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The Thrill of the Chase in Cyberspace: A Report of Focus Groups with Live Chat Librarians

by Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Marie L. Radford

During the past twenty years, Web-based library reference services have provided alternatives and enhancements to face-to-face (FtF) and telephone reference.1 The majority of libraries now provide synchronous (real time interaction via chat or Instant Messaging) or asynchronous (e-mail) virtual reference services (VRS). Chat software has enhancements such as co-browsing of electronic sources with users and queuing options that have enabled and encouraged reference consortium development and growth.

A hot debate over the value and effectiveness of VRS is taking place in the literature and widespread use of the Web for independent information seeking has prompted some to assert that ready reference is obsolete.2 Others contemplate whether the benefits of chat reference warrant the costs.3

Many initial VRS were supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)/Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grants that have ended or will soon end; compelling librarians to assess their value and sustainability. “Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives,” an international project, funded by IMLS, Rutgers University, and OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc., investigates factors that influence the selection and use of live chat VRS.4

This two-year project uses a variety of methods to identify ways to improve VRS and to increase its visibility and use. The investigation’s results can influence the development of policies, services, systems, and funding of VRS. Few studies have compared user and librarian satisfaction with VRS or have specifically sought input on the opportunities and challenges of VRS from the librarian’s point of view.

How do users and librarians differ in their perception of factors critical to success and satisfaction of VRS? To answer this question, a series of focus group interviews were conducted with librarians, users, and non-users of VRS. Focus group interviews have been used extensively in library and information science research and practice.5 Although focus group interview data cannot be generalized, the methodology is frequently used for identifying perceptions and attitudes of a target population.6

Two focus group interviews with experienced VRS librarians were conducted at the Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) conference in San Francisco, CA in 2005 and the ALA Midwinter Conference in San Antonio, TX in 2006. Participants were invited to attend through the VRD attendee list and the digital reference listserv (dig_ref) and were offered an honorarium.

Skilled moderators led the focus group interviews which were documented by two note takers and audio recorded for transcription. Eleven librarians (nine female and two male) participated in the VRD Conference focus group interview. All of these librarians were Caucasian, except for one African-American participant. Ten librarians (six female and four male, all Caucasian) participated in the focus group interview conducted at ALA Midwinter.

Moderators posed these five questions to both groups:
  1. How would you compare your experiences as a reference librarian with face-to-face, phone, or e-mail reference to VRS?
  2. What challenges and difficulties do you experience with VRS?
  3. What makes you comfortable using VRS?
  4. What improvements would you suggest to make VRS more comfortable for you to use?
  5. What system characteristics would make VRS more comfortable for you to use?

So, what did the VRS librarians have to say? On a positive note, they believe that VRS enables them to provide library services and collections to people who may not be otherwise served. They mentioned that VRS is attractive to people who do not use the library and/or FtF reference, is less intimidating to school-age children, and is easily available to those who are geographically dispersed. Furthermore, participants believe that VRS is empowering, more personalized, enriched, and less intimidating for users. It provides more time to “chat” and follow-up, to craft responses, and to guide users to resources.

The librarians enjoy VRS because it enables them to work from home in a relaxed environment, allows them to multi-task, and to “catch their breath” between inquiries. They expressed greater satisfaction with VRS than with FtF reference encounters because they are asked fewer directional and more diverse, challenging questions. Participants described VRS as “exciting” and offering the “thrill” of working in a high-tech environment.

What were major challenges in VRS? Software difficulties, including disconnections and co-browsing incompatibilities, staffing, and resource allocation were frequently mentioned. The lack of dedicated VRS personnel and staff training were thorny issues contributing to librarian burnout, especially if VRS staffing is voluntary. Customer service, in terms of policies and access to proprietary databases, and marketing were also brought to the table. VRS presents a perfect opportunity to present libraries as contemporary, high-tech resources, yet participants lamented that little promotion of VRS exists, perhaps due to time constraints or limited marketing knowledge.

What improvements and system characteristics do librarians think would make VRS more comfortable? Software and hardware compatibility and consistency were overwhelming responses. Challenges also existed in assisting users with dial-up access or limited Internet services, in confronting institutional firewalls, and in dealing with incompatibility of co-browsing software. The librarians wished for Web-based software that integrates IM, chat, and telephone reference into a single queue.

Technical and staffing problems and limited funding seem to be the greatest challenges to VRS. Although these findings cannot be generalized, they are substantiated by Radford and Kern in their study of nine discontinued chat reference services.7 The VRS librarians in these focus group interviews are excited and enthusiastic about their work and chat reference. They believe it is a great opportunity to attract new and diverse users to the library, as well as a means of participating fully in the vibrant digital information environment.

To better identify VRS librarians’ perceptions, the data collected from the focus group interviews were used for the development of an online survey which was distributed to VRS librarians in December 2006. Survey results will provide generalizable information that can be used in the development of sustainable services, systems, and policies. Stay tuned to the project website (http://www.oclc.org/research/projects/synchronicity/) for updates!


  1. Bernie Sloan, “Twenty Years of Virtual Reference,” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 11, no. 2 (September 2006), pp. 91-95.
  2. Jennifer Schwartz, “Toward a Typology of E-mail Reference Questions,” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 8, no. 3 (2003), pp. 1-15; Joseph Janes, “What’s Reference For?” RUSA Forum: The Future of Reference Services, ALA, (January 13, 2003). [Online]. Available: http:www.ala.org/rusa/forums/janes_forum.html (Accessed December 22, 2006).
  3. Steve Coffman and Linda Arret, “To Chat or Not to Chat: Taking Another Look at Virtual Reference,” Searcher 12, no. 7 (July/August 2004), pp. 38-47; Steve Coffman and Linda Arret, “To Chat or Not to Chat: Taking Yet Another Look at Virtual Reference,” Searcher 12, no. 8 (September 2004), pp. 49-57; Carol Tenopir, “Rethinking Virtual Reference,” Library Journal 129, no. 18 (November 1, 2004), p. 34; Carol Tenopir, “Chat’s Positive Side,” Library Journal 129, no. 20 (December 15, 2004), p. 42.
  4. Marie L. Radford and Lynn Silipigni Connaway, “Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives.” (Proposal for a research project, submitted February 1, 2005, to the National Leadership Grants for Libraries program of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)), (2005). [Online] Available: http://www.oclc.org/research/projects/synchronicity/proposal.pdf (Accessed December 22, 2006).
  5. Ronald R. Powell and Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Basic Research Methods for Librarians. 4th ed. (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004); Lynn Silipigni Connaway, “Focus Group Interviews: A Data Collection Methodology for Decision Making,” Library Administration and Management 10, no. 4 (fall 1996), pp. 231-239.
  6. Powell and Connaway, Basic Research Methods.
  7. Marie L. Radford and M. Kathleen Kern, “A Multiple-case Study Investigation of the Discontinuation of Nine Chat Reference Services,” Library & Information Science Research, 28 no. 4 (September 2006), pp. 521-547.

Copyright 2006 by Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Marie L. Radford

Lynn Silipigni Connaway is a Consulting Research Scientist at the OCLC Office of Research. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MLS from the University of Arizona. Her current research projects include data mining using WorldCat holdings and use data to facilitate library decision making and is the co-author of the 4th ed. of Basic Research Methods for Librarians, with Ronald Powell. Dr. Connaway is the co-principal investigator of the IMLS-funded project, "Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives," to study and evaluate the sustainability and relevance of virtual reference services (VRS). She was a co-investigator on another IMLS-funded study to investigate the information-seeking behaviors of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. She served as the Director of the Library and Information Services Department at the University of Denver, and was on the faculty of the School of Library and Informational Science at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Her website is http://www.oclc.org/research/staff/connaway.htm.

Marie L. Radford, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the Rutgers University School of Communication, Information & Library Studies. Previously she was Acting Dean and Associate Professor of Pratt Institute's School of Information & Library Science. She holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers and an MSLS from Syracuse University. Before arriving at Pratt, she was Head of Curriculum Materials at William Paterson University Library. Her research interests are: interpersonal communication in traditional and virtual reference encounters, evaluation of digital resources & services, cultural studies, and media stereotypes of librarians. Her book The Reference Encounter: Interpersonal Communication in the Academic Library, was published by ACRL/ALA in 1999.Recently her book, "Web Research: Selection, Evaluation, and Citing, 2nd ed.," was published by Allyn & Bacon (2006). Her website is http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~mradford & she blogs at http://librarygarden.blogspot.com/. She is Co-PI on an IMLS grant "Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives." 

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