Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services

Article excerpt

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 Bernie Sloan's article, "Electronic Reference Services: Some Suggested Guidelines," which appeared in Reference & User Services Quarterly 38 (Summer 1998): 77-81. (1)

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, implementing, and promoting 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 planning, implementing, and maintaining the infrastructure needed, and in 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, in particular, licensing issues that might affect use of resources to serve off-site patrons. …

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