Informed Librarian Online -- Guest Forum --

Strategies for a Successful Virtual Reference Transaction
by Erin Fields and Irene Tencinger

Virtual reference can be challenging to both new and experienced librarians. Keeping that in mind, it is useful to understand the nature of the virtual environment and to develop techniques to use it most effectively for instruction and reference services. We will outline some of the challenges and opportunities for using the virtual environment to reach out to students we might not have contact with in person.  Based on our personal experiences, we have found the following techniques useful to create a more positive virtual reference experience for both the librarian and the student.

The reference interview in the virtual environment is different from the in-person interview and therefore different strategies must be used when interacting online. When beginning the virtual reference interview create a friendly and approachable tone by addressing the student by name and personalizing your introduction.  You can send a scripted introductory message if your software provides one but be sure to follow up with a more personal greeting.  A personalized greeting is an invitation to an engaged reference interview that would normally be created by visual cues and body language.

Students will respond to visual and auditory cues during the in-person interview to determine when the session is complete.  In virtual reference these cues are absent and the student may feel ready to disengage when they perceive their question has been answered.  Their perception may be very different from the librarians’ view and therefore the librarian must be conscientious in maintaining word contact.  You may have to send a quick message to indicate the session isn’t complete and that the student needs additional guidance for their research.

In virtual reference the librarian can never be certain what is happening on the other side. The student may go in unexpected directions that were not suggested by the librarian. This can result in confusion, and the librarian must deduce the thought process of the student and redirect the interaction.  In order to prevent the student from going in unexpected directions, the librarian needs to ask clarifying questions and needs to be explicit in his thought process. In all forms of reference, students will often ask for what they believe they need and this may not reflect the actual information need. Librarians ask clarifying questions to verify that they understand the student’s level of
research skill and make sure they understand what the actual information need is.  For example, a librarian may ask the student “Is this the first time you have looked for articles?” or “Where have you searched?”  Clarifying questions support active learning by inviting the student to contribute to the thought process.

As librarians we want to encourage active learning by requesting that the students perform the search on their own with guidance from the virtual librarian.  This creates a hands-on experience.  The student should open a separate window in their Internet browser.  Once the new window is open, the librarian should guide the student with a detailed explanation as to what steps to take.  Unlike the in-person reference interview, the student will be performing the same search as the librarian.  This can be problematic when the search is less than ideal. Even though a search may seem unsuccessful, it creates a valuable learning opportunity. Librarians should use this as an opportunity to explain how to redirect the search.

There are several challenges that can surface as a result of guided searches. Not only may your search fail to pull up the desired results but the student may not retrieve the same records as you do, or they may not be interested in learning how to perform research and want you to send them the information directly.  The librarian must raise the consciousness of the student about the nature of research as a process and that it is not an end result.  One of the goals of the academic institution is to create self sufficient information literate researchers.  By insisting that the students actively perform the research process, the librarian encourages future successful research behavior.

If the purpose is to teach during the reference interview, the student needs to understand why certain decisions are made.  To make the interaction more meaningful the thought process behind certain decisions should be explained to contextualize the actions. When you are knowledgeable about a topic, you may make assumptions about other peoples' knowledge.  Librarians understand the research process and the tools best suited for a given topic and because of this, they may not give enough contextual information to the student.  Being explicit in the research steps helps the student retain and apply the knowledge in the future.

At times students are unable to fully visualize what the librarian describes in the chat. The virtual librarian should make effective use of pre-existing instructional tools to compensate for the limitations of the virtual environment.  Online guides and tutorials have been designed not only for the user who does not have immediate access to a librarian but is more of a visual learner.  The online guides and tutorials are versatile and can accommodate a variety of learning styles.

These tips and strategies can help create a more effective virtual reference interaction but bear in mind that virtual reference is not for everyone.  It can be difficult, especially when attempting to teach the research process and database usage.  Additionally, virtual reference takes a great deal of scaffolding and repetition which can become tedious.  The most important tip is to be patient and think creatively.

Copyright 2008 by Erin Fields and Irene Tencinger

About the Authors:

Erin Fields is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at York University, Toronto, ON.  She has a B.Ed. from the University of Windsor and a MLIS from the University of Western Ontario.

Irene Tencinger is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at York University, Toronto, ON.  She has a MISt from the University of Toronto.  She was awarded “The Samuel Swett Green Award” for the best transcript of a virtual synchronous reference transaction.