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Virtual question changes: reference in evolving environments

Julie Arendt (Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Carbondale, Illinois, USA)
Stephanie J. Graves (Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Carbondale, Illinois, USA)

Reference Services Review

ISSN: 0090-7324

Article publication date: 17 May 2011




As virtual reference and online discovery tools evolve, so do interactions with patrons. This study aims to describe how synchronous virtual reference transactions changed over a six‐year period at a university library.


Transcripts from October and February from October 2004 to February 2010 were coded for question type, interlibrary loan discussions, and referrals. Subcategories for holding types and referrals were also recorded.


The number and types of questions changed with the virtual reference platform used, both increasing and decreasing. The number of questions more than doubled from the beginning to the end of the six‐year study period. The number of holdings questions at the end of the study period was six times higher than the number at the beginning. Patterns relating to interlibrary loan discussions and referrals were noted.

Research limitations/implications

The study examined transcripts from one university library. Findings cannot be generalized but provide examples that may be similar in other libraries.

Practical implications

The number and type of online reference questions that a library receives can change dramatically in a short time. Libraries should monitor question transactions, especially after software changes. Libraries also should consider how the placement of chat widgets changes the quantity and nature of questions and train staff appropriately.


This study examines transcripts across a longer time span than previous studies. It is unique in its examination of virtual reference widgets embedded in proprietary databases and link resolvers.



Arendt, J. and Graves, S.J. (2011), "Virtual question changes: reference in evolving environments", Reference Services Review, Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 187-205.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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