Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services

The information-seeking preferences, communication  behavior patterns of library clientele are rapidly changing. As ongoing budget cuts and the downturn in the economic environment are affecting libraries globally, it is critical for librarians to make informed decisions for resource allocations, to sustain and grow responsive services, as well as to choose optimal service delivery models. Research is needed to understand the needs of a diverse user population in order to design services to meet users’ needs.

The four-phased project, “Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, & Librarian Perspectives,” studied the habits and needs of virtual reference services (VRS) users and non-users to identifying characteristics for informing library system and service development. The four phases included focus group interviews, online surveys and telephone interviews of VRS users, non-users, and librarians and the analysis of 850 QuestionPoint transcripts. This multi-method research design used to identify how and why individuals seek information ensures that the results will be generalizable through large sample sizes, multiple methods of data collection, and triangulation of results.


The time was right to evaluate virtual reference services (VRS):

  • Web-based library reference services have emerged as vital alternatives to the traditional face-to-face (FtF) or telephone reference encounter.
  • Synchronous, (i.e., chat reference or Ask a Librarian services) and asynchronous (i.e., email) virtual reference services have grown in number and become common features of both public and academic library home pages.
  • Many virtual reference services were initially supported by grant money, but support is running out for many and sustainability is a critical issue in these times of extremely tight budgets, rapidly changing technology, and continually evolving service models.

Beyond sporadic—usually quantitative—data, little was known about the participants in VRS, including characteristics such as:

  • how users determine service excellence
  • how users rate satisfaction
  • how and why users choose to use VRS
  • patterns of user behavior
  • librarians' satisfaction with their own performance
  • how librarians determine success and satisfaction

Even less, indeed a negligible amount, was known about non-users of these services and the reasons they do not choose VRS.

See the project proposal (PDF:237K/24pp.) for a detailed discussion of the research context.


This project innovatively addressed current issues concerning the evaluation, sustainability, and, ultimately, the relevance of VRS for libraries.

The study also identified ways to increase the visibility and use of VRS, and to improve service.

Improving virtual reference services and making them more attractive to the public should result in increased use and increased recognition that VRS fills an important niche not served by other, more traditional library services.

This, in turn, could help secure funding allocations, and the growth and improvement of services.


This project was funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and in-kind contributions from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and OCLC.

This international study, conducted jointly by OCLC and the Rutgers School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, addressed:

  • factors influencing the selection and use of chat-based VRS
  • user and staff perceptions of satisfaction
  • why non-users of these services do not choose VRS

It also developed research-based recommendations for VRS staff to increase satisfaction.

Research objectives

This study addressed the following research questions that were derived from gaps uncovered in the review of the literature.

  • What are the critical factors that influence users' decisions to select and use VRS? Why do non-users opt to use other means?
  • What are the critical factors that determine users' perceptions of success and satisfaction in VRS?
  • What is the relationship between information delivered/received (task/content) and interpersonal (relational) dimensions of VRS in determining perceptions of satisfaction/success?
  • How do users and librarians differ in their perception of factors critical to their perceptions of success and satisfaction?
  • What is the impact of the use of prepared scripted messages on satisfaction/success (e.g., "Welcome to our service, a librarian will be with you in a few minutes.")? Do impersonal scripted messages impact user behavior (e.g., promote rude behavior)?
  • How does users' satisfaction with face-to-face reference encounters compare to satisfaction with reference encounters in virtual environments (including chat and email)?
  • How do users express satisfaction? Do overt "thank you" messages equal satisfaction/success?


This study involved a combination of data collection techniques, including:

  • transcript analysis
  • focus group interviews
  • online surveys with users, non-users, and librarians
  • individual interviews with users, non-users, and librarians

Both quantitative and qualitative approaches to data analysis were employed.

The methodology utilized a combination of data collection and analytical techniques, including quantitative and qualitative approaches.

Results have been widely disseminated throughout the LIS and communication communities.

Intended Audience

The audience for this research is the global LIS community, since approximately one-fourth of the 1,500 libraries participating in QuestionPoint are non-U.S., including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, and China. The results of this research are of special interest to administrators and library practitioners who are contemplating the creation of VRS or who are already involved in VRS and are seeking to improve service and increase outreach to remote users and local users. This study provides valuable quantitative and qualitative data to inform training of VRS staff, marketing of services, and improving systems design as well as librarian skills to better meet user needs. Another audience is the LIS research community whose work will be informed by these findings and guided by the research agenda for VRS that will be one of the project’s products.


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More Information

Other documents provide more detail about this project; please refer to the Resources section below or explore the list of links in the left-hand column of this page.



Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Most recent updates: Page content: 2009-08-11

Co-principal Investigators

Lynn Silipigni Connaway, OCLC

Marie L. Radford, Rutgers University

Team Members

Timothy J. Dickey, OCLC
(Project Manager, April 2008–September 2008)

Jocelyn DeAngelis, Rutgers University
(Project Manager, October 2005–March 2008)