The Virtual Reference Handbook: Interview and Information Delivery Techniques for the Chat and E‐mail Environments

Vanda Broughton (School of Library, Archive & Information Studies, University College London, London, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 25 July 2008




Broughton, V. (2008), "The Virtual Reference Handbook: Interview and Information Delivery Techniques for the Chat and E‐mail Environments", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 64 No. 4, pp. 627-628.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Digital reference is now a well‐established part of the modern library service, but much of the current literature focuses on the use of digital resources as an alternative to the printed information source, and the differences in functionality and search strategy that these imply. This slim volume therefore fills a gap in the market in that it is mainly concerned with digital service delivery. The imagined context here is of a service delivered entirely virtually, with no face to face contact between the reference librarian and the reader, although, ironically, the resources used to supply the answer may themselves be paper based.

The book starts from the premise that, like the “horseless carriage”, virtual reference is more than old wine in new wineskins, and that traditional techniques cannot simply be mapped onto a different form of interface. To take a very simple example, one contributor observes that typing takes longer than talking, so that the exchange between reader and librarian is more constrained, and eliciting additional information from the reader requires a different approach from that of the face to face interview. Conventional reference skills therefore need to be re‐examined within the virtual environment, and, while general principles still hold good, new strategies need to be cultivated to put those principles into practice. Of course, with many British library schools no longer teaching reference work as part of the core curriculum, techniques such as the conduct of the reference interview, analysis of the question, search planning, and presentation of the answer, may well be concepts unfamiliar to younger professionals, so even this most basic kind of content is useful.

Otherwise, much of the work deals with the technical competences necessary to virtual reference; good keyboard skills; familiarity with chat messaging tools; multi‐tasking and the simultaneous use of several applications in a windows environment; advanced internet skills including awareness of e‐mail systems, file transfer protocols, scanning techniques, and the use of browser extensions. There are various practical tasks designed to aid the novice, and detailed check lists to acknowledge these competences when acquired. The essentially technical material is supported by sections on user education: how to judge when this is necessary and how to achieve it online; and by sections on the identification, evaluation and use of sources. This brief description cannot convey the wealth of content that is packed into a comparatively small space, for, in addition to the comprehensive discussion and practical exercises, every chapter is supplemented by substantial reference lists, all of the citations current, and many of them available online. The body of the text also contains many lists of resources and references to websites.

A more unusual feature is the contribution made by members of the Virtual Reference Librarians Group. In each part of the book, they are invited to respond to key questions, which they do in a thoughtful and practical manner, in anything from a few sentences, to more than a page of text. Every contribution is identified, and their collective commentary on typical problems of virtual reference has the feel of a workshop or lively discussion list, and lends a sense of informed help from those who have dealt with problems of virtual reference in an immediate way.

The author, Diane Kovacs, is a very experienced trainer, with a proven record of delivering training virtually. She writes clearly, and the information in the book is extremely well structured, and easy to follow. As one might expect from an expert trainer, there is a logical progression through the material and a steady building of skills. The design of the work is fairly basic, and there is nothing very much in the way of graphics, but the text is clearly laid out, if using rather small fonts. The latter does have the useful consequence that the book is compact and hence modestly priced.

It is hard to find a fault in this little gem, given that, in a fast‐moving field much of the advice will inevitably go out of date. But the reader who follows it through will undoubtedly be well equipped to cope with that changing context as it unfolds. This is a title that I shall certainly put on my reading list for students, and I can unreservedly recommend it to anyone struggling to get to grips with virtual reference work.

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