An International Comparison of Virtual Reference Services

Lawrence Olszewski and Paula Rumbaugh

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In an attempt to determine and compare the nature of virtual reference services in both academic and public libraries outside the United States, we analyzed data compiled from webform transactions e-mailed to and from libraries via the Question-Point virtual reference service. The study reviewed transactions that were handled during a typical week in April 2006 and in April 2008 by twenty-three libraries in ten countries: Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. We analyzed transactions by language, type of institution (public or academic), question type (access, bibliographic, or subject), answer type, subject, and response time, with attention to how these characteristics had changed in two years. The results of the study provide insight into how students and the general public use virtual reference services in various countries and how service efficiency differs among countries and library types.

The use of virtual reference is becoming more prevalent in libraries throughout the world, yet studies of the use of transactions from virtual reference interchanges in non–U.S. countries have not appeared widely in the literature.

In this paper, we use “virtual reference” to mean asynchronous communications between patron and library; we do not address synchronous (or chat) reference. This study is one of the first to examine this aspect of library communication from a multinational point of view for both academic and public libraries. This study is—as far as is known—the first that considers virtual reference use in Belgium, Mexico, or Slovenia.


The purpose of this study was to discover similarities and differences in virtual reference services in non–U.S. countries. To make these comparisons, we examined such factors as country, language, type of question and answer, subject, response time, and user status.

We also wanted to know if there were any changes of those factors between 2006 and 2008, and if service efficiency (measured by turnaround times) had improved.

Literature Review

We confined our literature search to empirical and case studies conducted in the ten countries under examination here in publications indexed in Library Literature and LISA: Library and Information Science Abstracts since 2000.


Porter’s discussion of thirty transcripts from a chat reference service aimed at off-campus nursing students at La Trobe University found that 30 percent of the questions asked revolved around document delivery.1 Lee’s study of forty-seven e-mail and chat reference transactions at Murdoch University measured, among other criteria, turnaround time in answering e-mail (mean delay of six hours) and question and answer types (e-mail questions tended to have a higher proportion of administrative questions than chat and required fewer techniques of the reference interview).2 Sullivan analyzed ninety-six question-and-answer pairs from the Bayside Library Ask-a-Librarian service in Victoria and found that 47 percent of the reference questions were classified as research queries.3 Davis and Scholfield’s report on a collaborative arrangement between an Australian and a Scottish library for 24/7 coverage found that such an agreement cut down on the turnaround time of answering e-mail inquiries but found procedural and administrative inquiries hard to deal with.4 Davis’ report on an instant-messaging (IM) trial with the National Library of Australia found that 61 percent of inquiries were general reference, 73 percent were completed during the IM sessions, 40 percent ended in ten minutes or less, and 91 percent of users rated the services as “very good” or “excellent.”5


DiPietro and Calenge, as well as Bazin, discuss the Guichet du Savoir, an online information service offered by the Lyon Municipal Library, but make no comparisons to other libraries.6 Nguyen talks about virtual reference from a theoretical perspective and thus eschews any mention of specific virtual library services.7


Simon found that users have trouble locating e-mail reference services on library websites.8 In a separate study, Simon analyzed how Chinese and German students use e-mail information.9

The Netherlands

Doek talks about the chat service of Bibliothek van de Universiteit van Amsterdam (UVA) (one of the libraries analyzed here).10

South Africa

Darries found that among the twenty-six academic libraries surveyed, the majority of libraries provided electronic reference service via e-mail and the library website, but these services had low levels of use.11


Jonsby studied the Ask the Library service in nineteen public libraries and found that the service’s time limit of three days was appropriate, as most inquiries were answered in the same day; school students were the largest user group; literature topped the field of inquiries (37 percent); and the time it took to answer an inquiry was often longer than it would have been if the user had been present in the library.12

The United Kingdom

Davies’ study of four small rural libraries that experimented with replacing all reference books with virtual access found that searching for answers to simple questions online was too inconvenient for users.13 Beard, Bottomly, and Geeson’s survey of thirty users of a virtual e-mail reference service at Bournemouth University found that two-thirds of the questions asked were subject-related.14 Cloughley analyzed the results of ten reference questions sent to three U.S. and two UK free digital reference services and found that the average response time varied from fifteen minutes to sixty-seven hours, correct answers were given at only two of the services, and most did not provide sources.15 Chowdhury and Margariti found that among five libraries in Scotland, the actual turnaround time for answering e-mail questions was faster than was stated on their webpages and that a great majority of inquiries were “mechanical” questions on how to use IT resources rather than specific subject requests.16

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