Live virtual reference service

In Uncategorized

aka: digital reference


Live virtual reference refers to reference transactions communicated over the internet rather than face-to-face or over the telephone. Common avenues of correspondence include e-mail, chat browsers, web messaging programs or bulletin boards. Virtual reference could be from a particular library branch to its specific patrons, from a particular site to a group of collaborating reference library sources or to the general public through a public website. (Reitz, 2004-06)


Live virtual reference began with inquirers emailing questions to reference librarians. E-mail was cheap and generally a very efficient way for users to ask questions without having to be present at their local branch. This has not maintained a stronghold in most libraries due to problems such as long waits for answers (usually 24-72 hours), the inability to perform a reference interview, and the elimination of the users’ involvement in the answering process (for example, there was no “teaching how to use the catalog”). (Coffman, 2003)


The next phase in digital reference was the use of “chat” such as AOL or Yahoo! instant messaging. This allowed librarians and inquirers to “talk” in real-time and share internet links. Though digital reference is far more complex than the typical chat room, it has been said that describing virtual reference as “chat” serves as a marketing tool for users in high school and college. (Pace, 2003) The earliest use of chat reference was in 1997 at State University of New York, Morrisville. (Coffman, 2003) The “Talk to a Librarian” feature is still in use and connects users with a SUNY, Morrisville academic librarian through AIM. (see )


The virtual reference service used in many libraries now, web contact center software, was originally implemented on online commercial sites such as L.L. Bean. These programs expanded upon chat in that they allowed “co-browsing” where the authority could take control over the inquirers’ web browser and lead him/her directly to the answer source. (Coffman, 2003) According to librarian Andrew Pace (2003):“Libraries should not only mimic the innovative services offered by internet companies, they should constantly position themselves to capitalize on the shortcoming of the very services they hope to emulate.” With this in mind, web contact center software most smoothly mirrored a face-to-face reference interaction, especially with its co-browsing and real-time chat. In 2001, the LOC and the Online Computer Library Center began a program called Questionpoint. The program is available by subscription on library websites and uses a live-chat sidebar adjacent to a web browser to enable page-pushing and co-browsing. The reference librarians involved are not necessarily from the location, rather they are routed through the LOC’s Global Reference Network. Therefore, local libraries manage reference systems collaboratively and have access to resources that are may not be provided at their local branch. Many libraries nation-wide utilize this service. (Pace, 2003)


Characteristics of a virtual reference librarian


  • Enthusiasm
  • Quick on her/his feet
  • Good customer service skills
  • Comfortable with technology
  • Knowledge of electronic resources

(Coffman 2003)

(compare to “Reference Librarian Traits/Characteristics”: (Richardson, 2006))





Library of Congress's "Ask a librarian..."

  • AAL includes link to "Virtual Reference Shelf" with links to online resources recommended by LOC and to "Virtual Programs and Services" with features such as webcasts and video conferencing.
  • It explicitly notes that Ask a Librarian will not help with areas such as, but not limited to, extensive bibliographies, answers for contests or school assignments, translations or family history research.
  • AAL encourages inquirers to visit their local library.


OCLC's Questionpoint program

  • In connection with privacy issues, Questionpoint has a 90-day retention policy for online question/answer transcripts.


Internet Public Library's "Ask a Question" service:

  • Prior to this program, IPL used the experimental virtual service "MOO" (Multi-user Object Orients environments) as their primary source of online reference from December 1995 to February 2000. (Coffman, 2003)
  • MOO is a text based virtual reality used in online gaming. It enabled users to enter a virtual room, much like a chat room, move around using commands such as “north” and “south” and ask questions in real time. It proved more complicated than originally anticipated due to the specific language and commands required and the lack of organized conversation in a room full of inquirers. (Coffman, 2003)
  • (for more information on the web about MOOs, visit or )



MARS: Best Free Reference Websites 2006

  • In 1976, ALA's Reference and User Services Association, RUSA, recognized the growing need for electronic reference resources and formed the Machine Assisted Reference Section, MARS.
  • MARS is very active in maintaining the relationship between libraries and technology, including virtual and online reference.
  • Their annual "best of" includes links to free, quality resources about topics ranging from cartoons to copy right law.


See Also

Lili Luo

Models of Reference Service

Neal Kaske

Reference Desk

Steve Coffman

Telephone Reference




ALA/RUSA/MARS. "Machine Assisted Reference Section." (2006) Retrieved November 12, 2006, from


Coffman, S. (2003) Going Live: Starting & Running a Virtual Reference Service. Chicago, American Library Association.


Internet Public Library. (1995-2006) Retrieved November 19, 2006 ,from and


Library of Congress. “Ask a Librarian...” Retrieved November 12, 2006, from


Place, A. (2003) The Ultimate Digital Library: Where the New Information Players Meet. Chicago, American Library Association.



Reitz, J. (2004-6). "Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science." Retrieved November 12, 2006, from and


Richardson, John V. Jr. “Reference Librarian Traits/Characteristics.” Retrieved November 12, 2006, from

Jacqueline Barry

MLIS student, UCLA 2006