The Reference Interview Part 3: Virtual Reference


**crossposted at LibTech Soup**


Welcome to part 3 of my reference interview series.  This article can best be seen as a continuation of The Reference Interview, Part 1, which focussed on the essentials of the conventional face-to-face reference interview.  As we progress and technological advances improve our capability to interact with users in different ways, we also need to develop best practices in terms of reference interviews in the virtual world.  There are many similarities between the virtual interview and the face-to-face interview.  However, there are also many differences.

Tenets from the “Bible”

Catherine Ross, I have come to discover, is the most detailed and prolific of all writers and researchers on the reference interview.   In addition to penning numerous articles, she has co-authored the bible on the topic, Conducting the Reference Interview: A-How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  The most recent edition (2009) was coauthored with Kirsti Nilsen and Marie L. Radford.

According to them (202-203), there are several things to keep in mind when facilitating interpersonal communication in chat reference interviews.

  • Your interpersonal skills are transferable to the online environment.  It is important to maintain “word contact” with the user while searching for information.  Type short sentences such as “Searching…” to let the user know you haven’t forgotten about them.
  • Give a personal greeting such as “Hi!”
  • Using the user’s name in some responses will humanize the electronic environment.
  • When reading the initial query, look for any indications that the user is seeking reassurance, and provide the appropriate response.
  • Let the user know how much time the search will take.  Ask if they have time to wait for the search.

Ross et al. also propose strategies for building rapport with the user (204-205).

  • It might be helpful to use self-disclosure in some situations, such as your opinion is situations where your library knowledge is required or admitting lack of knowledge about a particular area.  Remember, though, to never offer an opinion on medical or legal questions.
  • Acknowledge user self-disclosure, such as a disclosure of how they are feeling.
  • Include the user in the search process by saying things such as “Let’s try this.”
  • Indicate approval in a positive manner, such as “Great!”
  • Offer reassurance, in the form of encouraging comments or humour, if they seem unsure of themselves or tentative.
  • Mirror the level of formality of the user.
  • Be polite, deferential, or apologetic as appropriate.

As well, they suggest compensating for a lack of nonverbal cues (205).

  • Mirror the user’s style.  Use shortcuts, emoticons, acronyms, and abbreviation as appropriate.  This may include using “chat speak” with younger users.
  • You can use repeated punctuation for emphasis, such as “!!!”.
  • Use Ellipses “…” to indicate there is more to come.”
  • Use all caps sparingly if at all, as it may be interpreted as shouting.

When closing a chat reference transaction, they observe that it is important to do the following (205).

  • When closing, be sure to gratefully respond to kind comments about the service you provided.
  • Ask the user if they need any further assistance before signing off.
  • Finally, look for subtle signings that they may actually need further assistance, but are settling for what’s been provided, as indicated in comments such as “Well, thanks for your help.”

Ross et all also propose ways to boost accuracy in chat reference transactions (209).

  • Make sure that you answer the user’s question.  Confirm that a web site suggested does indeed answer their question in that it is specific enough.
  • Clarify the user’s question.  Make sure that you understand it.
  • Ask a follow up question (e.g. does this completely answer your question).
  • Check the links of websites you suggest to make sure they work.
  • If there are multiple questions, answer all of them.  Confirm that they are sufficiently answered before signing off.

Though they aren’t as common now, Ross also touch on e-mail reference transactions.  Email transactions, as opposed to chat ones, entail turns that are much longer, and there are delays between responses.   Often, in libraries where email reference interviews are done, forms will be available for users to fill out allowing them to detail the information they are seeking.  Ross et al suggest tips for facilitating email reference interviews.  They are as follows:

  • In your first reply, restate what you understand the user has said.
  • Clarify to make sure you understand what the real question is.
  • Respond with a follow up question that encourages them to email again if the answer isn’t helpful.
  • Minimize the back and forth messaging.  If you find there are numerous emails before understanding the question, analyze the exchanges.
  • Always thank the user for the question and invite them back if they need further help.

Bridgewater and Cole’s Stages

Bridgewater and Cole discuss instant messaging, which is a type of online chat where the users are known.  According to them, there are several stages to the IM reference interview.

The first stage is negotiating the question (91-94).  You have to elicit information from the patron about what content they are looking, and the format which they want it.  It is important to demonstrate interest while doing so, through positive comments.  Find a resource, or suggest finding a resource, and have the patron confirm you are on the right track.  If so, dig deeper.  Closed questions work better in a virtual reference transaction than a face to face one, as brevity is important.

The second stage is the search process (94-95).  Here again, the user is part of the process.  There may not practically be as much time for reference instruction, given the time constraints in an online chat; instead, you can explain briefly as you conduct your search exactly what you are doing.

The third stage is communicating with the user (95-96).  This involves checking for access issues.  Find out early is the patron can access the subscription databases.  If not, the focus will be on things like open access materials and websites.

The fourth and final stage is closing the interview (97-98).  There can be differences with how an interview might be closed in a chat as opposed to face-to-face interview.  The patron might just close the chat window while you are preparing to check to make sure they’ve got all the information they need.  One suggestion is to quickly chime in with “Before you sign off…” or something along those lines.  Instead of following up with a check to see if there’s anything else they need, a suggestion is to follow up with a substantive question related to their research.  Doing this over the course of the transaction lets the user know you are engaged in the conversation.

Kovac’s Guidelines

Kovacs wrote the Virtual Reference Handbook, which outlines a series of guidelines for every aspect of virtual reference (67-68).  For the communications component, upon which I am focussed in the article, she puts forth several guidelines.

One guideline outlines the importance of empathizing with the user, and understanding the “cultural and social environment of the Internet.” (70-71) On this point, Kovacs suggests at the beginning asking the user about the urgency of the information need, the user’s comfort level with the technology, and other states of mind that might affect the interview process.

As well, Kovacs suggests avoiding library jargon, just as a physician would avoid using medical jargon when explaining a diagnosis to a patient (71-72).

Furthermore, Kovacs suggests that the reference staff need to project an air of professionalism, without coming across as stiff or rude (73-74).  Nevertheless, she advises against engaging in chat slang or shorthand, deliberately abbreviating, avoiding capitalization, and so forth.  Correction of a misspelling is important, but don’t let it slow down the reference interview.  There appears to be a possible difference with Ross et al. here.  That said, Kovacs also says, referring to emoticons and abbreviations, “if the user first makes use of these communications devices, then you can also use them, since it has been established that the user knows what you mean.”  This reflects what Ross says about mirroring the patron.

Next, Kovacs emphasizes the importance of professional objectivity, and of providing information without making value judgements (80-84).  If the patron is resistant to be specific about the question, reassure them that it will remain confidential, and that you will not judge them.  You can also give them sources that are most likely to help them in their search.  If the user does not have the specific information needed to find the information they seek, then back up and seek the more general information first.

In cases where very sensitive personal information is being provided by the user and it is making you uncomfortable, or you are overly sympathetic to it, it is good to maintain a “Zen-like” approach to the matter.  Sexual topics can be tricky.  Sometimes the user may just be rude, but it is best to assume that it is a legitimate question until other information indicates otherwise.   If they are being rude, then just cut the connection; there is no need to tolerate rudeness.

It is important to keep the user aware that you are listening (84-85).  Sometimes, a simple “mhmm” or “okay” might be appropriate.  Along those lines, it is also important to rephrase the question before answering, to confirm the question.  If a referral is being made, make sure to reassure the user the “the referral will be the answer.”  Make sure that you avoid silences, and let the user know you are “there” for them.  This means continuing to type as a substitution for body language, by typing something such as *nods*.  Also explain that what you are doing may take some time.

Ward and Barrier conducted a review where they discussed best practices in chat reference.  In the reference Interview, they determined that there are three techniques most helpful in producing a successful interview.

  • Focus on the Question.  Clarify the most important information before starting a search.
  • Determine the age, academic level, and patron needs.  This will help locate the needed information.
  • Relax.  “Engage the patron through questions or co-browsing and build rapport and a level of comfort.”

They also discuss what can be done in the case of technical issues.  These guidelines were proposed:

  • See if there’s another way to assist the patron when the technology is malfunctioning.  “The patron doesn’t need bells and whistles, just an answer.”
  • Know the software or resources so there is a Plan B in such an event.  WorldCat can be a good resource if the library software is down. An open access database or a shared database with another library might be helpful.
  • Reassure the patron that you want to help.

Bobrowsky et al put forth “practicalities and advice” for the chat reference interview.  They make several points that were mentioned earlier in this article.

Learn to be short winded.  It is important to ensure that you thoroughly answer a question without being too wordy.  This skill can be developed over time.  For common questions, it could even be helpful to cut and paste answers from a Frequently Asked Questions database, as one librarian does at the University of Minnesota.

It is also important to compensate for a lack of visual cues.  They suggest that you

  • Ask strategic questions to clarify the patron’s need
  • Use ellipses (…) to indicate a continuing sentence
  • Avoid sarcasm; it doesn’t translate well to the written word
  • Avoid using all capital letters
  • Avoid using emoticons or use only in response to a patron’s use of them.


A lot of what you are trying to achieve with the reference transaction seems to be the same as in the case of the face to face transaction.  As we can see with Bridgewater and Cole, the stages are pretty similar.  It is the strategies that may have to differ.

For example, you want to let the patron know that you are listening, and still with them.  This applies to all reference interviews.  In both circumstances, you can respond with affirmations such as ‘okay.’  In the case of the virtual reference interviews, because they can’t see you, it is important to avoid long silences and let them know that you are still “there.” This will reassure the user that you haven’t forgotten about them.

We can see that there are many differences between the nature of an online chat interview to that of an in person face-to-face interview.  The fact that

  • we can’t see the person’s body language
  • we don’t know when they are in the process of producing a new response in a chat interview
  • the environment is more depersonalized than the in person environment and therefore requires the building of rapport
  • there is shorthanded language that is used by some users in the chat world
  • there is uncertainty of when the user is finished or might need further clarification

all affect the practicalities of approaching the virtual interview.  They all require some compensation for the lack of personal interaction.  It is advisable to prepare appropriately for virtual reference work.


Bridgewater, Rachel, and Meryl B. Cole.  Instant Messaging: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Chandos Publishing,2009.

Bobrowsky, Tammy, Lynne Beck, and Malaika Grant. “The Chat Reference Interview: Practicalities And Advice.” Reference Librarian 43.89/90 (2005): 179-191. Print.

Kovacs, Diane K. The Virtual Reference Handbook: Interview and Information Delivery Techniques for the Chat and E-Mail Environments. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2007.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, Kirsti Nelsen, and Marie L Radford.  Conducting the Reference Interview: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  2nd ed.  How-To-Do-It Manuals Number 166.  New York: Neal-Schuman, 2011.

Ward, Joyce, and Patricia Barrier. “Best Practices in Chat Reference Used by Florida’s Ask a Librarian Virtual Reference Librarians.” The Reference Librarian 51 (2010): 53-68. Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: