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This project proposes a new model that enables Virtual Reference Services (VRS) to remain viable despite today's environment of reduced resources. It will investigate the possibility of seamless collaboration between knowledge institutions such as libraries and the Social Q&A (SQA) community.

VRS are evolving, with new developments coming at a quickening pace to enhance the user experience, and recently allowing access to library services through text-messaging mobile devices and social networking sites. Empirical data are needed, however, to assess the effectiveness of these services.

The reduction of library budgets increases the need to determine opportunities to share resources and generate revenue through collaboration. SQA services provide such an opportunity.

This research activity will provide evidence for modeling new library collaborative services. The project's three phases will identify VRS system enhancements to help achieve sustainability and to collaboratively leverage subject knowledge to meet user needs and heightened expectations.


The three phases of the project will have the following results:

  • Provide an alternative model for librarians facing tight budgets to fund collaborative VRS.
  • Raise awareness of the importance of professional librarians in the broader population.
  • Create a model for subject specialists to better utilize their specialized information.
  • Longitudinally compare VRS chat, IM (QW), and SQA sites’ accuracy and communication effectiveness.
  • Suggest ways to improve VRS services.
  • Enable researchers to develop guidelines for practice and recommendations to evaluate VRS.
  • Provide a possible venue for libraries in the social networking environment.


Phase I (Transcript Content Analysis)

In Phase I, we will conduct a longitudinal analysis of 500 randomly selected transcripts from OCLC Question Point's (QP) VRS and 1000 randomly sampled Q&A pairs from Yahoo! Answers.

The 500 VRS transcripts will include 300 live chat and 200 Qwidget (QW) Instant Messaging (IM) session transcripts, collected from June 2010 through December 2010.

A sample of Q&A pairs from Yahoo! Answers will include data collected from September 2007 through February 2010. The analysis will build on methods and coding schemes developed for the Seeking Synchronicity activity and results will be compared to chat transcript analysis from that project.

The QP and QW transcripts will undergo the following analyses:

  1. Evidence of collaboration, instruction, and referrals;
  2. Evidence of impact of geographic dispersion;
  3. Ready reference accuracy;
  4. Interpersonal communication;
  5. Query clarification;
  6. Subject,
  7. Types of questions;
  8. Duration and other time factors;
  9. Type of library; and
  10. Type of user, when self-disclosed.

We also will analyze a sample of Q&A pairs from the large sample collected from Yahoo! Answers to understand:

  1. What type of questions are asked;
  2. What is the nature of the answers considered as most satisfactory and/or relevant;
  3. Which types of questions do not receive any answers and why;
  4. And accuracy of answers.

This analysis is expected to continue for approximately 12 months, from October 2011 to September 2012.

Phase II (Telephone Interviews and Analysis)

In this phase, we will develop data collection instruments and conduct in-depth phone interviews with 150 subjects composed of:

  1. Users of QP live chat and QW,
  2. Users and expert users of SQA services (expert users are those who provide more and better answers compared to regular users), and
  3. VRS librarians.

VRS users will be recruited through a variety of methods, including posting to university and professional library listservs, paper flyers posted at libraries and universities and on social networking sites such as Facebook and pop-up invitations that appear at the end of VRS sessions. We will also reach out to SQA users by sending them recruitment messages using the contact information available on their public profiles. Recruitment will begin early and will continue throughout the grant period. The interviews and their analyses are expected to take about 15 months, from January 2012 to March 2013.

Phase III (Constructing Design Specifications)

Phase III focuses on creating design specifications to link VRS and SQA to explore solutions for VRS sustainability of the proposed research project, the Co-PIs will plan, schedule, recruit participants, and conduct 2 participatory design sessions with policy makers, designers, system experts, and librarians. These designers will be invited to Rutgers University (or via video conferencing) for two sessions lasting an hour to two hours. These design sessions will be developed and conducted over a period of three months from April 2013 to June 2013.


In addition to the reports required by IMLS, the Co-PIs will present the results of the three phases of the research in both oral presentations and written papers from January 2012-September 2013 at scholarly and professional LIS conferences. The period of July 2013-September 2013 will be used for concluding analysis, finalizing results, writing and revising articles for publication, as well as for preparing the final report for IMLS.





  • Radford, Marie L., Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Gary Burnett, and Suzanne Allard. 2015. "Virtual windows: Research collaboration across cultures, space, and time." Panel accepted for presentation at the 2015 ALISE Conference, Chicago, 27-30 January 2015.



More Information

The project proposal (.pdf: 3.9MB/115 pp.) provides an in-depth discussion of the project, including background and research objectives, methodology, impact, and expected results.

The analysis will build on methods and coding schemes developed for Seeking Synchronicity (Radford & Connaway, 2005-2008) and results will be compared to chat transcript analysis from that project.  More information on that project can be found at

Most recent updates: Page content: 2012-12-10

Co-Principal Investigators:

Lynn Silipigni Connaway, OCLC

Marie Radford, Rutgers University

Chirag Shah, Rutgers University

Team Members

  • Susan T. Wengler, Rutgers University