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Virtual Reference Services

General Guidelines

Many libraries provide some form of virtual reference service. Platforms include email, live chat, social media, instant messaging or texting. The same guidelines and steps used for in-person reference queries should be used for virtual reference transactions. During a live chat, library staff do not have the benefit of viewing the customer’s body language so it’s important that they keep them informed of what they are doing. For example, “I’m searching the catalogue to see if we have any material” or “I’m checking the eBook site to determine if we own that title”.

Approachability is also very important in a virtual setting. Instead of focusing on facial expression and body language, virtual approachability is based around design and language choices.

Specific Behaviors

  • Be friendly
  • Include an explanation of your search process or strategy in your response
  • Send non-scripted information in small pieces to help communication and reduce delay time
  • Try to let the patron know what you are doing approximately every minute, which ensures the patron does not feel abandoned
  • If you must be away from the transaction, send something for the patron to review or read until you return
  • Try to strike a balance between speed and professionalism when adapting to the patron’s comfort level with the software
  • Use correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization
  • Fully cite all sources quoted or used in responses
  • Type like you talk — conversationally
  • Use the patron’s name if they have provided it.
  • Avoid yes/no responses. These can be interpreted as cold and unfriendly.
  • Clarify confusing terminology and avoid excessive jargon.

Tips for Email Responses

  • Check email responses for consistency when multiple librarians work on different emails to insure patrons are being served equally.
  • Use clear and descriptive subject line entries.
  • Begin with a greeting to the user and identify the sender.
  • Library jargon and abbreviations should be avoided (e.g. ILL).
  • Spell out dates and commonly used words, avoiding web acronyms such as BTW.
  • Provide complete citations for both print and Internet resources.
  • Set off titles, URL’s, etc. on lines by themselves to make them stand out.
  • Avoid using capital letters unnecessarily.
  • Keep instructions simple and easy to follow.
  • Check your responses carefully for spelling and other errors and make sure they are complete and understandable.
  • If possible, identify the librarian who worked on a specific request with initials or another coding system but does not use full names.

Source: Ohio Library Council (The Reference Process)

User Standards

  • Ensure that the service is reachable by email or web-based forms
  • Questions should be addressed as quickly as possible
  • Provide users with an opportunity for clarification and follow-up
  • Services should provide for an effective reference interview so users can communicate the necessary information (e.g. grade level)
  • Offer answers or point to sources of information including the path to the sources of information (including keywords and processes)

Source:  A. Kasowitz, B. Bennett, R.D. Lankes, Quality Standards for Digital Reference Consortia, Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, Summer 2000, pp. 355-63.


The Application of RUSA Standards to the Virtual Reference Interview – Barry Trott, Howard R. Schwartz – Readily accessible information on how to use virtual reference services should be posted clearly on the library’s webpage, word contact with the patron needs to be maintained, the search strategy should be explained, and the ability for the patron to follow up should be given. These modifications of the traditional reference interview will result in a positive experience for the patron using the virtual reference format.

Quality Standards for Digital Reference Consortia – Abby Kasowitz; Blythe Bennett; R David Lankes Reference & User Services Quarterly; Summer 2000; 39, 4; Research Library pg. 355 – A set of 12 quality characteristics are defined for digital reference service. In addition, user standards are explored including ensuring that the service is reachable by email or a web based form.

RUSA Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services

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