Skill 1. Conduct an Effective Reference Interview

Skill 1.  Ability to conduct an effective reference interview in online environments (chat, instant messaging, email, SMS/text, etc.).

This competency area includes:

  • being aware of the need to establish a professional relationship with the online user. (for example, one should project a professional presence while understanding the need to engage the user at a human level, in a cordial and conversational style.)
  • projecting a presence that is poised to convey interest and availability, while acknowledging others waiting for service in a timely fashion. This skill area includes the ability to work with multiple users.
  • maintaining "word contact" with the user by sending written or prepared prompts to indicate process and interest.
  • providing explanations in a clear manner without judgment and unnecessary jargon; rephrasing the question or request; using open-ended questions, etc.
  • knowing when to refer to another librarian or another department.
  • infusing instructional techniques in the response where appropriate; assisting users in applying critical thinking skills in locating, using and evaluating information.

As is true of in-person reference service, communication in virtual reference is vital. Staff can know all the nuances of information resources and be expert searchers, but it will matter very little if they fail to understand the patrons'  true needs or if they can not explain themselves clearly. When helping an online patron, staff will not be able to use facial expressions, tone, gestures, or posture to help convey meaning. More importantly, they will not be able to gather visual cues to ascertain whether a patron is understanding them. In the absence of non-verbal communication staff must rely on excellent reference interview strategies to convey information and check for understanding, while establishing a rapport with each individual user.

We offer some examples how one might achieve this competency:

  • Practice, observe, review. Practicing service provision in an online environment is the best method to experiment and to develop effective reference interview skills. Observation of experienced online service providers can provide a wealth of information, while offering an opportunity to discuss strategies with a colleague. Reviewing transcripts can inform and improve personal practice. Self-reflection is an important step for this competency area.
  • Seek a guide. Work on a regular basis with a virtual reference service buddy or mentor to practice until one's skill level/comfort level reached. Again, having an opportunity to discuss strategies and to gage improvement with a colleague can be helpful.
  • Role play. Role play with a colleague, each serving as the virtual reference service provider and patron. In addition, one could use a consumer-based service (for example, online technical support or customer service) to better understand online service from the user’s perspective.
  • Read. Read reports about Internet use, about communication technologies, etc. (for example, there are several important reports of interest to libraries from OCLC and Pew Research Center). Read research studies about online library users, their habits, their preferences, etc.


"Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers," Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), accessed August 28, 2013,

"Infopeople Workshop - Reference Interview Skills," Infopeople, accessed August 28, 2013,

Kovacs, Diane, Virtual Reference Handbook: Interview and Information Delivery Techniques for the Chat and E-Mail Environments (New York : Neal-Schuman, 2007).

"Module 2. Interview: Ohio Reference Excellence (ORE)," Ohio Library Council, updated June 2008, accessed August 28, 2013,

"Virtual Reference Bibliography," Rutgers School of Communication and Information, accessed August 28, 2013,


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