Virtual reference services are a type of library service that allows users to ask reference questions and receive assistance from librarians through online or digital channels, such as email, chat, or video conferencing. These services are designed to provide quick and convenient access to information resources and support to users who may not be able to visit a physical library or who prefer to seek help remotely.
According to Lankes (2008), Virtual reference is a 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, e-mail, and instant messaging.
Virtual reference services are typically staffed by trained librarians who can assist users with a wide range of information needs, such as finding books, articles, or other resources, answering research questions, and providing guidance on how to use library resources and services effectively. Some virtual reference services may also offer specialized support for specific subject areas, such as science, engineering, or business.
Virtual reference services have become increasingly important in the digital age as more and more users seek information and support through online channels. They can be a valuable tool for connecting users with the resources and expertise they need to succeed in their academic or personal pursuits.
There are several tools used for Virtual Reference Services, including:
- Chat software: Libraries can use chat software to provide real-time assistance to users. Some commonly used chat software includes LibAnswers, Springshare, and QuestionPoint.
- Email: Libraries can offer email reference services where users can send their questions and receive answers via email.
- Video conferencing software: Libraries can use video conferencing software like Zoom or Skype to provide face-to-face assistance to users remotely.
- Text messaging: Libraries can use text messaging services to provide quick and easy assistance to users via mobile devices.
- Social media: Libraries can use social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to offer virtual reference services to users.
- FAQ databases: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) databases can be created by libraries to provide users with self-help resources and answers to commonly asked questions.
Knowledge base software: Knowledge base software can be used by libraries to create a centralized repository of information that users can access anytime.
Importance of virtual reference services for academic library
Virtual reference services are important for academic libraries for several reasons:
Convenience and accessibility: Virtual reference services provide convenient and accessible support to students and faculty who may not be able to visit the library in person. This is particularly important for distance learners or those with busy schedules who require assistance outside of regular library hours.
Expanded reach: Virtual reference services can expand the reach of the library beyond its physical location, allowing it to serve a broader range of users, including those in remote or underserved areas.
- Enhance student success: By providing online access to reference and research services, academic libraries can help students develop their research skills, improve the quality of their work, and ultimately enhance their academic success.
Competitive advantage: Virtual reference services can help academic libraries remain competitive in a rapidly changing information landscape by offering cutting-edge resources and services that meet the changing needs of their users.
Overall, virtual reference services are a valuable tool for academic libraries seeking to provide high-quality support to their users, expand their reach, and remain competitive in a rapidly changing environment.
How to design virtual reference services in the library
Designing a virtual reference service in a library involves several key steps, including:
Identify user needs: Identify the needs of your library’s user community and determine what types of virtual reference services they would find most helpful. Conduct surveys focus groups or other forms of user research to gather insights into user needs and preferences.
- Choose appropriate tools: Determine which virtual reference tools will be most effective for your library’s user community. Consider the availability of software, resources, and staffing.
- Develop policies and procedures: Develop policies and procedures to govern the use of virtual reference services, including issues such as hours of operation, staffing, privacy, and security.
- Train staff: Train library staff on the use of virtual reference tools and ensure they are equipped with the skills and knowledge to provide high-quality assistance to users.
Promote services: Promote your virtual reference services through the library website, social media, and other channels. Ensure users are aware of the services offered and how to access them.
Monitor and evaluate services: Monitor and evaluate virtual reference services to determine their effectiveness and identify areas for improvement. Collect user feedback and regularly review statistics and metrics to ensure the service is meeting user needs and goals.
Designing a virtual reference service in a library requires careful planning, effective communication with users and staff, and ongoing evaluation to ensure that the service remains effective and meets the needs of the library’s user community.
Lankes, R. D. (2008). Virtual reference services: Virtual reference to participatory librarianship: Expanding the conversation. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 34(2), 11–14. https://doi.org/10.1002/bult.2008.1720340205