WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN LAUNCHING A VIRTUAL REFERENCE SERVICE
IN AN ACADEMIC LIBRARY
Започнали като услуга за потребители в корпоративния свят, виртуалните услуги търсят място сред мигриращите библиотечни услуги към online среда. Доброто познаване на състава на читателите, на ресурсите, на библиотеката и не на последно място на библиотечния състав, който ще предлага услугата, са от важните фактори за успешното внедряване на тези услуги. Решаваща стъпка за развитието им е съставянето на проектен план. Той систематизира целите на услугата за администрацията и за тези, които ще я предлагат. Определя изискванията за нейното предлагане. Други фактори, които трябва да се вземат под внимание са координиране на услугата, изготвяне на календар, реклама и оценяване.
Virtual Reference, which has been defined by the American Library Association as a “reference service initiated electronically, often in real-time, where users employ computers or other Internet technology to communicate with librarians, without being physically present” has become a standard reference service for many public and academic libraries. However, synchronous, online help did not originate in libraries. It was pioneered by the retail industry as many of their goods and services went onto the World Wide Web. For commercial businesses, this new model of customer service meant that a real person was available to help with a customer’s question at the point when it was needed, in real time and through the medium of chat. As many library services migrated to the online environment, libraries realized that this model of customer service was easily adopted to deliver online, live reference help to library patrons at their point of need.
While many libraries have adopted virtual reference as part of their standard services, some have decided that virtual reference is a service that does not warrant the investment of time, talent and money. Before beginning a service such as virtual reference, several factors should be reviewed to ascertain whether or not it is a viable option for your library. Knowing the audience to be served, knowing what resources are available, and knowing the staff who will be delivering virtual reference are all factors that need to be considered before beginning such a service. If after analyzing these elements, virtual reference still seems like an attractive opportunity, take time to write a project plan. A project plan will outline for those participating in the delivery of virtual reference, and administrators, what the goals are and what will be required to help ensure a successful service. A good project plan will answer any questions that administrators might have about the implementation of virtual reference and the costs involved. A more detailed outline of what to include in a project plan will be discussed later. Once the decision has been made to begin offering virtual reference, there will be other factors to consider such as: the coordination of training, scheduling, promotion, and evaluation. These factors will also be discussed in more depth later and some recommendations given.
The following article will outline the experience and ideas collected during the pilot project phase of a virtual reference service initiated by Learning Resources and Technology Services (LR&TS). LR&TS is the library and technological resource center for St. Cloud State University which is a four-year university with an enrollment of about 13,000 and is geographically situated in the Upper Midwest..
Know Your Audience
One of the first questions to ask when thinking about initiating a virtual reference service is – who will use it? Are current patrons liable to find the service of value and will virtual reference be used into the future? To answer this question, it may be helpful to explore demographic variables such as age, technology use and geographic location when considering who will use this service. One caveat to mention here is that these demographic factors will be considered in general terms. Individual people will deviate from the norm, but some helpful points can be taken from investigating these variables.
The age, and comfort level with technology, of patrons may have a bearing on how open they are to seeking reference help online. Studies have shown that the next generation of students coming into universities, often called Millennials, has a high comfort level with technology. In fact, many Millennials spend more time on computers than watching television or reading books.
A study sponsored by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (Jones, 2002) shows that college students adapt very early to new technology and are heavy users of the Internet. For this cohort the Internet and computers have been as commonplace as the telephone and television in their daily lives. Some interesting generalizations can be drawn from this study:
• About one-fifth of incoming college students started using computers between the ages of 5 and 8. By the age of 16 to 18 – all college students had begun using computers.
• College students are much more likely to have gone online than the general population.
• College students, in high numbers, own their own computers and have multiple email addresses.
• College Internet users are twice as likely to use instant messaging (see footnote one) on any given day compared to the average Internet user.
It is obvious that this age demographic is very comfortable using the Internet and technology in general. Millennials have grown up with technology and incorporate it into their everyday lives for a myriad of reasons. They use technology to communicate with friends and
family quickly and conveniently; they use technology for recreational purposes; (downloading data, music and video) and to conduct research. A few interesting points from the same study, mentioned above, regarding research habits of college students are:
• A majority of students say they use the Internet more than the library.
• About half of all college students are required to use the Internet to contact other students in at least some of their classes.
• A majority of students belong to academic-oriented lists that relate to their studies.
Bearing these points in mind, it becomes advantageous to make every effort to serve students where they dwell – online. By bringing the reference librarian to a virtual space, the library can increase its role in the research process of these students as well as be an important factor in knowledge acquisition and in the learning process.
Another demographic factor that can be considered is where students are in a geographic sense. Since an increasing number of classes are going online and becoming “virtual”, there is a corresponding need to have reference and research resources available to students in this environment. Online distance education is no longer a new trend but is quickly becoming a standard part of the curriculum of numerous colleges and universities. Having online chat, in a virtual space, for these students gives them a way to contact reference librarians in real time without the necessity of a long distance call (they may be using a dial-up connection and are not able to use the telephone and computer simultaneously) or, possibly, a long drive to campus. Conversely, some virtual reference transactions may be initiated from within the library. A student may be reluctant to approach an imposing reference desk, they may not want to give up their computer in the lab during a busy time of the semester, or they might just find it more convenient to ask a quick reference question online. These instances illustrate that, while virtual reference is a favorable development for distance education, it can also be a convenient and viable alternative no matter where the student might be.
Another consideration to keep in mind, however, is the fact that some library users will need face-to-face interaction – people who do not have access to computers, people who have an involved or complicated question, people who need to use the resources found within the library and people who are not comfortable with a “virtual” experience. Virtual reference should not be seen as replacing the traditional reference desk experience, but as an enhancement and viable option for those who need it or wish to use it.
Know Your Resources
As a result of the rise in popularity of chat services, there are a variety of virtual reference software packages and a variety of prices to choose from. Knowledge of the technological strengths and weakness of your institution, as well as the budget for initiating this service will definitely inform any final decision. In the May 2004 edition of Computers in Libraries, Olivia Olivares has written a comprehensive analysis of several virtual reference software programs. Olivares gives information about basic features of virtual reference software and issues to consider when purchasing a particular product.
A quick summary of her findings reveals that virtual reference or chat can be a boon, however, software and hardware requirements must be considered. A few factors to consider:
• How compatible is the chat software used for virtual reference works with the operating system in use? Most workstations run on Windows operating system (OS). Some libraries, however, use computers with Apple OS and an increasing number of workstations run Linux OS.
• Does the virtual reference software conflict with other software applications on the workstation? One of the advantages of working as a virtual reference librarian is that it is possible to accomplish other tasks while waiting for requests. However, if the workstation is not up-to-date, it might be not able to have certain programs running simultaneously.
• If there is an option, would installation of the virtual reference software on a local server be preferred to running the software from the vendor’s site? Running the software from a local (on-campus) server provides independence, yet involves the local information technology (IT) staff. Using the vendor’s site allows outsourcing of technology support, yet makes virtual reference dependant to Internet [connection].
Technology issues are another important factor to consider. The availability of IT staff with the proper expertise, or the financial ability to bring in technology specialists to handle problems, is crucial for establishing and maintaining the service. As for LR&TS, the IT department and library are blended thus making IT more accessible to help with the virtual reference project. However, the IT staff is often overwhelmed with other responsibilities. Coordinating with IT to plan how to support virtual reference before launching the service can avoid straining relations between IT and the library. Along the same lines, advising IT about upgrades in software or significant changes will help avoid malfunctions and ensure a reliable service for the patron.
Cost of virtual reference applications needs to be thoroughly researched. Some applications are priced on a “per seat” basis while others are a flat subscription fee. It is important to know that the vendor may be willing to create a price package that will provide the desired performance and fit within the budget. Consulting with and tapping into the experiences of other libraries may prove to be an enormous cost saver. If a certain product has a track record of crashing or slow service you may want to reject it. Slow service or a service that crashes often and is not available to patrons for their questions, is poor public relations and could compromise the success of the service all together.
Privacy is another important issue to consider. Most virtual reference applications create a transcript that is emailed to the patron and stored in the software itself. If the software is housed on an off-site server, the vendor has access to that information. Be very cognizant of the vendor’s practices when it comes to patron privacy. In the same vein, when offering virtual reference, patrons need to know how the collected information during a session will be used and what is the library’s policy concerning patron privacy.
Know Your Colleagues
Recruiting those who are enthusiastic about participating in the delivery of virtual reference is an important factor to ensure the success of the service. It is not just the administration, being the Dean/Head Librarian, the Provost or the President, that needs to buy into the idea of virtual reference. The librarians will be the ones to deliver virtual reference to their patrons; they need to be enthusiastic and committed to operating a successful service. Some of the librarians may not feel comfortable with the technology or may feel it is not a necessary service to answer reference questions online. A plan in place to accommodate those who do not wish to participate can help the latter to join and support the new service at a later date.
Ironically, it is not always the case that a good face-to-face reference librarian will make a good virtual librarian. Some librarians may want to participate but find it difficult to be brief, which is required when trying to maintain the attention of someone waiting on the other end for a response. Being a fast typist is another factor for patron’s satisfaction and it may prove an obstacle for some of the librarians who wish to participate in the service. For those who are willing and enthusiastic participants, it is important to offer them training in the software and talk about “best practices” when answering online reference questions. Dedicated time for training and bringing everyone up to speed can help the participants in the project reach an acceptable level of comfort.
Including only those who embrace the idea of virtual reference may lead to less hours of virtual reference service, but it will secure a good service and patrons’ satisfaction. Organizing the most driven librarians into a committee with a decision making power and capability to build a project plan can prove crucial for the success of the project. A survey of the librarians in the building can reveal the level of support toward the new service and can help steer better the project plan.
A well thought out project plan will go a long way in answering any questions that the administration has about the initiation and implementation of a virtual reference service. A project plan can include the following elements:
Defintion – Briefly introduce what virtual reference is – remember the audience being addressed may have little experience with what online chat is and how it operates. Also, take the opportunity to talk about why the service is important and the advantages that can be gained from offering online chat reference.
Goal – This can be one or two sentences succinctly stating the goal of the project. It could be something as simple as: To deliver virtual reference service to library patrons.
Resources – What will be needed to have the service up and running? The cost of hardware and software needed for the service. If pertinent, the cost for staffing and the cost for dedicating an area for virtual service (versus running the service from the office workstations of librarians participating in delivering virtual reference).
Software – Describe the software in greater detail so that interested parties will know who the vendor is and some of the features that are included. Discussion of the reputation of the vendor and the level of response to helping with technical issues may be included as well. This section should also address where the software will be located (on their server or a local server) and what the software provider’s privacy policies are.
Hardware – Indicate whether or not new equipment will be needed to implement the service.
Depending on the level of service, the request for hardware might include a scanner for converting and sending documents in electronic format. If a separate space has been designated as the virtual reference work area, a computer and monitor need to be requested. If no additional hardware is needed, it may be advantageous to point out to the administration that the hardware is already available and no additional outlay of funds will be needed.
Staffing – The organizers of the service need to be aware that staffing can be problematic even after the service is up and running. Planning ahead about possible contingencies that may make it difficult to continue the service can be paramount for sustaining the service. For instance, if the decision is made to staff virtual reference with volunteers, there may be ramifications later on. Responsibilities and work loads shift and those who were able to participate at one point may find they cannot commit to continuing. Such outcome can lead to constant training and might cause variability in the level at which the service can be offered as well as variability in the quality of the service. Like any service, consistency is one element to the success of virtual reference. Plan well so that librarians are available to staff a virtual reference service that has been initiated.
Hours – Include the number of hours that the service intends to be available and a rough estimate of what the schedule will be (e.g. 11-4 Monday through Friday). In the beginning, having only few hours of coverage may be the right approach. Although shorter coverage does not generate high statistics, it will avoid burn-out and l allow those who are new to chat, time to get acclimated to delivering proper service.
Promotion – Demonstrate, with concrete examples, the plan to promote virtual reference.
Employ the assistance of the Public Relations or Communications Department, if present in the library or campus community, to help develop a promotional campaign. Partnering with these departments during the planning stages can refine how to address the target audience and aide in maintaining a presence amid other services that the library provides.
Evaluation – Discuss how the service will be evaluated. Include criteria that will indicate whether the service has been successful or if, after the pilot project, virtual reference should possibly be set aside for the time being.
Timeline – Create a timeline or flow chart that shows when certain events should begin and when they should be completed. List appropriate staff who need to be contacted and included in the planning and launching of virtual reference.
Getting Up and Running
After the preliminary decision of whether or not to offer virtual reference has been made and a project plan has been devised, the next step is gearing up to launch the service. Training the staff who will participate in delivering the service on the selected software will be an important next step. Most of the companies who sell virtual reference software programs readily provide training. On-site training is an optimal choice for learning how to use a particular software program because the experts are immediately available to answer any and all questions. More and more, though, companies are turning to Webinars to orient their clients. This can work well too as long as technical difficulties do not get in the way. Either way, the virtual reference trainees need to take advantage of any initial training opportunities that the software provider offers. It is important to check how they handle subsequent training after software upgrades or after the addition of new features.
Creating a schedule for the service will be another important step to take before beginning.
Consistent hours that are plainly posted on the virtual reference web site and any promotional material which may be developed will go a long way in creating a sense of permanence and signal to the user that the service will be regularly staffed and reliable. If unsure about when the service will be used, consult reference desk statistics and use them as a guide. Most likely, when the reference desk is busy, a virtual reference service will be busy as well. Devising a survey in order to collect feedback from patrons about when virtual reference would be most valuable to them can further refine when to offer it. The Web administrator in the IT department can issue a statistic sheet with the time and number activities on the virtual reference web site. In other words, be creative about investigating when it’s most advantageous to offer virtual reference.
Promotion is important! There may be a concern that if the service is heavily promoted, there will be a glut of questions when it is in its nascent stages. The truth is that there will probably not be a barrage of questions. It will take time to develop a clientele. Be proactive about creating a promotional campaign to let patrons know that this alternative service is in the offing. The King County Library System in cooperation with the University of Washington has created a comprehensive guide on how to begin a virtual reference service. It focuses a great deal on the promotional aspect of virtual reference.
Evaluation of the virtual reference service is important and should be considered from the beginning. Both quantitative and qualitative information will need to be gathered. As mentioned earlier, working with the IT department to find a way to identify when and how often the virtual reference site is being visited can generate the needed statistics. In addition, depending on the vendor, it may be possible to generate statistics through the software itself. Manual statistics are also a possibility, especially if Instant Messaging software has been chosen instead of a full-blown virtual reference software package. In any event, keeping a record of the number of questions that have been answered and, if possible, the number of questions that have not been answered because the service was not available (due to a time that was not covered on the schedule) can help improve the service and justify its continuation.
A qualitative measure of the service should include a survey available to the user at the end of the reference session. Some virtual reference software programs have a built in survey that can be partially modified. An “out of the box” format for the survey can be used or a survey may be developed and created in house to which patrons can respond. Questions to include need to cover how the patron found the service and what, if anything, needs to be changed to improve the experience. Also, include a question that will prompt the patron to identify what days of the week and hours of the day the service is most useful to them. Allowing for a free-text box at the end of the survey, in which the user can include any other comments, can generate nice testimonials to offer to administrators when the service is being reviewed. It also allows an opportunity to express unconventional ideas that can be considered when improving the service.
It is important to consider a qualitative review of the software. Poll the staff involved in delivering virtual reference to see if the software has lived up to its claims and is helping, rather than hindering, the ability to offer fast, reliable and easy-to-use chat reference.
Conclusion & Other Observations
There are numerous variables to consider before taking the step and offering virtual reference. A general understanding of the patrons being served is crucial to know whether or not the service will be utilized. Knowledge of what resources are available will also guide whether or not this is an initiative that warrants the investment of money, time and talent. Additionally, knowing the library staff and if they are open to the idea of delivering virtual reference is a factor before proceeding to a more formal proposal such as a project plan.
The project plan is a blueprint for the virtual reference committee and the administration. It will help guide the committee and those involved as the service is implemented. It will answer questions that administrators may have about how virtual reference will be initiated and how it will be kept running smoothly.
A few other observations are worth mentioning here. One is that offering virtual reference does not have to be done within a single library. There are many libraries that have set up cooperatives and offer virtual reference through consortium. If it is felt that adequate staff are not available to keep a service running, contact other libraries or institutions who may like to partner and share the staffing as well as the financial burden. Keep in mind, however, that while developing a partnership with other libraries will help distribute the work load, and bring in additional expertise, it will create its own set of challenges. If the idea of consortium seems like an advantageous option to explore further, there is a body of research that deals specifically with starting cooperative virtual reference services in the library literature.
While this paper has dealt almost exclusively with the use of virtual reference software programs, it is possible to offer chat reference through Instant Messaging (IM). At this point, IM is less desirable because it requires the user to download IM software in order to chat. But, as mentioned earlier, many of the users entering universities already have IM accounts and are very comfortable using it. Another concern is that IM is not set up to create and relay transcripts of library-patron transactions, send surveys or maintain statistics. However, considering that IM software is free, transcripts, surveys and statistics may be something that the institution is willing to forego in order to save money.
One final note to share is that virtual reference can also be interdisciplinary. That is to say that online help can be useful for purposes other than just responding to library questions. There may be other departments on campus that would find this way of delivering help to their students useful. Some applications might be using chat service to offer math tutorials or help with writing research papers and composition. Students coming into universities these days are much more likely to use this technology. It is in our own best interest to do all we can to meet them where they spend their time (in the online environment) and give them the help they need.
American Library Association (ALA). Information Technology at ALA 2000-2005. (2003). 14 Mar 2004. http://www.ala.org/ala/webadvisorycommittee/20002005technology.htm
Breznay, Ann Marie and Leslie M. Haas. “A Checklist for Starting and Operating a Digital Reference Desk”. The Reference Librarian 79/80 (2002/2003):101-112. Camppbell, Kathy A. et al. “Chat Reference: One University’s Experience” The Reference Librarian .79/80 (2002/2003): 297-309.
Carter, David S. “Hurry Up and Wait: Observations and Tips About the Practice of Chat Reference.” The Reference Librarian.79/80 (2002/2003): 113-120.
Holliday, Wendy and Qin Li. “Understanding the Millennials: Updating Our Knowledge About Students.” Reference Services Review 32. 4 (2004): 356-365.
Jones, Steve. The Internet Goes to College: How Students are living in the Future with Today’s Technology. 2002. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 5 Aug 2005.
Olivares, Olivia. “May: Virtual Reference Systems.” Computers in Libraries 24. 5 (2004): 25-29.
Washington State. Secretary of State. King County Library System & University of Washington. Virtual Reference Services: Marketing Guidelines. October 2002. 5 Aug 2005.
Susan Schleper is a Periodicals Librarian in Learning Resources & Technology Services (LR&TS) at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) in St. Cloud Minnesota. She has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a Master’s of Library Science from the same institution. Her professional interests include developments in the areas of serials and scholarly communication – as well as virtual reference.
 “Chat”, or “online chat” will be defined in this article as the multi-person use of online services (such as MSN, Yahoo Messenger, AOL, ICQ, etc). Instant Messaging applications will be considered in this article as part of “online chat.”
 Learning Resources and Technology Services (http://lrs.stcloudstate.edu/) at SCSU (see second footnote) combines the traditional library with technology services, such as computer and network maintenance staff, hardware and software support staff. As part of the ALA initiative for the librarian of the 21st century (ALA, 2003) and according to the LR&TS mission statement (http://lrs.stcloudstate.edu/about/default.asp), LR&TS also includes a group of faculty that teaches technology workshops to students and a group of faculty that teaches technology and information technology classes to graduate and undergraduate students.
 St. Cloud State University (http://www.stcloudstate.edu/default.asp) is a middle-size, Midwestern university committed to teaching excellence. It is the state of Minnesota second largest university, with more than 16,000 students, whereas 900 international students from 84 countries.
 On the definitions of Millennials, please see: http://www.mcmel.org/workshops/Millenials.ppt.pdf;
http://www.cnr.uidaho.edu/winr/hower24.3.htm; http://www.cnr.uidaho.edu/winr/hower24.3.htm, etc.
 This article was the product of a presentation made at the Computers in Libraries Conference. The PowerPoint for the post-conference workshop can be found online at:
 The guide is available on the World Wide Web at