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What Is Virtual Reference?

Virtual reference, also known as chat, online or e-reference, can mean several different things:

  • Provision of reference service via email , instant messenger or text messenger services;
  • Posting research guidance materials on websites ;
  • Implementation of virtual reference software application to allow advanced reference interaction with patrons;
  • Cooperative reference service in which consortia of libraries pool their reference staffs to provide 24/7 reference service at all institutions;
  • Creation of virtual libraries to support public researchers.

Virtual reference has been around since the early days of the Internet . Librarians hoped it would allow them to reintroduce valuable reference interview techniques back in online exchanges with patrons, something that the time lags in email made difficult.

Originally, librarians used instant messaging software for this service, but saw potential in commercial sales support programs that developed as more companies sold products online. The software vendors also saw the potential in the library market and began adapting their software applications to the specific requirements of libraries.

Large public and academic libraries embraced virtual reference as a means of reaching their Gen X and Y patrons who lived online, as evidenced by dropping foot traffic statistics. Special and private libraries have not jumped on the VR bandwagon, preferring to serve their patrons through internal technologies, including email and phone calls.

Why Should Firm Librarians Consider Virtual Reference Software

As with most technology, virtual reference software is hardly plug-and-play. Doing so guarantees failure. Implementation requires assessment, planning, new and revised policies and practices, training, marketing, and reassessment. In other words, a glorious opportunity to transform a library's reference service and staff, even if that library ultimately decides not to purchase a single new piece of software or hardware. Equally important, libraries that consider virtual reference can uncover the new or changed needs of their patrons in a systematic manner, which could lead to improvements in reference and other library services.

Within a library, exploring virtual reference creates the opportunity (or excuse) to :

  • Review process and quality of all current reference services;
  • Survey patrons to learn how they really use and view reference;
  • Define classes of reference questions and services;
  • Establish protocols for handling different classes of questions;
  • Refresh reference librarians' core reference competencies;
  • Standardize delivery of reference answers;
  • Improve collection of reference statistics;
  • Consider alternative work arrangements for library staff.

With respect to patrons, implementing or formalizing virtual reference empowers librarians to:

  • Maximize the existing physical library reference service by exporting it to remote users;
  • Provide full reference for attorneys in unstaffed locations;
  • Identify and patrons and create new patrons more proactively.


Google virtual reference and you'll get too many hits to process. We offer the following list of good links if you'd like to learn more about virtual reference quickly.

The Main Commercial Products Marketed to Libraries

Alternatives to Commercial Software Products

Case Studies

Test Drive Some VR Products

Read More About It

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