Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services

Prepared by the  MARS Digital Reference Guidelines Ad Hoc Committee , Reference and User Services Association, 2004. Approved by the RUSA Board of Directors June 2004.


Technological developments have affected not only the format and sources of the information libraries use to provide reference service, but also where we provide reference service. Libraries and their resources have partially moved to the virtual world of the Internet. As a result, library patrons can access our resources from outside of the physical library. In an effort to reach patrons accessing the library via their computers, many libraries and library consortia are extending their reference service to include virtual reference. Technology now allows users to submit their queries to the library at any time from any place in the world. Virtual reference is responsive to patrons’ need for convenient access to reference service.

The purpose of these guidelines is to assist libraries and consortia with implementing and maintaining virtual reference services. The guidelines are meant to provide direction, without being over- prescriptive. Variance among institutions will result in differences in the adherence to these guidelines, but the committee hopes to have cast the model broadly enough to provide a framework for virtual reference which can be widely adopted and which will endure through many changes in the ways in which libraries provide virtual reference services.

The committee first based these guidelines on the Bernie Sloan article, “Electronic reference services: Some suggested guidelines” which appeared in Reference and User Services Quarterly, Volume 38, Number 1, Summer 1998, p.77-81.

RUSA hopes the following guidelines will be useful to anyone attempting to formalize a virtual reference service.

1.    Definition of Virtual Reference

1.1    Virtual reference is 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.

1.2    While online sources are often utilized in provision of virtual reference, use of electronic sources in seeking answers is not of itself virtual reference.

1.3    Virtual reference queries are sometimes followed-up with telephone, fax, in-person and regular mail interactions, even though these modes of communication are not considered virtual.

2.    Preparing for Virtual Reference Services

2.1    Virtual reference should be undertaken with a view to the long-term integration of the service with the rest of the institution's reference services. Even at the planning or pilot phases, virtual reference should not be treated as an ad hoc service.

2.2    Administration should be aware of the staffing, start-up and maintenance costs involved in providing and marketing virtual reference and should be prepared to commit to long-term provision of resources.

2.3    Ideally, all levels of the institution's management should commit to supporting virtual reference before the service is formalized. As with any new service, total support from all members of management may not be possible; however, there should be a sufficient core of staff committed to providing a virtual reference service.

2.4    Representative members of the administration and reference library staff should be involved in planning, training, implementation, and promotion of virtual reference services and the selection of virtual reference software. Representative members of the target audience should be involved in planning and promotion of virtual reference.

2.5    Relevant computing staff should be involved in the planning, implementation, and maintenance of the infrastructure needed, and in the software selection and purchase decision, particularly with regard to compatibility with existing library software and infrastructure.

2.6    Virtual reference service should be a consideration in collection development decisions, selection of electronic reference sources, and especially licensing issues that might affect use of resources to serve off-site patrons.

2.7    Library staff and administration should facilitate regular assessment of the program's effectiveness and commit to adjustments as needed. Assessment should be comparable to the assessment of other reference services.

3    Provision of Service

3.1    Clientele

3.1.1    The library should define the patron population and publicize this policy on the service's Web site, or other places where patrons may access it.

3.1.2    Technical issues of patron authentication or proxy server login should be addressed as they apply to various groups within the patron population.

3.1.3    If there are persons excluded from this service by institutional policy, enforcement should be uniform.

3.1.4    Guidelines for appropriate behavior while using the service should be made available to patrons.

3.1.5    Marketing of the service should clearly define the target audience.

3.2    Parameters of Service

3.2.1    The level of service to be provided should be defined and announced, so that staff and patrons will understand the mission of the service. Level of service includes the types of questions the service will answer (perhaps easier to define in the negative), as well as the patron population the service will serve.

3.2.2    Guidelines should be established for determining which queries fall outside the parameters of service, and how to respond in those cases.

3.2.3    Before the service begins, it should be decided if document delivery will be included and whether patrons will be charged for document delivery.

3.2.4    Parameters of time should be determined and announced to both patrons and staff. For synchronous virtual reference, the times at which the service is staffed should be indicated. For asynchronous virtual reference, guidelines for how frequently queries will be checked, or how soon an initial response can be expected, should be given.

3.2.5    Internal and external links to the virtual reference service should be designed to catch the attention of potential patrons and to clearly communicate the nature of the service.

3.3    Service Behaviors

3.3.1    Virtual reference requires of library staff many of the same communication and interpersonal skills necessary for other forms of reference. The absence of a physically present patron and the different modes of communication may call for additional skills, effort, or training to provide quality service on par with face-to-face reference services.

3.3.2    Staff should exhibit the professional competencies essential for successful reference and patron services librarians, as articulated in RUSA’s “Professional Competencies for Reference and User Services Librarians.”

3.3.3     Standard guidelines of reference service (such as reference interviewing, exchange of questions between services, et al.) should prevail.

3.3.4     Staff should follow interpersonal communication practices that promote effective provision of reference service, as articulated in the RUSA "Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals."

3.3.5     Staff should be required to demonstrate skills in the effective use of online communication, as well as demonstrate awareness of the common potential problem areas when conducting reference interviews online, as compared to the face-to-face reference interview.

3.3.6     Initial and on-going training should be offered to help staff learn and retain these effective online behaviors.

3.3.7     Staff should treat patrons’ and colleagues’ online communication, including stored transcripts or records, as private and confidential.

3.4    Collaborative Virtual Reference

3.4.1    Some libraries may choose to provide virtual reference services collaboratively with other libraries, for various reasons including: to extend their hours of operation, to distribute staffing of the service across multiple libraries, to extend the expertise available, or to realize cost saving associated with economies of scale. Such collaboration may include working with virtual reference vendors, and/or participation in large regional or national collaborations.

3.4.2    Expectations for libraries participating in a collaborative service should be clearly defined before the local library commits to such a service.

3.4.3    Responsibility for centrally administering and coordinating the service should be clearly defined.

3.4.4    Each library should have a project liaison to represent the library in the group’s activities. Expectations for project liaison’s duties should be clearly stated.

3.4.5    Procedures for communications between and among participants should be clearly delineated.

3.4.6    Participating libraries should commit to a prescribed minimum level of service. For synchronous virtual reference, this level of service should be a set minimum number of service hours, based upon factors such as size of library or staff, patron population being served, budget, and extent of online reference service desired. For asynchronous virtual reference, this level of service should be a prescribed minimum number of questions to be handled or monitoring of the queue for specific blocks of time.

3.4.7    Scheduling of libraries' contributions to the service should be centrally administered. For synchronous virtual reference, each library should commit to specific blocks of time. Finding specific reference staff to fill these blocks of time should be the responsibility of the local library, and not that of the project director. For asynchronous virtual reference, participating libraries should commit to monitoring question queues for incoming questions in specific blocks of time.

3.4.8    The service should provide a central source of information on member library policies, operations, procedures, and regulations, so that it is simple for project reference staff to find information about other libraries.

3.4.9    The service should establish a clear set of guidelines for establishing priorities for service for patrons from the various libraries e.g., in a collaborative virtual reference service; questions are handled on a first-come-first-served basis, with no preference given to patrons from the on-duty staff’s own local library.

3.4.10    The service should establish clear policies and guidelines for using licensed online electronic resources to serve patrons from other participating libraries.

3.4.11    The service should establish clear policies and guidelines that effectively ensure patron privacy in a multi-library setting.

3.4.12    Observance of the NISO Question/Answer Transaction Protocol for transferring questions between services is encouraged.

4    Organization of Service

4.1    Integration of Virtual Reference Service

4.1.1    Virtual Reference is an extension of an institution’s existing reference services. While staffing models and the location of the service may be different from face-to-face reference services, it should be accorded the same status and quality goals and be viewed as a part of the larger service of reference.

4.1.2    All public services staff should have an awareness of the virtual reference service's goals and basic operation.

4.1.3    Procedures should be established for referring a virtual patron (question) to another reference or public services point. Procedures should include both how the referral is presented to the patron and how information about the referral is communicated between the virtual reference desk and referral destination.

4.2    Infrastructure/Facilities

4.2.1    It is a goal of all reference services to be of high quality. Integration of virtual reference into the mainstream of reference services implies that all services (in-person, telephone, and virtual) will be supported at a level to ensure quality service.

4.2.2    Each library should examine staffing models to determine one that is appropriate for their organization. While there is not a “one-size-fits-all” service model, a model should be chosen which would support quality reference interactions via all modes of communication.

4.2.3    Staff should be provided space, furnishings, hardware, and software to accomplish the mission agreed on by staff, administration, and technological support staff.

4.2.4    Equipment, facilities, and software should be updated as needed to maintain efficacy. Planning should take into account the continuing evolution of technology.

4.2.5    Awareness of the patrons' infrastructure and capabilities should be taken into account when planning library capabilities and choosing virtual reference software.

4.2.6    Technical set-up should take into consideration use of the supporting software by patrons and reference staff with disabilities. Some options include choosing software that complies with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, software with non-text options such as voice-over-IP, or providing text on the Web site that directs screen-readers to an email form or alternate contact information. 1

4.3    Finances

4.3.1    The library budget should include specific allocation of funds to cover the personnel, hardware, software, connectivity, furnishings, training, publicity, and space to support this service.

4.3.2    Planning should include ongoing budgeting even when the service is started as a pilot or with seed money from a grant.

4.3.3    Whether the service is to be free to the patron or fee-based should be determined before the service begins and modified as needed.

4.4    Personnel

4.4.1    Virtual reference service responsibilities should be shared among staff to ensure continuity of service.

4.4.2    When possible, staff should be trained for all reference services (face-to-face and virtual) to provide greater depth of knowledge and flexibility for staffing.

4.4.3    Library staff conducting virtual reference should be selected on the basis of ability, interest, and availability. Service behaviors as described in section 3.3 and skills to use the supporting technology need to be part of staff selection.

4.4.4    Staff should be provided time and resources for training and continuing education to ensure effective service.

4.5    Marketing

4.5.1    A marketing plan should be developed and implemented as part of the planning and on-going operation of the service.

4.5.2    A target audience or audiences for the virtual reference service should be determined and marketing should be appropriate to that audience. Members of the target audience should be included in the planning and evaluation of marketing.

4.5.3    There should be a budget for marketing and marketing should be assigned as a responsibility to a staff member or members.

4.5.4    Marketing should be routinely evaluated and updated to keep the message fresh and reach new audiences.

4.6    Evaluation and Improvement

4.6.1    A virtual reference service should be analyzed regularly, using input from staff and patrons, to evaluate its effectiveness and efficiency, with the goal of providing a high-quality service.

4.6.2    Evaluation may encompass many methods such as the analysis of usage statistics, patron feedback, and reviewing transcripts.

4.6.3    Evaluation of the virtual reference service should be equivalent to and part of a library’s regular evaluation of all its reference services.

4.6.4    Evaluation should be used to improve the service as needed through adjustment of staffing, levels of staffing, service parameters, training, or other improvements as indicated by evaluation and assessment results.

5.    Privacy

5.1    Virtual reference communications between patrons and library staff should be private except as required by law.

5.2    Data gathered and maintained for the purpose of evaluation should protect patrons' confidentiality.

5.2.1    It is recommended that patrons’ personal identifiers, such as name, e-mail, etc. be stripped from transaction records. Stripped records may be maintained for statistical and evaluative purposes.

5.2.2    Libraries need to develop retention schedules and privacy policies for their virtual reference transactions.

5.2.3    Patrons should be advised whether a record of the transaction will be retained, and what, if any, personal information will be stored with the transaction log.

5.2.4    Privacy policies and transcript retention schedules should be publicly available.

5.3    Reference transactions may be used in the creation of databases and FAQs but care should be taken to maintain the privacy of patrons and the confidentiality of patrons’ inquiries.

5.3.1    Beyond removal of patron identifiers, inclusion in a database should not compromise patron confidentiality, and this should be evaluated when choosing questions for inclusion in a database.

5.3.2    Patrons should be informed, through publicly available policy, that their questions might be included in a database. They should be provided a means to request removal of their inquiries from the database.

5.4    Data gathered and maintained for training purposes and for publicizing the service should also protect patron confidentiality.


1.    “Nondiscrimination under Federal grants and programs: Electronic and information technology,” Title 29 U.S. Code, Pt. 794d 2004 ed. [ Return to text ]


Reference and User Services Association. Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals. Approved by the RUSA Board of Directors, June 2004.

Reference and User Services Association. Professional Competencies for Reference and User Services Librarians. Approved by the RUSA Board of Directors, January 26, 2003.

Sloan, Bernie. Electronic reference services: Some suggested guidelines. Reference and Users Services Quarterly, 38(1), 77-81. Summer 1998. Electronic version, reproduced with the permission of the American Library Association.

The NISO Question/Answer Transaction Protocol is under development at this time. Information about this protocol is available at the NISO Committee AZ Web sites.

MARS Digital Reference Guidelines Ad Hoc Committee

John Glace
Kathleen Kern, co-chair
Lori Morse
Janice Rice
Jana Ronan
Bernie Sloan, co-chair
Kris Stacey-Bates