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

Isolde Harpur (Trinity College Library Dublin, Dublin, Ireland, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 23 May 2008




Harpur, I. (2008), "The Virtual Reference Handbook: Interview and Information Delivery Techniques for the Chat and E‐mail Environments", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 5, pp. 398-399.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Diane K. Kovacs is an online trainer and Internet workshop leader for the American Library Association. It was during an online chat in one of her teaching sessions, that the idea for this book was born. A student asked her what skills librarians need to work in the virtual reference environment. This practical and well‐laid out handbook summarizes what Kovacs thinks those skills are.

Aimed at librarians, library school students and library paraprofessionals, the book is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 concentrates on technical, communications, and reference skills and knowledge; Chapter 2 on acquiring and improving technical skills and knowledge; Chapter 3 on practising and expanding communications skills and knowledge; and Chapter 4 on maintaining and building reference skills and knowledge.

Kovacs has designed the book both for group instruction as well as for individual self‐paced learning. She also invites readers to log in to a supplemental website ( where associated learning activities, readings, and resources lists are provided.

Throughout the book, the author incorporates the transcripts of email conversations with eight virtual reference librarians on various themes. This gives the reader useful insights into the day to day experiences of librarians who have responsibility for running chat and/or email reference services based in Ohio, Colorado, New York, Illinois, Boston, and Mexico. In one such transcript, Lori Bell of AskAwayIllinois Virtual Reference Service informs us that five years ago, when she first started teaching virtual reference, she “focused on what made it different from traditional reference”. Now, she feels there are “more similarities than differences”. On reading this book, I would very much subscribe to this view. I have limited experience of the virtual reference world, but most of the information and advice offered by Kovacs is either what I would know already from working at a traditional reference desk, or what I would see as good practice for any reference environment.

Some of the points made in the book would seem so obvious that one wonders whether they were worth making at all. However, may be that depends on who the reader is and perhaps the obvious sometimes needs to be stated. A library school student may need to be informed that it is not advisable to “use the word monograph in a sentence” and may be surprised to learn that it is a good idea to use “simple and plain language to explain library and research processes to virtual reference service users”. Other “obvious” points I did find amusing by their very description – e.g. the “without speaking she began to manoeuvre” type of librarian, who “silently begins to search without giving any acknowledgment or explanation; or the “pointer sisters”, who direct patrons elsewhere for information without explaining why.

The most instructive chapter for me was Chapter 2, which focuses on acquiring and improving technical skills and knowledge, especially the section on chat software features such as page‐pushing or application sharing. The list of common chat and email abbreviations, emoticons, and emoting in Chapter 3 is also useful. It won't have you rofl (rolling on the floor laughing), but it's amusing all the same.

In summary, Kovacs's Handbook is a mine of information for somebody who has very limited technical skills and who has never worked in a reference service. However, for librarians or library paraprofessionals who want to know how to equip themselves for the transition from a face‐to‐face to a virtual reference environment, they may possibly find they know most of it already. Indeed some seasoned reference librarians who do know it but have developed bad habits over the years, may feel jolted into mending their ways on reading this book. No bad thing, that.

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