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Strategies for a Successful Virtual Reference Transaction
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 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
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.
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
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
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.