Virtual reference can be provided by individual libraries or by library consortia, which can ease the staffing and cost burden for an individual library, but which can also result in other problems. Information on both these options is provided below, in addition to information on who besides reference librarians might need to get involved in virtual reference service.
Consortial staffing of virtual reference (VR) allows multiple libraries in a system to offer reference service with more hours than can be offered locally; software can be purchased and maintained centrally; more subject specialists may be available for referrals, and these shared responsibilities all result in financial savings.
Overview: Types of collaborations
Within a regional library system
Within a state
Within a consortium
Vendor consortia (QuestionPoint.org; Library H3lp.com, etc.)
- Examples: below is a list of virtual reference services provided by consortia to examine.
- Research Help Now (Michigan)
- Ask Us 24/7 (New York)
- Maryland Ask Us Now
- Ask WA (Washington)
- Ask Academic
- AskALibrarian.org: the Human Search Engine (Florida)
- Ask A Librarian (Ontario Council of University Libraries)
- KnowItNow (Ohio)
- Answerland (Oregon)
- Benefits of collaborative virtual reference:
- Increased availability, after hours staffing. Some consortia, like QuestionPoint and LibraryH3lp, make reference service available 24/7.
- Shared staffing - local librarians staff the consortial system only a few hours per week, but their users get the benefit for many more hours in a week, as much as 24/7
- Possible cost savings (group subscriptions to software reduce annual costs for individual libraries).
- Different languages may be offered.
- Some VR systems provide service to patrons with visual impairment (InfoEyes)
- Collaboration on questions may result in better answers (larger group of subject specialists to which to refer); consortial service users may have access to a broader range of resources than what is available locally.
- Challenges in collaborative virtual reference:
- Lack of institutional or local knowledge
- Keeping standardized set of expectations
- Quality assurance
- Difficult to standardize training for all locations
- Vendor-hosted software available to consortia may not allow customizations needed for local environments
Local Staffing: Many institutions offer virtual reference on their own, using commercially-available systems like LibAnswers, LibraryH3lp, or QuestionPoint. Issues to consider with this type of service are discussed below.
- Some libraries have moved from consortial staffing to staffing their VR service locally
- Case study: Mississippi State University Libraries moved away from participating in a consortium to providing a local chat service “to maintain quality control over chat transactions while building relationships with faculty and students across campus” (Powers et al., 169)
- Staffing VR services while at the reference desk has been a model for many libraries when first implementing VR. However, in many cases it has been found to be impossible to serve VR patrons with the same level of service when trying to also help face-to-face and phone patrons.
- Case study: Washington State University (Nicol and Crook, 161-168)
- Email and chat reference was done from desk early on with VR being treated as an “add-on” service
- VR was given a low priority by most staff.
- VR was not a centralized service; it was done separately from individual libraries on campus.
- Demand for VR was increasing, however at a considerably higher rate than face-to-face reference
- The library consolidated VR services and scheduled librarians to do VR away from the reference desk
- Increased number of librarians were dedicated to VR
- Support given to librarians and staff to see VR as an important, alternate way of providing reference service, and to give it the same priority as other types of reference service
- Access Services - to easily answer questions on circulation policies, fines, ILL, and user accounts, staff from access services could also be available on the VR service, to be able to refer appropriate questions to them.
- Distance Learning services on campuses - to answer questions related to online course software, etc.
- Information officer - for help with what metadata to include for statistics gathering
- Marketing - for help with marketing the VR service