onlinecatalog.” (2002). Kibbee et al.predicted that better software with co-browsing capabilities would alleviatethe challenge of providing bibliographic instruction online instead ofencouraging patrons to come into the library for help (2002).
Co-browsingwas available in software used by Ware, Fennewald, Moyo, andProbst (2003). Ware et al. again found that the virtualreference service saw most of its use from younger users, where 82% of theusers were undergraduates and 90% found the service easy to use and would useit again (p. 287). Issues surrounding providing onlineinstruction using the databases was frequent, as 24% of the questions wereregarding technical support to access online resources (p. 289). Librarians said they wereoffering instruction as often in virtual reference as face to face, feltpressure to speed up transactions in the virtual environment, and “keyboard skills were also noted as asignificant factor in achieving a level of comfort with chat communication (p. 292). Here thecombination of librarian and patron comfort with virtual reference servicesbegins to emerge, as the librarians concluded they could recruit more librariansto help with the service in the future by emphasizing “how much fun it is (whenit works)” (p. 293).
Tenyears of computer services becoming integrated into academic life are evidentwhen Broughton (2003) writes the students she studiedare” very much your stereotypical mid-western college student. Many of themhave high-speed access to the Internet on their own computers or computers verynearby” (p.185). As with other studies conducted inthe past four years, a large number of users were undergraduates (74%)(p.189). A particular weakness of this study is that 49%questions were categorized as “other”, where the researchers were “unable to construct any othermeaningful breakdown of this large set of extremely diverse questions” but didnot elaborate further despite discussing other studies breakdown of the othercategory (Sloan 2001, Marsteller andNeuhaus 2001, Kibbee et al. 2002). Also noted “students do access theservice at their point of need, and links embedded through a library’s website,OPAC, and proprietary databases will increase use. (p. 194).Unlike other studies that assumed their users were remote, Broughton found that32% of users were off campus, 40% on campus, and 28% in library (p. 195). Again, the users are very satisfied with theservice, which left the researcher wondering “Why does it seem that users areso satisfied with this service compared to what we know from prior researchabout their satisfaction with service at the reference desk?” (p. 199).
Specific and Live: New Research and ServiceTrends
Asvirtual reference services and the research supporting them matures, morespecific studies may begin to emerge from the stabilization of software,services, user and librarian skills. Mining older data for trends may be oneway studies may be useful even as the services age. Marstellerand Mizzy (2003) examined Carnegie Mellon’s chat service transcripts fromOctober 2000 to September 2001 to “examine the perception in the library communitythat the synchronous digital reference environment is not suitable forconducting a reference interview.” (p. 159). They found evidence thatreference interviews were occurring 64% of the time and that most patrons foundthe interactions favorable (p. 157). Whether ornot this is due in part to librarians and patrons, and people in general,becoming more comfortable communicating online is not elaborated on. Theresearchers do suggest a common categorization for question types would behelpful in standardizing the research, and that it would be helpful to know howthe patron feels about the interaction, such as if they are satisfied with the“pace of the dialog” and “Is the patron impatiently waiting for a response orare they multitasking? (p. 160).”Acknowledgement of such modern online behavior patterns is one area where manyresearchers seem to have missed out on answering questions that would trulyhelp librarians understand their virtual patrons.
Furtherstudies focusing on question types again show fractured categorization schemes
Suchas an Australian study by Lee (2004) that shows concernsdown under are not very different from American counterparts, but containedmarked differences in both marketing toward postgraduate and off campusstudents (p. 97), populations that were not heavy users inrecent American studies, and comparing chat and e-mail services as a continuumin virtual reference offerings. Analyzing the question types he found e-mail users asked a “higherproportion of administrative questions” and chat inquires had a “highproportion of reference and research questions” (p. 104)Assuming the marketing efforts reached their target demographic,Lee referred to “students” throughout the paper although service open toall and offered no breakdown of preferences by age or other demographicinformation. Although he sees a potential of services continuing to offer helpas technology becomes more advanced, perhaps offering voice operated technologyto better assist patrons and librarians, “academic libraries may we be victims of their own success, having beensuccessful in teaching end user searching to an increasingly informationliterate generation who have grown up with Goggle” (p. 109).
Another recent study focusing on question types is2005 De Groote, Dorsch, Collard, and Sherrer (2005). De Groote et al.analyzed what questions were asked in their university’s virtual referenceservice to see if one virtual reference desk could serve as a contact point forvarious libraries on campus. The authors included a review of what types ofquestions were asked at other universities who had conducted studies of virtualreference questions going back to Bushwallow-Wilbur in1996. While they noted the length of each study, they did not attempt toincorporate technology trends that may have effected the results, such as whattype of internet access users had, what users (or questions) were welcomed byeach service, or what features the chat services offered to both librarians andusers. Furthermore, there was no standard set of categories for questions withlibraries choosing between four to eleven categories of question types rangingfrom subject area to tech support. Interestingly enough, DeGrooteet al. noticed the high percentages of non-subject area specific questionsas evidence that one virtual reference desk should be sufficient to answer themajority of the questions, with subject experts answering only questions thatrequire their expertise (p. 440). This study also noticed that undergraduatestudents “showed a clear preference for chat” and this “might be attributed toa generational culture attuned to mobile communication and instant messaging. (p. 449)” Thismight be interpreted as a significant change from Bushallow-Wilbur’sstudy more than ten years earlier when undergraduates accounted for less than7% of users of the virtual reference service via e-mail (1996).Acknowledging the influence of the next generation of library shows just howtechnology and users changed since the practice of virtual reference hasentered the academic library.
Asidefrom analyzing specific question types, research in the usability of siof theayprovide data worthy of research. As several researchers noticed placement ofthe link to the virtual reference service made a difference in the number ofquestions received, Dee and Allen (2006) published “A Survey of the Usability of DigitalReference Services on Academic Health Science Library Web Sites” where acontrol group of information science students explored the web sites ofselected university libraries to rate how easily links to online help werefound. Using a combination of an online worksheet, a print copy of atwenty-question survey, an online response sheet survey, and data generated bya proxy server recording the student’s navigational path. Studies such as thiscombining computer generated data as well as users rating their search success,with or without the mediation of a librarian, may be necessary to fullyunderstand why students and faculty choose to use (or not use) the assistanceof a virtual reference librarian in an academic setting.

Future Research
Questions of access and technologytrends must be incorporated into the research to fully understand who usesvirtual reference services and why. As virtual reference continues to gainground, information on technology ownership and access may be incorporated intothe research. Not only are librarians no longer bound to their desks and bookcollections, but also information seekers are no longer tethered to phone linesfor Internet access or landlines for telephone access. Virtual reference research may need topay more attention to the adoptation of technology in the population at largeas well as the specific populations sought for study. Also, as users becomemore aware of privacy and security issues on the internet, researchers must balancethese concerns with data mining techniques that may undermine users faith inthe privacy and anonymity offered by accessing virtual reference help. Also given the high number ofcirculation and technical questions, incorporation of the expertise of circulationstaff, computer services, and database vendors; after all, who better to giveinstructional assistance than the people who convinced the library the studentswould use their product?

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