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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.
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
prompted some to assert that ready reference is obsolete.2 Others
contemplate whether the benefits of chat reference warrant the
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
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
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
Moderators posed these five
questions to both groups:
- How would you compare your experiences as a reference
librarian with face-to-face, phone, or e-mail reference to VRS?
- What challenges and difficulties do you experience with
- What makes you comfortable using VRS?
- What improvements would you suggest to make VRS more
comfortable for you to use?
- What system characteristics would make VRS more
comfortable for you to use?
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
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
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.
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.
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!
- Bernie Sloan, “Twenty Years of Virtual
Reference,” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 11, no. 2
(September 2006), pp. 91-95.
- 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].
(Accessed December 22, 2006).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Powell and Connaway, Basic Research Methods.
- 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.
Copyright 2006 by Lynn
Silipigni Connaway and Marie L. Radford
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
& 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