Reference Services Plan

The Digital Librarian and Virtual Reference Services: A preliminary plan for reference service


For this reference services plan, we will be looking at virtual reference services and how to make them work for you and your library. First, a little history: virtual reference services were born of the need to meet users in the spaces they were communicating and seeking information in: the virtual world. Through a combination of several factors, including but not limited to: the Internet’s popularity as a communication tool, the availability of networked digital resources, reports from library literature of a decrease in numbers of in-person reference transactions, and librarians’ efforts to reach users where they are (Bopp & Smith, 2011, p. 331), we saw the birth of virtual reference services.

Description of reference service:

Virtual reference services encompass many different forms and formats, all of which you access through a computer and Internet connection. For starters, you have asynchronous (not at the same time) reference service, which entails emailing your local Reference Librarian (at a public, academic or special library) and asking your question, then waiting while the librarian researches your question and gets back to you. While this is the most familiar and easiest to use for the widest range of users (which is good), it is also the most labor-intensive (at this time) of the virtual services (which is bad). But then you have other options, such as Instant Messaging and texting users (which is synchronous, meaning it happens in real-time, instantly), making the reference transaction more in line with the traditional face-to-face transaction. There is also the newer “chat” services, which use software and widgets that allow users and reference librarians to literally chat virtually, just like they would if the user had gone to the desk. One more interesting virtual reference service that is gaining popularity: Skype and the video chat. What this means is that you and the reference librarian sign into Skype at the same time and connect, with both being able to see the other person, which amounts to, literally, the face-to-face reference transaction, just done on a computer.

The preliminary plan:

  • Type of library: For this reference services plan, we will be looking at how to possibly implement these virtual reference services into an academic library. Academic libraries are those designed to serve the needs of the university they are a part of, through many different types of academic libraries (main, science, law, medical, etc.). They are also institutional repositories for works produced by faculty, staff and students attached to the university. Academic libraries are also open to the public, meaning that they serve not just their university user community, but also the wider user community of the town/city they are located in. Notable academic libraries include The Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and The Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Any academic library would be fine when using this plan to design and implement a virtual reference service, since we are discussing the service itself, and since most academic libraries are already equipped to handle virtual traffic (i.e. questions asked over the phone, email or on a chat service).

  • Targeted audience or demographic: Our target audience would be all the users of the academic library, from the student to the faculty member, and all the members of the public who take advantage of the academic libraries resources. Every academic library today strives, through difficult economic, social, and other factors, to provide their services (no matter what they are) to all users who come into the academic library, either in person or virtually. This will continue for the foreseeable future, as academic libraries continue to expand not just their collections, but their user communities as well.

Pace (2010) gives us a shining example of an academic library going to where the users are, both in-person and virtually, where at High Point University in North Carolina, they opened their newly renovated Learning Commons in their new University Center. This new building houses not just the library’s Learning Commons, but also a residence hall, a dining hall and a movie theater. They literally brought the library to the users, and it is open 24/7, both in-person and online (p.15).

  • Desired outcome as a result of the service: The outcome (both measurable and immeasurable) that we are looking for as a result of providing virtual reference services are to meet our users’ needs better, and to provide the type of reference assistance that the users want, no matter the form it takes. We will do this through the gathering of virtual transcripts of reference transactions (redacted of personal information first) that log the questions and responses between the user and the librarian, and by gathering quantitative data of IP address log-ins to our sites and virtual services, that give us the hard numbers of exactly how many users we are helping through the virtual service. By doing a study of both these elements, we can begin to gain a better understanding of the virtual needs of our users, and how best to communicate and help them through our existing (and possible future iterations) virtual reference services.




Bopp, R.E. & Smith, L.C. (Eds.). (2011). Reference and information services (4th ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Pace, M. (2010). Meeting students where they are: Enhancing the library’s physical and virtual presence at High Point University. North Carolina Libraries (Online), 68(2), 15-17. Retrieved from