Virtual Referencing: The Way Forward

Libraries are constantly evolving to meet the needs of the users. Ranganathan likened the library to a growing organism in his five laws of library science (Barner, 2011, p.2).Traditionally, reference material was in a print format with the reference desk and reference librarian being the main point of contact (Lindbloom et al, 2006, p.5). Increasingly, however, reference material is becoming available in an electronic format. For example in 2002, 5 exabytes of digital material were produced, which is enough to fill 37000 libraries the size of the National Congress Library in the USA with the equivalent print material (Bodner, 2009, p.676). Currently, most of libraries have an extensive and growing virtual reference section (Wallis, 2014, p.52). This blog will investigate the advantages and disadvantages of virtual referencing for the user and the librarian.

Online databases and catalogues provide access into virtual libraries, which require skill and knowledge. The library may subscribe to several databases and the user needs to know which ones are available and the most appropriate one to use to best meet their needs (Wallis, 2014, p.53). The user also needs to be aware of search strategies in order to retrieve the information that they require (Wallis, 2014, p.53). Often databases lack usability, are frustrating and not as easy to browse as print material (Wallis, 2014, p.53). From personal experience, having used online library catalogues and databases both in the academic setting and those provided by public libraries, it can be difficult and frustrating to find the information required even when applying search tools such as Boolean.

Conversely, virtual referencing has significant advantages over print referencing for the user. It allows distance and remote learners to access vast quantities of material without leaving their homes (Saunders, 2012, p.115). Students who live close to the university often prefer online resources as they can get them immediately (Saunders, 2012, p.114 & p.116), without waiting for someone to finish with them and often download them directly to their computer. Personally, I prefer accessing reference materials online for those reasons and frequently spend time in the library doing this.

The role of the reference librarian has also evolved to meet these changes, with them now providing assistance in person, on the phone and online, either by email or online chat (Lindbloom et al, 2006, p.5). They therefore need to be confident on the internet, with online searching and be able to communicate effectively with the client using online chat (Lindbloom et al, 2006, p.7). Librarians need to develop typing skills (Lindbloom et al, 2006, p.7) and communication skills for the online environment, as they can’t rely on body language (Saunders, 2012, p.127). The advantage of online chat is that it provides the client with an instant response (Bishop & Torrence, 2007, p.119), although it is rarely the best way to assist with a complicated search (Lindbloom et al, 2006, p.9). Email, however, provides the librarian with more time to do a thorough search for the client (Bishop & Torrence, 2007, p.119).

Virtual referencing is increasingly becoming the norm in the library environment and it brings with it challenges and opportunities both for librarians and users.



Reference List

Barner, K. (2011). The library is a growing organism: Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science and the academic library in the digital era. Library Philosophy and Practice. September 2011. 1-9. Retrieved from:

Bishop, B., Torrence, M. (2007). Virtual Reference Services. College & Undergraduate Libraries. 13(4).117-127. doi:10.1300/J106v13n04_08

Bodner, S. (2009) Virtual Reference Reflections. Journal of Library Administration. 49(7). p. 675-685.doi:10.1080/01930820903260432

Lindbloom, M., Yackle, A., Burhans, S., Peters, T., Bell, L. (2006) Virtual Reference. The Reference Librarian. 45(93). p.3-22.doi:10.1300/J120v45n93_02

Saunders, L. (2012). The reality of reference: responsibilities and competencies for current reference librarians. Public Library Services. 8(2). 114-135. doi:10.1080/15228959.2012.662074

Wallis, L. (2014). Building a virtual reference shelf. The Serials Librarian. 67(1). p.52-60. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2014.899291

(Created for student blog: Semester 2, 2015)


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