Virtual Reference Service in United States School of Law Libraries: Its Challenges and the Way Forward — Olugbenga Ademodi
What is Virtual Reference?
According to the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) guidelines, “virtual reference” service is defined as follows:
|reference service initiated electronically, often in real–time, where patrons employ computers or other internet technology to communicate with reference staff without being physically present. Communication channels used frequently in virtual reference include chat, videoconferencing, Voice over IP, co–browsing, email, and instant messaging .|
Nicholas Joint also affirms the fact that virtual reference services include employing email through “mailto” links and online forms, as well as online chatting and other forms . Several terms are used to describe virtual reference. Some library literature terms it as “technologically–mediated reference, digital reference, electronic reference, remote reference and real–time reference” .
Kathleen Kern pointed out that the term virtual reference could mean any of a number of things such as “chat, videoconferencing, voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), co–browsing, e–mail and instant messaging” . She stated that there is the tendency of some to use the terms “digital reference” and “electronic reference” to refer to virtual reference . Virtual reference may be used to refer to video conferencing and videochats. This is to be distinguished from the traditional chat form of virtual reference which is a “two–way communication” that is also synchronous virtual communication via “communication chat software or IM” . The difference between chat and instant messaging relates to the specific software utilized. “Vendor–based chat” concerns virtual reference that is implemented through chat software commonly acquired through a vendor .
Virtual reference could be synchronous; that is, “a computer–mediated communication that appears in real time” . This includes chat, IM, and video conferencing. It could also be asynchronous virtual reference which is a “computer–mediated communication that is sent by one person and received at a different time by the recipient” . This includes e–mail and text. E–mail is the earliest form of virtual reference and is still the widest used form. E–mail reference allows relative anonymity which enables users to ask questions they may have avoided asking in person .
Virtual reference service could either be done individually by libraries or collaboratively. “Collaborative virtual reference” concerns “a joint venture between two or more libraries to offer a single or shared virtual reference service to their patrons” . In other words, a group of libraries works together to respond to the volume of questions. Libraries usually incur much of the cost of collaborative virtual reference .
1. “Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 44, no. 1 (2004): 9.
2. Nicholas Joint. “Virtual Reference, Second Life and Traditional Library Enquiry Services.” Library Review 57, no. 6 (2008): 417.
3. K. Nilsen, and C. S. Rose. “Evaluating Virtual Reference from the Users’ Perspective.” The Reference Librarian 95/96 (2006): 54.
4. M. Kathleen Kern. Virtual Reference Best Practices: Tailoring Services to Your Library. (Chicago: ALA, 2009), 1–3.
5. Ibid., 4.
6. Ibid., 2–4.
10. Ibid., chapters 1 & 2.
11. Ibid., 3.
12. L. Eakin, and J. Pomerantz. “Virtual Reference, Real Money: Modelling Costs in Virtual Reference Services.” Portal : Libraries and the Academy 9, no. 1 (2009): 134.