Career Strategies for Librarians
Interpersonal Skills in the Virtual Reference Service Environment
by Christina Williams
The purpose of this article is to familiarize librarians with the online reference session and how it
compares and contrasts to the in-person reference interview. This article defines and explains each of
the attributes and concludes with useful information on librarian-to-librarian online interaction and how
to deal with inappropriate user behavior.
Virtual reference librarianship is growing by leaps and bounds. While the basic reference interview
remains the same, the lack of face-to-face interaction poses some challenges because of the absence
of non-verbal cues. RUSA has identified five behavior attributes for all reference librarians and also
distinguishes between general, in-person, and remote library users and how to meet each of their
needs. They are:
The link from a library’s web site to the virtual reference service is the first sign of approachability. It is
important that the link to the online reference service from the library’s web site to the reference service
is clearly visible and that procedures to access the service be clearly stated. Once the virtual reference
user has logged on and sent his/her question, the librarian can reassure the user by greeting him/her in
a timely manner. A script created prior to the reference session that welcomes the user and informs
him/her that the librarian is reading the question lets him/her know immediately that the user is
important. Address the user by his/her screen name to personalize the interaction and introduce yourself
using either your real name or your screen name if you prefer. Other personal scripts can be created to
be used throughout the session.
In a face-to-face interaction it is easy for the user to see the interest level of the librarian, but it is different
online because the verbal and non-verbal cues are absent. The librarian must maintain contact with the
user throughout the session. Do this through regular updates of your progress and by acknowledging
postings in a timely manner. If you must step away from the computer, let the user know why and how
long it will be until you return.
The key to a successful online reference session is communication. Due to the nature of real-time
chatting it is best to send short, frequent messages. Gauge the timing of your messages to be in sync
with the user. Slow typists will send messages at a slower rate than faster typists. Find out how soon the
user needs the requested information and give him/her an idea of how long it will take you to find the
information. Rephrase the question to make sure you understand what is being asked and find out
where s/he has looked to avoid duplicating searches before you begin. Communicate using appropriate,
formal language and avoid using computer jargon and short-hand unless the user demonstrates
his/her knowledge of such. No matter what, DON’T YELL! Typing using all uppercase letters indicates
yelling in the online environment and is never appropriate during an online reference session. Remain
professional at all times.
When appropriate, walk the user through the research process by pushing the URL so s/he can learn
the process. When the question(s) asked requires a lengthy search, open a separate browser window
with a relevant website for the user and ask him/her to help search for the answer. Continually update
the user on your progress so he or she does not lose interest or think you are not assisting them, and
Before ending an online reference session it is important to verify that you have satisfactorily answered
the user’s questions. As in a traditional reference interview, use open-ended questions to elicit an
honest response. If the question cannot satisfactorily be answered at the time, refer the user to their
library with the necessary contact information. Also, before ending the session, thank the user for using
the virtual reference service and invite them back.
Each time you log on, introduce yourself to the other librarians who are also working, especially if you are
working with librarians from outside your library system. Decide in what order the librarians will accept
questions to avoid looking like a reference question hog. If you are multitasking and the online reference
desk isn’t your only responsibility, let the others know you may not always be available but that you will
do your best.
Dealing with Inappropriate Questions
Unfortunately, the anonymous nature of the online environment can make librarians a target for
unacceptable behavior. To prevent inappropriate questions, you may opt to rely on a user name that
does not reveal your gender. When possible, view the name of the user and the question before
accepting the query. The user name can sometimes indicate whether or not the question may be
inappropriate. Do not ignore queries; if you are unsure of the appropriateness, accept the query and
remain professional at all times. When necessary, have a prepared script ready that states the question
is inappropriate and that you are terminating the session. Notify your online reference administrator if
you continue to have problems with a particular user.
For more information visit Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services
Professionals at http://www.library.uiuc.edu/ugl/_rusa/FinalDraftBehavioralGuidelines2.doc
About the Author:
Christina Williams is a librarian at Florida Metropolitan University's North Orlando campus. Christina is
also a participant in the state of Florida's ASK-a-Librarian Virtual Reference Service.She serves on the
Student and Student Chapter Outreach Committee of the ALA New Members Round Table. She received
her M.L.S from the University of South Florida in 2002.
Article published June 2004
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.