Virtual Reference: A Selected Annotated Bibliography

ALA Library Fact Sheet 19

Definitions | Web Resources | Guidelines | Email Discussion Groups | Book Resources | Journal Articles | Vendors & Platforms

This fact sheet offers a selection of articles, web resources, and some vendor information that will provide an introduction to the issues to consider when considering implementing virtual reference services. The American Library Association cannot make specific product recommendations.

Also see the resources collected by this office at Virtual Reference on the ALA Professional Tips Wiki.

Librarians seeking information not included in these sources are referred to the Library Literature & Information Science Index.


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. (RUSA Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services, 2010)

Reference services requested and provided over the Internet, usually via e-mail, instant messaging ("chat"), or Web-based submission forms, usually answered by librarians in the reference department of a library, sometimes by the participants in a collaborative reference system serving more than one institution. Synonymous with chat reference, e-reference, online reference, real-time reference, and virtual reference. (ODLIS definition of Digital Reference)

Web Resources

ALA TechSource
Besides publishing in print and online the subscription publications Library Technology Reports, an evaluative guide to library systems and services, and Library Systems Newsletter, a monthly overview of the library automation marketplace, ALA TechSource has launched the ALA TechSource Blog, which, as mentioned in its initial entry, "aims to provide its subscribers with insightful and pertinent news about, and commentary on, technology related to and used in the library field."

Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki
This website offers online resources put together by librarians including software suggestions, lists of libraries using specific types of virtual reference, blogs to watch, and links to additional resources for IM reference training.

PLA (Public Library Association) Tech Notes on Virtual Reference
This is a short, web-based paper introducing Virtual Reference to public libraries.

Virtual Reference Companion: A Guide for VR Coordinators and Librarians
The Reference & User Services Association (RUSA), a division the the American Library Association, has designed this for anyone who works with or manages a virtual reference program. It includes starting a VR service, what skills those staffing the service should hold, and what types of technologies are relevant.  Once you are ready to implement your service, there is also information on marketing and assessing the services.

WebJunction Virtual Reference Resources
Content provided by the Virtual Reference Desk project and the WebJunction community.


Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services (PDF). Reference and User Services Association. Approved by RUSA Board of Directors, 2017.

Guidelines for the Introduction of Electronic Information Resources to Users.
Reference and User Services Association. Approved by the RUSA Board of Directors, June 2006.

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

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

Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) Virtual Reference Project: Service Policies and Guidelines

Email Discussion Groups

This list serv provides a moderated discussion of issues related to reference librarianship, including, but not limited to virtual reference.

Live Reference eGroup
This Yahoo! Group discusses live reference services for librarians

Book Resources

Bridgewater, Rachel, and Meryl B. Cole. Instant Messaging Reference: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Chandos, 2008.
This book focuses on practical implementation of instant messaging (IM) as one tool for delivering virtual reference service. this book addresses questions from the basics of what IM is and how it operates to the more complicated issues such as privacy and security to its future potential as a strong candidate in the virtual reference arena.

Burke, John. Neal-Schuman Library Technology Companion: A Basic Guide for Library Staff. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2006.
Introduces and explains technological advances, with Part 3 touching on virtual reference.

Coffman, Steve. Going Live: Starting and Running a Virtual Reference Service. Chicago: American Library Association, 2003.
Virtual reference entails real-life decisions, services, budgets, constraints, and opportunities. This book includes an overview of many questions that need to be answered when providing real-time, online reference service.

Dalston, Teresa R., and Michael Pullin.Virtual Reference on a Budget: Case Studies. Columbus, Ohio: Linworth Pub, 2008.
Discusses virtual reference (VR) services offered by numerous libraries. Instant messenger (IM) services receive the most attention in this book; proprietary chat and E-mail reference are also covered. It is not a practical “how-to” guide.

Farkas, Meredith G. Social Software in Libraries: Building Collaboration, Communication, and Community Online. Medford, N.J.: Information Today, 2007.
Explores social software and how these technologies can be applied in libraries. This nuts-and-bolts guide offers information necessary to implement the most popular and effective social software technologies: blogs, RSS, wikis, social networking software, screencasting, photo-sharing, podcasting, instant messaging, gaming, and more. 

Hirko, Buff, and Mary Bucher Ross. Virtual Reference Training: The Complete Guide to Providing Anytime, Anywhere Answers. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004.
Provides guidance for developing a program that will help librarians develop confidence and finesse at the virtual desk. The software-neutral guide means the training works on any platform.

Janes, Joseph. Introduction to Reference Work in the Digital Age. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2003.
For many librarians, the meaning of the word “reference” is changing so rapidly in this Information Age that the subject has become unsettling. Janes attempts to identify user needs and choose the best reference approaches for seeing that those needs are met ..

Kern, M. Kathleen. Virtual Reference Best Practices: Tailoring Services to Your Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 2009.
When it comes to virtual reference, one size doesn't fit all. What works in one library won't necessarily work in another. How do you figure out what to do? The recently published Virtual Reference Service Guidelines from the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), which is reproduced in appendix A, provides the starting point. Kern outlines the tools and decision-making processes that will help you and your library evaluate, tailor, and launch virtual reference services that are a perfect fit for your community and your library.

Kovacs, Diane Kaye. The Virtual Reference Handbook: Interview and Information Delivery Techniques for the Chat and E-Mail Environments. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 2007.
This handbook helps reference librarians develop the communication skills and resources they need to work effectively in the virtual reference environment. The handbook shows how to adapt traditional face-to-face reference interview skills to the virtual interview—and how to interpret and use new cues (chat slang, IM shorthand, emoticons, etc.) to better serve your users.

Liu, Jia . The Evaluation of Worldwide Digital Reference Services in Libraries. Chandos information professional series. Oxford: Chandos , 2007.
This book outlines and evaluates the current status of the digital reference service in libraries worldwide. The book is based on an international collaborative project between two groups from German and Chinese institutions, during which digital reference services provided by nearly 200 libraries all over the world were evaluated. The book also examines the reasons for the resulting differences; it also contains more generic proposals and perspectives on digital reference services.

Lankes, R. David, and Philip Nast. Virtual Reference Service: From Competencies to Assessment. Virtual reference desk series. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2008.
Virtual reference has gone from an idea to a regular library service in an astonishingly fast seven years. This collection shares experts' best practices, forward looking models, and advice on new developments in virtual reference. Chapter authors discuss the building of consortia, motivational and coaching techniques for staff, instant messaging options, creation of subject-specific taxonomies, interpersonal communications improvement, methods of assessment, and more. A special section of the book introduces the all-new core competencies and standards of the Digital Reference Education Initiative an IMLS-funded project to compile training tools from digital reference educators and practitioners. Each chapter is based on a cutting-edge conference presentation and features both practical guidance and the latest thinking about virtual reference work in libraries.

Lipow, Anne Grodzins . The Virtual Reference Librarian's Handbook. Berkeley, [Calif.]:Library Solutions Press, 2003.
A resource to aid in the decision whether to launch a reference service into cyberspace, and provides hints on selecting appropriate software. Also provided is a checklist of skills for virtual reference, tips on basic chat etiquette, and advice on adjusting library policies in light of a new service. Finally, there are suggestions for publicizing and marketing a virtual reference service.

Meola, Marc, and Sam Stormont. Starting and Operating Live Virtual Reference Services: A How-to-Do-It Manual for Librarians. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2002.
A “practical manual” on live virtual reference, this book seeks to inform libraries considering such a service and to assist those that already provide it. Although there is discussion and analysis of several virtual reference software packages, this is not a technical manual. Rather, the focus is on process, from understanding what live virtual reference is to implementing the service, including planning, staffing, training, marketing, and evaluation.

Ronan, Jana. Chat Reference: A Guide to Live Virtual Reference Services. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.
Designed as a guide for individuals thinking about setting up virtual reference services, this book offers practical advice and information, with an emphasis on academic libraries.

Steiner, Sarah K., and M. Leslie Madden. The Desk and Beyond: Next Generation Reference Services. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2008.
Provides an exploration of the present and possible future applications of eleven reference delivery methods. In order to reflect the growing role of the digital environment while still respecting the importance of in-person interaction, a balance of physical and virtual methods has been maintained. This collection is intended to provide inspiration for potential reference services at your library; each chapter provides an introduction to an innovative service concept and an annotated list of sources for additional research.

West, Jessamyn . Digital versus Non-Digital Reference: Ask a Librarian Online and Offline. New York: Haworth Information Press, 2004.
An analysis of commercial virtual reference and tutorial services and how they compare to traditional library services. Academic librarians and other information specialists share their experiences.

Journal Articles


General Issues


Barr, Belinda, Jerome Conley, and Joanne Goode. 2003. Chat Is Now: Administrative Issues. Internet Reference Services Quarterly. 8 (1/2):19-25.
Exploration of administrative issues through the lens of the Kano Model and discussion of balancing customer service with the limited resources available to academic libraries introducing a new service.


Carlson, Scott. 2007. Are Reference Desks Dying Out? Librarians Struggle to Redefine - and in Some Cases Eliminate - the Vulnerable Institution. The Reference Librarian. 48 (100):25-30.
 This article examines how librarians are struggling to redefine, and in some cases eliminate, the venerable institution of reference desk services and it explores the new ways in which reference questions get answered at university libraries.

Clapp, Janet, and AngelaPfeil . 2005. Virtually Seamless - Exploring the World of Virtual Public Librarians. Public Libraries. 44 (2):95.
This article focuses on virtual reference librarianship and the public library user, exploring the advantages of virtual reference in a public library setting as well as describing virtual reference service and virtual users.

Heise , Jennifer, and Stacey Kimmel. 2003. Reading the River: The State of the Art of Real-Time Virtual Reference. Internet Reference Services Quarterly. 8 (1/2):1-7.
Briefly sketches the origins of online chat, summarizes the contributions, and discusses common themes that have emerged from the contributor viewpoints.

Hirko , Buff. 2006. VET: The Virtual Evaluation Toolkit. The Reference Librarian. 46 (95/96):125-148.
The purpose of this manual is to provide libraries with practical tools and methods for evaluation, recommendations for implementation, and examples of ways that libraries have improved services through analysis of these and similar instruments. Available online at

Shachaf, Pnina , and Sarah M. Horowitz. 2008. "Virtual Reference Service Evaluation: Adherence to RUSA Behavioral Guidelines and IFLA Digital Reference Guidelines." Library & Information Science Research, 30 (2): 122-137.
Abstract: This study evaluates the level to which virtual (e-mail) reference services adhere to two sets of professional guidelines published by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and the American Library Association (ALA) Reference and User Services Association (RUSA). It also provides an empirical benchmark for evaluating virtual reference services


Case Studies


Carroll, Holly, Brian Leszcz , Kristen Pool, and Tracy Strobel . 2007. KnowItNow - Ohio's Virtual Reference Service. Public Libraries. 46(1):45.
This article gives an overview of the local services developed by three Ohio library systems and the 2004 merger into one program. Current operations are reviewed and an evaluation of the service provided.

Ciccone, Karen, and Amy VanScoy . 2003. Managing an Established Virtual Reference Service. Internet Reference Services Quarterly. 8 (1/2):95-105.
Discusses how the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries has dealt with four areas common to developing virtual reference services: getting too many patrons at once, problem patrons, training and quality assessment, and expanding and improving the service.

Granfield, Diane, and Mark Robertson. 2008. Preference for Reference. Reference & User Services Quarterly. 48 (1):44.
The article explores the way in which library users prefer to obtain reference assistance by focusing on reference use at academic libraries at Ryerson University and York University in Toronto, Ontario. Particular focus is given to reference desk usage and to virtual reference (VR).

Jane, Catherine, and Dawn McMillan. 2003. Online in real-time? Deciding whether to offer a real-time virtual reference service. The Electronic Library. 21 (3):240-246.
This paper describes the service at the University of Canterbury (NZ), our reasons for offering it, the process of implementation and preliminary results. It then outlines and discusses in detail some of the issues that have arisen out of the service with comments and recommendations from our experience.

Wanserski , John. 2003. From AskWendt Live to QuestionPoint : A Chronology of the Development of a Persistently Virtual Reference Product and Service. Internet Reference Services Quarterly. 8(1/2):71-94.
Traces the development of  a virtual reference service designed to support a university's extensive and growing digital collections. The project progressed from an idea, to a beta/pilot, and finally to a fullfledged multi-library service. A chronology offers a detailed examination of the challenges, compromises, and successes in developing software to support a new virtual reference service. Issues covered include technical troubleshooting, testing, training, marketing, and integration with existing digital services.


Virtual reference can be provided through the use of a variety of platforms and vendor products. The most commonly used venues include Instant Messaging (IM), Short Message Service (SMS), Chat, Email, Web Forms, Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), and Virtual Worlds. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, and the companies/products are named only for informational purposes.

Virtual worlds

Association of Virtual Worlds
Dedicated to virtual worlds, social networks, social games, 3D, and virtual commerce.

IM/Chat software

Software for Other Types of Virtual Reference

SMS software


Last updated: November 2013


For more information on this or other fact sheets, contact the ALA Library Reference Desk by telephone: 800-545-2433, extension 2153; fax: 312-280-3255; e-mail:; or regular mail: ALA Library, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2795.