Skill 3. Create & Apply Reference Policies

Skill 3. Ability to create and apply reference policies and procedures in an online environment.

While reference service policies and procedures will generally translate easily to your virtual reference service, there are some special points for consideration. 

  • Mission Statement: Establishing a mission statement to define the purpose of your virtual reference service will provide focus in creating policies and procedures. It is essential to align policies and procedures with your overarching institution’s policies and current local, state, or federal laws.
  • Scope of Service: Determining the scope of service for your virtual reference service includes knowing which types of questions will be answered and what level of service will be provided. For example, will your virtual reference service answer genealogy questions? What level of instruction is expected and appropriate? Understanding the scope of service sets expectations and establishes efficiency in meeting patrons’ information needs.
  • Intended/Primary Audience: While brick-and-mortar libraries are typically available to the general public, many virtual reference services are scoped to suit the information needs of a specific audience, such as the students, faculty, and staff of the institution. This skill area includes an understanding of who is the intended or primary audience of your virtual reference service, knowing how to refer unaffiliated patrons to other services as appropriate, and handling questions outside the scope of your service. It may be important to understand virtual reference service policies of collaborating institutions, especially for referral purposes.
  • Confidentiality/Privacy: One of the most important aspects of this skill is adhering to the institution’s confidentiality and privacy policies, and communicating privacy guidelines to patrons.
  • Licensing/Access to Online Resources: With the trend toward providing library resources in a digital format, licensed content is likely to be shared with virtual reference patrons. This skill area reflects the ability to understand licensing restrictions of library resources and implications regarding copyright permissions, interlibrary loan, and non-affiliate access. Since access to online resources often requires authentication steps, the ability to clearly communicate these guidelines in virtual reference is critical.
  • Rude Patrons/Inappropriate Behavior/Abusers of Service: Just like any physical space where customer service happens, rude or inappropriate patrons will interact with library staff. This skill area should include a firm understanding of your library’s policy and procedures for working through rude, harassing, or inappropriate online behavior, including the knowledge of how to decline assistance to service abusers.
  • Patrons in Crisis: Virtual reference service providers may encounter patrons who declare themselves to be suicidal or in need of immediate medical attention. This skill area includes an ability to determine when the patron should be instructed to call 911 or should be referred to a suicide hotline.
  • Managerial/Administrative Roles:This skill area includes an understanding of managerial and administrative roles in overseeing and enforcing policies and procedures in the virtual reference service.


"24/7 Reference Cooperative Policies and Procedures," QuestionPoint, accessed August 12, 2013,

"Ask Us 24/7 Policies and Procedures," Ask Us 24/7, last modified April 2011, accessed August 12, 2013,

Hirko, Buff and Mary Bucher Ross. Virtual Reference Training: The Complete Guide to Providing Anytime, Anywhere Answers. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004. See esp. appendix E, "Policies and Procedures."

"Mutual Respect and Acceptable Behavior Policy," AskColorado, accessed August 12, 2013,

"Research Help Now (Michigan Virtual Reference Service Collaborative): Manual of Policies and Procedures," Research Help Now, accessed August 12, 2013,

Ronan, Jana Smith. Chat Reference: A Guide to Virtual Reference Services. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2003. See esp. chap. 8, "Guidelines and Policies for Reference in Real Time."

"Site Supervisor Manual for Ask Us 24/7," Ask Us 24/7, last modified June 2011, accessed August 12, 2013,

"Your Privacy," AskColorado, accessed August 12, 2013,


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