Prepared by Anne Kish
Updated: November 23, 2016
For LIBM 464: Reference Resources
We’ve already studied the ALA’s Reference and User Services
Association (RUSA) guidelines for behavioral performance of
Reference and Information Service Providers, and we know the 5
guidelines like the backs of our hands.
1. Visibility / Approachability
BUT, HOW DO THE 5 GUIDELINES
APPLY TO VIRTUAL REFERENCE?
Not all School Library Media Centers provide virtual
reference services, but they all may soon enough, so this is
as good a time as any to consider the possibilities.
Virtual reference services in the School Library Media
Center are new enough that there isn’t a lot of quantitative
data on best practices, but here are some ideas…
1. Visibility / Approachability
Think about what works best for you in your everyday interactions with your
students or peers. How do you normally communicate? Are you all
business? Are you a joker? Whoever you are, try to be yourself
when you speak with students online. Your
personality should come across so that the
students feel like they are talking with you –
their trusted librarian!
Most of you are truly interested in answering reference questions. If
you are truly interested and you are comfortable communicating
online, the students will perceive your interest even if they can’t quite
see you nodding and smiling at your monitor.
The one thing that will almost guarantee that a student will think that
you are disinterested is failing to reply to questions promptly. If you’ve
taken an online class where the instructor is pokey about feedback, you
know what I mean. So, reply as quickly as you can. On your website,
clearly post a timeline for responses so that students can know when
they can expect your responses. If you need 2 full weekdays to respond
to questions, then state that. (That is a reasonable turn-around time).
I sing the praises of virtual reference, but I will never dispute that an in-person
reference transaction is far easier. The instant feedback and the body language
are the most useful aspects of the in-person reference transaction.
Other than boosting your comfort level with online communication, how can
you facilitate an online reference interview? It is fine to ask a clarifying
question and wait for a response, but if you are using email, that may increase
turn-around time and lower user satisfaction. If you have a “submit an email
question” type of service, try to provide more than just one box for the user.
Provide a big box for the question, but also come up with a list of other
questions that the user must fill out before submitting. Some examples, “What
is your assignment? What class is this assignment for?” “What grade are you
in?” “What have you already read about the topic?” The more background info
that you have about the assignment and the student, the better your answer
will be .
It has become impossible to keep up with all of
the available resources.
Sometimes you’ll know what
the perfect resource is to use to
answer a question. Other times,
you’ll be frustrated when
you can’t find
that perfect resource.
4. Searching Continued
A few ideas…
1. When searching for online information in a chat forum, ask the students where they
have already looked so that you don’t waste time duplicating their efforts.
2. Instead of trying to keep up with everything, commit to regularly reviewing 2 or 3
resources to learn about new reference sites. School Library Journal is a good bet.
There are a lot of good ideas being shared on Wired Montana and you will probably
need to monitor that listserve anyway.
3. When working online with a student, cobrowse when possible. Tell the student what
site you are exploring and quickly send them the link so that they can see where you
are. Some virtual reference software allows for automatic cobrowsing. The librarian
selects cobrowse and the patron is automatically brought along on the journey.
Again, this is tougher in a virtual environment because you
can’t see the look of satisfaction or the look of confusion on
the student’s face.
Ask the students if they understand and if they have any
questions. Let them know how they can get back in touch
with you when they think of their questions later. If you
feel like you need a face-to-face meeting with the student,
set that up.
End by thanking them for using the virtual reference
service! Smiley faces are nice
Don’t expect your first virtual reference transaction
to be your best work – it won’t be.
As more virtual reference is implemented in
schools, research will become available to help
guide us to provide better virtual reference services
and to help us set best practices.
Perhaps you will be a virtual reference pioneer at
I served as a virtual reference librarian for the “Ask-A-Montana-Librarian
Service” for a number of years until it was discontinued. Librarians from
around the state took weekly 2-hour shifts at the virtual reference desk. It
sounded like a great idea and the MT legislature contributed funding for it, but
eventually they cut that funding and rightly so. Despite hefty marketing
initiatives, it just wasn’t well-used. Why peer-to-peer VR services became so
wildly popular at the same time that a librarian-staffed VR service flopped is
an interesting thing to think about.
The MT state legislature didn’t give up entirely on VR and in 2011 they funded
Homework MT , which was a subscription service geared to K-12 students. It
was well-used, and outsourcing VR to a corporation worked better than the
service provided by our state-wide collaboration of librarians.
In 2015, the Homework MT service was discontinued because it was funded by
the State Library through coal tax severance monies, which decreased suddenly
and substantially. Right now, there is not a state-wide virtual reference service.
You could be wondering why I posted this in SlideShare instead of in
It’s just because I want you to see this wonderful free space where you
too could easily post things for your students to read.
Maybe you want to create instructions for your students for accessing
library resources from off-campus, but you don’t have server space or
your IT person has other ideas. You could use SlideShare. I don’t know
what applications you’ll find for SlideShare, but it can be one more tool
in your toolbox.
RUSA Board. (2013). Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference
and Information Service Providers. Retrieved
Purcell, Kristin; Rainie, Lee; Heaps, Alan, et.al. (2012). How Teens do
research in the digital world. Retrieved from