Digital reference

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Digital reference (or virtual reference) is a service by which a library reference service is conducted online, and the reference transaction is a computer-mediated communication. It is the remote, NextNextcomputer-mediated delivery of reference information provided by library professionals to users who cannot access or do not want face-to-face communication. Virtual reference service is most often an extension of a library's existing reference service program. The word "reference" in this context refers to the task of providing assistance to library users in finding information, answering questions, and otherwise fulfilling users’ information needs. Reference work often but not always involves using reference works, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. This form of reference work expands reference services from the physical reference desk to a "virtual" reference desk where the patron could be writing from home, work or a variety of other locations.

The terminology surrounding virtual reference services may involve multiple terms used for the same definition.[1] The preferred term for remotely delivered, computer-mediated reference services is "virtual reference", with the secondary non-preferred term "digital reference" having gone out of use in recent years. "Chat reference" is often used interchangeably with virtual reference, although it represents only one aspect of virtual reference. Virtual reference includes the use of both synchronous (i.e., IM, videoconferencing) and asynchronous communication (i.e., texting and email). Here, "synchronous virtual reference" refers to any real-time computer-mediated communication between patron and information professional. Asynchronous virtual reference is all computer-mediated communication that is sent and received at different times.[2]


The earliest digital reference services were launched in the mid-1980s, primarily by academic and medical libraries, and provided by e-mail. These early-adopter libraries launched digital reference services for two main reasons: to extend the hours that questions could be submitted to the reference desk, and to explore the potential of campus-wide networks, which at that time was a new technology.

With the advent of the graphical World Wide Web, libraries quickly adopted webforms for question submission. Since then, the percentage of questions submitted to services via webforms has outstripped the percentage submitted via email.

In the early- to mid-1990s, digital reference services began to appear that were not affiliated with any library. These digital reference services are often referred to as "AskA" services. Examples of AskA services are the Internet Public Library, Ask Dr. Math, and Ask Joan of Art.

Providing remote-based services for patrons has been a steady practice of libraries over the years. For example, before the widespread use of chat software, reference questions were often answered via phone, fax, email and audio conferencing. Email is the oldest type of virtual reference service used by libraries.[2] Library services in America and the UK are just now gaining visibility in their use of virtual reference services using chat software. However, a survey in America revealed that by 2001 over 200 libraries were using chat reference services.[3] The rapid global proliferation of information technology (IT) often leaves libraries at a disadvantage in terms of keeping their services current. However, libraries are always striving to understand their user demographics in order to provide the best possible services.[3][4] Therefore, libraries continue to take notes from current cyberculture and are continually incorporating a diversified range of interactive technologies in their service repertoires. Virtual reference represents only one small part of a larger library mission to meet the needs of a new generation, sometimes referred to as the "Google Generation", of users who have grown up with the internet.[5] For instance, virtual reference may be used in conjunction with embedded Web 2.0 (online social media such as Facebook, YouTube, blogs,, Flickr, etc.) applications in a library's suite of online services.[6] As technological innovations continue, libraries will be watching to find new, more personalized ways of interacting with remote reference users.

The range of cost-per-transaction of reference interactions has been found to be large, due to the differences in librarian salaries and infrastructural costs required by reference interviews.[7][8]

Forms of digital reference[edit]


Webforms are created for digital reference services in order to help the patron be more productive in asking their question. This document helps the librarian locate exactly what the patron is asking for. Creation of webforms requires design consideration. Because webforms substitute for the reference interview, receiving as much information as possible from the patron is a key function.

Aspects commonly found within webforms:

  • A return email address to send the answer to the question
  • The question being asked
  • The type of question
  • What sources have been consulted by the patron
  • How the patron is planning to use the information
  • Location of the patron (are they a library patron?)
  • A name to personalize the interaction
  • A date by which the information is needed
  • The type of sources being requested (print or electronic)[9]

Chat using commercial applications[edit]

Several applications exist for providing chat-based reference. Some of these applications are: QuestionPoint, OmniReference,, LibraryH3lp,, and These applications bear a resemblance to commercial help desk applications. These applications possess functionality such as: chat, co-browsing of webpages, webpage and document pushing, customization of pre-scripted messages, storage of chat transcripts, and statistical reporting.

Chat using instant messaging[edit]

Instant messaging (IM) services are used by some libraries as a low-cost means of offering chat-based reference, since most IM services are free. Utilizing IM for reference services allows a patron to contact the library from any location via the internet. This service is like the traditional reference interview because it is a live interaction between the patron and the librarian. On the other side the reference interview is different because the conversation does not float away but instead is in print on the screen for the librarian to review if needed to better understand the patron. IM reference services may be for the use of in-house patrons as well as patrons unable to go to the library. If library computers support IM chat programs, patrons may IM from within the library to avoid losing their use of a computer or avoid making embarrassing questions public.

Successful IM reference services will:

  • Create a profile to convey information about the library and increase online presence.
  • Accept imperfection in conversations without spending time to go back and make corrections. Most words are recognizable through context.
  • Become familiar with and use accepted IM abbreviations such as LOL (Laugh Out Loud).
  • Don't panic. While speed is important it is more important to not feel rushed.[10]

At times, IM becomes challenging because of lack of non-verbal cues such as eye contact, and the perceived time pressure. Moreover, formulating the question online without the give and take of nonverbal cues and face to face conversation presents an added obstacle. In addition, to provide effective reference service through IM, it is important to meet higher level of information literacy standards. These standards include evaluating the information and its source, synthesizing the information to create new ideas or products, and understanding the societal, legal, and economic issues surrounding its use.[11]

Software for providing digital reference[edit]

The article Live, Digital Reference Marketplace by Buff Hirko contains a comparison of the features of applications for chat-based reference.

See the entries in the Library Success Wiki's Online Reference Section, including software recommended for web-based chat reference, IM reference, SMS (text messaging) reference, and other types like digital audio or video reference.

Software features[edit]

Virtual service software programs offered by libraries are often unique, and tailored to the individual library's needs.[4] However, each program may have several distinct features. A knowledge base is a chunk of information that users can access independently. An example of this is a serialized listing of frequently asked questions (FAQ) that a user can read and use at his or her leisure.

Online chat, or instant messaging (IM) has become a very popular Web-based feature. Instant messaging is a real time conversation that utilizes typed text instead of language. Users may feel a sense of satisfaction with the use of this tool because of their personalized interaction with staff.

The use of electronic mail (email) in responding to reference questions in libraries has been in use for years. Also, in some cases with the IM feature, a question may be asked that cannot be resolved in online chat. In this instance the staff member may document the inquiring patron’s email address and will the user a response.

With the increase in use of text messaging (Short Message Service or SMS), some libraries are also adopting text messaging in their virtual reference services. Librarians can use mobile phones, text-to-instant messaging or web-based services to respond to reference questions via text messaging.

Co-browsing, or cooperative browsing, is a virtual reference function that involves interactive control of a user’s web browser. This function enables the librarian to see what the patron has on his or her computer screen. Several types of co-browsing have been offered in mobile devices of late; libraries may have software that incorporates dual modes of co-browsing in a variety of formats. For instance, it is possible to browse on a mobile device within and between documents (such as Word), webpages, and images.[12]

The UK[edit]

Virtual reference services are growing in popularity in the UK with more institutions accepting queries via email, instant messaging and other chat based services.[13] A study of the use of virtual reference within UK academic institutions showed that 25% currently offer a form of virtual reference, with 54% of academic institutions surveyed considering adding this service.[13]

UK public libraries were instrumental in some of the first steps towards UK-wide internet collaboration amongst libraries with the EARL Consortium (Electronic Access to Resources in Libraries) in 1995,[14] in a time where internet access was a rare commodity for both library staff and the public. Resources were collated and lines of communication opened between libraries across the UK, paving the way for services all over the world to follow suit. There are now a number of area-specific reference services across the UK including Ask A Librarian (UK-wide, established in 1997), Ask Cymru (Welsh and English language service), Enquire (Government funded through the People's Network, also UK-wide),[15] and Ask Scotland. Ask Scotland was created by the Scottish Government's advisory body on libraries, SLIC (Scottish Library and Information Council),[16] and funded by the Public Library Quality Improvement Fund (PLQIF) in June 2009. It uses the Online Computer Library Center's QuestionPoint software.[17]

American Library Association's digital reference guidelines[edit]

The definition formulated by the American Library Association's (ALA) 2004 MARS Digital Reference Guidelines Ad Hoc Committee contains three components:

  1. "Virtual reference is reference service initiated electronically, often in real-time, where patrons employ computers or other Internet technology to communicate with reference staff, without being physically present. Communication channels used frequently in virtual reference include chat, videoconferencing, Voice over IP, co-browsing, e-mail, and instant messaging.
  2. While online sources are often utilized in provision of virtual reference, use of electronic sources in seeking answers is not of itself virtual reference.
  3. Virtual reference queries are sometimes followed-up with telephone, fax, in-person and regular mail interactions, even though these modes of communication are not considered virtual."[18]

In January 2011 QuestionPoint and the American Library Association were in talks about offering a National Ask A Librarian service across the whole United States of America.[19] At present the Ask services in the US are run at a local level.

Other countries[edit]

In Europe some countries offer services in both their own national language and in English. European countries include: Finland,[20] the Netherlands (in Dutch only),[21] Denmark,[22] and France.[23]

Other countries which offer virtual reference services include: Australia,[24] New Zealand,[25] Canada,[26] and the state of Colorado in the United States.[27]

Chasing the Sun[edit]

A collaboration between UK and Australian library services, entitled Chasing the Sun,[28] has been initiated using QuestionPoint software so that an all-hours digital reference chat service can be offered. Targeted at health libraries where reference queries from health professionals could occur at any time of the day or night due to medical emergencies, the collaboration between the two countries means that someone will be on hand to field the query at any time. Although the UK libraries involved are currently based in England the programme may expand to other countries and health services if successful.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pace, A. (April 2003). "Virtual Reference: What's in a Name?". Computers in Libraries. 23 (4): 55–56.
  2. ^ a b Kern, M.K. (2009). Virtual Reference Best Practices: Tailoring Services to Your Library. Chicago: ALA. ISBN 978-0-8389-0975-1
  3. ^ a b Chowdhury, G.G.; et al. (2008). Librarianship: an introduction. London: Facet.
  4. ^ a b Brophy, P. (2007). The library in the twenty-first century (2nd ed.). London: Facet.
  5. ^ Rowlands, I. (2008). "The Google generation: the information behaviour of the researcher of the future". Aslib Proceedings. 60 (4): 290–310. doi:10.1108/00012530810887953.
  6. ^ Xiao, N. (2008). "Web 2.0 as catalyst: Virtually reaching out to users and connecting them to library resources and services". Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship. 55 (Fall).
  7. ^ Murfin, Marjorie E. "Cost Analysis of Library Reference Services," Advances in Library Administration and Organization, 11, 1993, pp. 1–36.
  8. ^ Eakin, Lorraine, & Pomerantz, Jeffrey. "Virtual Reference, Real Money: Modeling Costs in Virtual Reference Services," portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9, 2009, pp. 133-164.
  9. ^ Janes, Joseph. "Introduction to Reference Work in the Digital Age", pages 64-65. Neal-Schuman Publishers Inc., 2005.
  10. ^ Anderson, Rick. "IM Me", Library Journal 130 (April 1, 2005): 34-35.
  11. ^ Desai, Christina M. & Graves, Stephanie J. "Instruction via Instant Messaging reference: what’s happening?", The Electronic Library 24 (2) ( 2006): 174-189.
  12. ^ Hua, Z.; et al. (2008). "Chapter 2.10: A Cooperative Framework for Information Browsing in Mobile Environment". In: Taniar, D. (2008) Mobile Computing: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications. London: Information Science Reference. pp. 497–505.
  13. ^ a b Barry, E et al (2010) Virtual Reference in UK academic libraries: The virtual enquiry project 2008–2009, Library Review, Vol. 59 (1) pp.40-55
  14. ^ Woodhouse, S. (1998) Delivering the New Public Library: the role of the EARL Consortium, INFOCUS 3(1)
  15. ^ Berube, L. (2005) People's Network Enquire: virtual reference in England, World Library and Information Congress: 71st IFLA General Conference and Council, August 14th - 18th 2005, Oslo, Norway.
  16. ^ SLIC homepage:
  17. ^
  18. ^ MARS Digital Reference Guidelines Ad Hoc Committee (2004). "Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services". Reference and User Services Quarterly. 44 (1): 9–14.
  19. ^ "A national virtual reference service for the U.S?".
  20. ^ Finnish National Libraries online reference service:
  21. ^ The Netherlands online reference service:
  22. ^ Danish Libraries homepage, with links to a virtual reference form:
  23. ^ Public library of Lyon, France:
  24. ^ National Library of Australia's Ask a Librarian service:
  25. ^ National Library of New Zealand's Ask a Librarian service:
  26. ^ National Library of Canada's virtual reference services:
  27. ^ Ask Colorado, the service from the state of Colorado in the USA: "Wettanbieter Vergleich: 61 Wettanbieter im ausführlichen Test - Februar 2019". Archived from the original on 2010-07-25. Retrieved 2010-07-25.
  28. ^ PDF presentation by Chasing the Sun Co-chair Sue Rockliff

Further reading[edit]

  • Godfrey, Krista, K. "A new world for virtual reference." Library Hi Tech 26(4) (2008): 525-539.
  • Ronan, J. "Application of Reference Guidelines in Chat Reference Interactions: A Study of Online Reference Skills." College & undergraduate libraries 13.4 (2006): 3-23.
  • Cummings, J., et al. User Preferences in Reference Services: Virtual Reference and Academic Libraries. portal: Libraries and the Academy. Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007), pp. 81–96. [1] or [2]
  • Boss, R.W. (2007) Tech Notes: virtual reference, Public Library Association, ALA,
  • Breeding, M. (2001) Providing virtual reference service, Information Today, 18 (4), 42-43.
  • Francoeur, S. (2002) The Teaching Librarian: Index of Chat Reference Services,
  • Hua, Z., et al. (2008) Chapter 2.10: A Cooperative Framework for Information Browsing in Mobile Environment, In Taniar, D., ed. (2008) Mobile Computing: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications, London, Information Science Reference,
  • Lindbloom, M.-C., et al. (2006) Virtual reference: A reference question is a reference question … or is virtual reference a new reality? New career opportunities for librarians, The Reference Librarian, 45 (93), 3-22,
  • Lipow, A.G. (2002) The Virtual Reference Librarian’s Handbook, Neal-Schuman.
  • Pomerantz, J. (2006). Collaboration as the Norm in Reference Work. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(1), 45-55.
  • Sears, J. (2001) Chat reference service: An analysis of one semester's data, Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, 32 (Fall),

External links[edit]

Software Vendors[edit]

The following provide software and technology infrastructure for digital/virtual reference.

  • LibraryH3lp, pronounced "library-help",[1] provides an XMPP chat client and SMS gateway.[2]
  • OmniReference is a cloud solution with a single dashboard that integrates Chat, SMS, Email, and Twitter virtual reference services.
  • Text a Librarian powered by Mosio.


QuestionMART, published by
  • Cybrarians: the Arabic Portal for Librarianship and Information.
United States
  • Ask a Librarian, Florida state's virtual reference service, provides live chat with co-browsing and email functions.
  • Ask a Librarian, Hawaii's statewide email reference service.
  • KnowItNow24x7,[3] Ohio's statewide live chat reference service with email with additional text message access. Service ceased operation December 31, 2015.[4]
  • Answerland, Oregon's statewide online chat and email reference service.
  • Research Help Now, Michigan Virtual Reference Collaborative Service.
United Kingdom
  • ^ "Library Journal".
  • ^
  • ^ "Ready with Answers Around the Clock".
  • ^ "KnowItNow24x7 Service Ends December 31".