Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The Application of RUSA Standards to the Virtual Reference Interview

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The Application of RUSA Standards to the Virtual Reference Interview

Article excerpt

The proliferation of online databases used to search for articles in scholarly journals and magazines began shortly after Internet use became common in the late 1990s. Although there was a shift to digital resources, reference librarians still could use the same approach, asking similar questions during a reference interview, for queries involving online databases as they had during a print source search. In both cases, the patron engages the librarian in person at the reference desk. Further technological advances have created opportunities in reference service broadly defined as "virtual reference." Here, the patron only engages the librarian via e-mail or in a virtual chat over the Internet. These virtual reference encounters lack traditional visual and nonverbal cues. Thus, a new set of standards needs to be created for the reference interview in addition to defining a different form of library-patron interaction. (1)


The original Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) guidelines for an effective reference interview had no need to include cues for the virtual environment. Now, however, a reference interview tailored to the virtual reference mode of communication is necessary as the world of reference increasingly moves beyond the traditional reference desk. Digital reference services should provide opportunities for an effective reference interview so that users can convey necessary information to librarians who would then assist the patron. (2)

The RUSA guidelines for implementing and maintaining virtual reference services define virtual reference as services initiated electronically, where patrons employ computers or other internet technology to communicate with reference staff without being physically present. Chat, e-mail, videoconferencing, voice over IP, cobrowsing, and instant messaging are examples of the communication channels used in virtual reference. (3) This paper will focus on the interview process associated with both e-mail and chat reference, the most common methods for providing virtual reference services.

The reference interview is at the heart of the reference transaction and is crucial to the success of the process. (4) Virtual reference requires that the library staff use many of the same communication and interpersonal skills that are also employed during a regular face-to-face reference transaction. For example, in the library, a well-trained librarian will sometimes initiate communication if a hesitant user appears to need assistance. This prompting can also occur in the virtual reference environment when a chat patron seems to pause or not respond for a period of time.

Stephanie Willen Brown defines the reference interview as the interpersonal communication that occurs between a reference librarian and a library user to determine the person's specific information needs. (5) These interpersonal communication skills are perhaps even more important in virtual reference. Without the visual cues of a face-to-face interview, there is an increased need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with patrons during a chat or e-mail encounter. These needs may turn out to be different than the initial reference question. It is more of an art than a science, an ever changing practice that requires responsiveness to context rather than to the application of a predetermined set of skills. (6)

Attention should be given to ensuring that a proper reference interview is provided to the patron once a library has decided upon the format that virtual reference should take. While elements of approachability, interest, listening, inquiring, searching, and follow-up are the same in both the face-to-face interview and the virtual, and principles of each apply to both formats, additional standards should be incorporated into the virtual reference interview.


It is important for the reader to have a clear understanding of how e-mail and chat reference function and to define both terms. …

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