Sunday, January 28, 2007

Use of Virtual Reference Services in Academic Libraries

So today I hand coded this paper I wrote for INFO511 about the use of Virtual Reference Services in Academic Libraries. I've been meaning to put it up here but somewhere along the line Word made the html UGLY. Now, I'm NOT saying my html here is pretty, but it works.

Use of Virtual Reference Services in Academic Libraries

Scope Note
Non-Research Influences
Early Virtual Reference Research
Chat Services
New Research and Service Trends
Future Research


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 in digital reference” might be “How can human expertise be effectively and efficiently incorporated into information systems to answer user questions?” (p. 2), In this vast uncharted territory, focusing on the human element in formal librarian mediated information exchange online may someday provide answers for not only patrons, but researchers as well.

Non-Research Influences

Much of the available literature on virtual reference services is skewed in favor of the practical rather than the analytical, but practitioner arguments for the adoptation of virtual reference services have had a strong impact on the research literature that is available. Some influential sources include Sara Ryan’s 1996 article Reference Service for the Internet Community that traces the development of 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 Sloan’s online list of Digital Reference Resources (last updated in 2004), and Stephen Francoeur’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 between the symposium and the results being published two years later shows one of the many challenges traditional information paths in academia are confronting in the 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 Whitcomb in 1996. Using questions submitted between January 1993 and June 1994, Bushallow-Wilber et al. sought to answer who used the system, what questions were asked, when the 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 these early 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 that they could not use wordprocessing [sic] in the library nor connect to databases using 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 an option to researchers. Furthermore, nearly ten years ago the authors predicted electronic 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 Memmott surveyed 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 find a “digital reference service” from the library’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 was about to change in academic libraries in offering real time reference services; just two years later, Stephen Francoeur was able to identify over one hundred academic libraries offering some form of chat reference to their users in his Analytical Survey of Chat 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 two year 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 make up 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 and Bradigan (2001) reviewed five years worth of data from the e-mail reference services at the Ohio State University John. A. Prior Health Science Library from 1995 to 2000 they observed, “In recent years, some correspondence patrons have noted their e-mail addresses in letters, and many phone patrons have been able to supply email addresses when asked.” The innovations in online reference including faster computer searching and easier dissemination of results also influenced library policy: “As the technology available at the reference desk became more sophisticated and the electronic resources more comprehensive, librarians found it easier and quicker to provide more extensive services to e-mail patrons than the 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 and academic 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 portion of these hours.

A comparison of e-mail and chat reference usage was created by Marsteller and Neuhaus (2001) using data from 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 the librarians start to lament lack of visual or auditory clues and the time spent typing 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).

Bernie Sloan (2001) had the opportunity to study a service that was available 24/7. The Ready For Reference pilot project was “a collaborative 24x7 live reference service being piloted by eight academic libraries in the Alliance Library System in Illinois” (Sloan 2001). With no limits on when questions could be asked to a live librarian, less than half of the questions were received during regular business hours and “more than two thirds of the users came form non-campus providers” (Sloan 2001) 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).

In the rush to provide real-time chat reference services, some libraries have implemented using popular chat software (such as AOL’s Instant Messenger or Microsoft Network’s Messenger) although features are sacrificed in exchange for familiarity to patrons (Foley 2002). In Foley’s 2002 study of 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 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 users were 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 in the undefined “cybrary” (Foley 2002). Was this a computer in 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 a university virtual reference service that used more sophisticated software that allowed for librarians to “push” pages to users, a service they found made providing such services much easier than reading off urls over the phone or assisting patrons investigations via e-mail. Although instruction in using online services was easier in this forum, the authors stated, “use of the service for instruction rather than information requires a paradigm shift in the primary intent of the service” (2002). Like Marsteller and Neuhaus (2001), Kibbee et al. found that the location of the link to the service made a big difference in promoting use, and that multiple links showed that patrons used the service direction from the library homepage and “relatively high use of the service form the online catalog.” (2002). Kibbee et al. predicted that better software with co-browsing capabilities would alleviate the challenge of providing bibliographic instruction online instead of encouraging patrons to come into the library for help (2002).

Co-browsing was available in software used by Ware, Fennewald, Moyo, and Probst (2003). Ware et al. again found that the virtual reference service saw most of its use from younger users, where 82% of the users were undergraduates and 90% found the service easy to use and would use it again (p. 287). Issues surrounding providing online instruction using the databases was frequent, as 24% of the questions were regarding technical support to access online resources (p. 289). Librarians said they were offering instruction as often in virtual reference as face to face, felt pressure to speed up transactions in the virtual environment, and “keyboard skills were also noted as a significant factor in achieving a level of comfort with chat communication (p. 292). Here the combination of librarian and patron comfort with virtual reference services begins to emerge, as the librarians concluded they could recruit more librarians to help with the service in the future by emphasizing “how much fun it is (when it works)” (p. 293).

Ten years of computer services becoming integrated into academic life are evident when Broughton (2003) writes the students she studied are” very much your stereotypical mid-western college student. Many of them have high-speed access to the Internet on their own computers or computers very nearby” (p.185). As with other studies conducted in the 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 other meaningful breakdown of this large set of extremely diverse questions” but did not elaborate further despite discussing other studies breakdown of the other category (Sloan 2001, Marsteller and Neuhaus 2001, Kibbee et al. 2002). Also noted “students do access the service 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 that 32% of users were off campus, 40% on campus, and 28% in library (p. 195). Again, the users are very satisfied with the service, which left the researcher wondering “Why does it seem that users are so satisfied with this service compared to what we know from prior research about their satisfaction with service at the reference desk?” (p. 199).

New Research and Service Trends

As virtual reference services and the research supporting them matures, more specific studies may begin to emerge from the stabilization of software, services, user and librarian skills. Mining older data for trends may be one way studies may be useful even as the services age. Marsteller and Mizzy (2003) examined Carnegie Mellon’s chat service transcripts from October 2000 to September 2001 to “examine the perception in the library community that the synchronous digital reference environment is not suitable for conducting a reference interview.” (p. 159). They found evidence that reference interviews were occurring 64% of the time and that most patrons found the interactions favorable (p. 157). Whether or not this is due in part to librarians and patrons, and people in general, becoming more comfortable communicating online is not elaborated on. The researchers do suggest a common categorization for question types would be helpful in standardizing the research, and that it would be helpful to know how the 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 or are they multitasking? (p. 160).” Acknowledgement of such modern online behavior patterns is one area where many researchers seem to have missed out on answering questions that would truly help librarians understand their virtual patrons.

Further studies focusing on question types again show fractured categorization schemes such as an Australian study by Lee (2004) that shows concerns down under are not very different from American counterparts, but contained marked differences in both marketing toward postgraduate and off campus students (p. 97), populations that were not heavy users in recent American studies, and comparing chat and e-mail services as a continuum in virtual reference offerings. Analyzing the question types he found e-mail users asked a “higher proportion of administrative questions” and chat inquires had a “high proportion 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 to all and offered no breakdown of preferences by age or other demographic information. Although he sees a potential of services continuing to offer help as technology becomes more advanced, perhaps offering voice operated technology to better assist patrons and librarians, “academic libraries may we be victims of their own success, having been successful in teaching end user searching to an increasingly information literate generation who have grown up with Goggle” (p. 109).

Another recent study focusing on question types is De Groote, Dorsch, Collard, and Sherrer's "Quantifying Cooperation: Collaborative Digital Reference Service in the Large Academic Library" (2005). De Groote et al. analyzed what questions were asked in their university’s virtual reference service to see if one virtual reference desk could serve as a contact point for various libraries on campus. The authors included a review of what types of questions were asked at other universities who had conducted studies of virtual reference questions going back to Bushallow-Wilbur in 1996. While they noted the length of each study, they did not attempt to incorporate technology trends that may have effected the results, such as what type of internet access users had, what users (or questions) were welcomed by each service, or what features the chat services offered to both librarians and users. Furthermore, there was no standard set of categories for questions with libraries choosing between four to eleven categories of question types ranging from subject area to tech support. Interestingly enough, DeGroote et al. noticed the high percentages of non-subject area specific questions as evidence that one virtual reference desk should be sufficient to answer the majority of the questions, with subject experts answering only questions that require their expertise (p. 440). This study also noticed that undergraduate students “showed a clear preference for chat” and this “might be attributed to a generational culture attuned to mobile communication and instant messaging. (p. 449)” This might be interpreted as a significant change from Bushallow-Wilbur’s study more than ten years earlier when undergraduates accounted for less than 7% of users of the virtual reference service via e-mail (1996). Acknowledging the influence of the next generation of library shows just how technology and users changed since the practice of virtual reference has entered the academic library.

Aside from analyzing specific question types, research in the usability of sites may provide data worthy of research. As several researchers noticed placement of the link to the virtual reference service made a difference in the number of questions received, Dee and Allen (2006) published “A Survey of the Usability of Digital Reference Services on Academic Health Science Library Web Sites” where a control group of information science students explored the web sites of selected university libraries to rate how easily links to online help were found. Using a combination of an online worksheet, a print copy of a twenty-question survey, an online response sheet survey, and data generated by a proxy server recording the student’s navigational path. Studies such as this combining computer generated data as well as users rating their search success, with or without the mediation of a librarian, may be necessary to fully understand why students and faculty choose to use (or not use) the assistance of a virtual reference librarian in an academic setting.

Future Research

Questions of access and technology trends must be incorporated into the research to fully understand who uses virtual reference services and why. As virtual reference continues to gain ground, information on technology ownership and access may be incorporated into the research. Not only are librarians no longer bound to their desks and book collections, but also information seekers are no longer tethered to phone lines for Internet access or landlines for telephone access. Virtual reference research may need to pay more attention to the adoptation of technology in the population at large as well as the specific populations sought for study. Also, as users become more aware of privacy and security issues on the internet, researchers must balance these concerns with data mining techniques that may undermine users faith in the privacy and anonymity offered by accessing virtual reference help. Also given the high number of circulation and technical questions, incorporation of the expertise of circulation staff, computer services, and database vendors; after all, who better to give instructional assistance than the people who convinced the library the students would use their product?


Broughton, K. M. (2002/2003). Usage and user analysis of a real-time digital reference service. The Reference Librarian, 38, 183-200.

Bushallow-Wilbur, L., DeVinney, G.S., Whitcomb, F. (1996). Electronic mail reference service: A study at the State University of New York Buffalo. RQ, 35, 359-363.

Dee, C., & Allen, M. (2006). A survey of the usability of digital reference services on academic health science library web sites. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32, 69-78.

DeGroote, S. L. , Dorsch, J. L., & Collard, S.(2005). Quantifying cooperation: Collaborative digital reference service in the large academic library. College & Research Libraries. 66, 436-454.

Diamond, W. and Pease, B. (2001). Digital reference; A case study of question types in an academic library. Reference Services Review, 29(3), 210-218.

Foley, M. (2002). Instant messaging reference in an academic library: A case study of the University of Buffalo. College & Research Libraries, 63, 36-45. Retrieved May 30, 2006 from HW Wilson Database.

Francoeur, S. (2000). An analytical survey of chat reference services. Reference Services Review, 29(3), 189-203.

Janes, J., Carter, D., & Memmott, P. (1999). Digital reference services in academic libraries. Reference and User Services Quarterly 39, 145-150. Retrieved May 18, 2006, from Thompson Gale Expanded Academic ASAP.

Kibbee, J, Ward, D., Ma, W. (2002). Virtual service, real data: Results of a pilot study. Reference Services Review, 30(1), Retrieved July 24, 2006, from ProQuest.

Lankes, R.D. (2004). The digital reference research agenda. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(4).

Lee, I. J. (2004). Do virtual reference librarians dream of digital reference questions?: A qualitative and quantitative analysis of email and chat reference. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 35, 95-110. Retrieved May 30, 2006 from Thomson Gale Expanded Academic ASAP.

Marsteller, M. & Mizzy, D. (2003). Exploring the synchronous digital reference interaction for query types, question negotiation, and patron response. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 8(1/2), 149-165.

Marsteller, M. & Neuhaus P. (2001).
The chat reference service at Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved August 10, 2006 from ""

Powell, C. A. & Bradigan, P. S. (2001). E-mail reference services: Characteristics and effects on overall reference services at an academic health science library. Reference & User Services Quarterly 41(2), 170-179. Retrieved August 16, 2006 from Thomson Gale Expanded Academic ASAP.

Ryan, S. (1996). Reference service for the internet community: A case study of the internet public library reference division, Library & Information Science Research, Volume 18(3), 241-259.

Sloan, B. (2001). Ready for reference: Academic libraries offer live web-based reference. Evaluating system use. Final report. Retrieved May 29, 2006 from ""

Sloan, B. (2004). Digital Reference Resources. Retrieved August 8, 2006 from

VanderMeer, P., Poole, H., & VanValey, T. (1997). Are library users also computer users? A survey of faculty and implications for services. Public Access Computer Systems Review, 8(1), 6-31. Retrieved May 25, 2006 from

Ware, S. A., Fennewald, J., & Moyo, L.M. (2002/2003). Ask a Penn State librarian, live: Virtual reference service at Penn State. The Reference Librarian. 79/80, 281-95.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

WorldCat Search Toolbar

Look over to the left. Not only have I added a search bar for you to see the nearest library that has the items you are looking for, but I have applied some 133t ski11z I learned in my web content class. You can also add library search to your search toolbar by downloading an extention from WorldCat.

Now I wish I had contact information for the patron who was very upset my library did not offer WorldCat access to patrons. Her wish has been granted.

Also, if you were interested in the 7" record database project I discussed in this previous post you can download the database I created at Collect 7 . Some of the data was made up at the last minute, but if you have any creative ideas for supporting the implimentation of this project I would be happy to clean it up. It is a Microsoft Access file.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

when the OPAC goes down...

Sometimes the OPAC does go down and people want to check out books, as illustrated in yesterday's Unshelved.

One temporary solution is to open up a Word document and scan the barcodes on the patron's card and books into Word. A savvy staff member may be able to write a macro to import these back into the database. If not, cutting and pasting from Word isn't so bad.

But if the power goes out and you have to handwrite everything? Another reason every library should have a laptop for staff to use. Plus you can carry it around the library when all the computers are in use and you need to train someone on database. I almost used my personal laptop for this reason, but I think the Mac would have confused some patrons.