Shared Values, New Vision: Collaboration and Communities of Practice in Virtual Reference and SQA

by: Marie L. Radford, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Stephanie Mikitish, Mark Alpert, Chirag Shah, and Nicole A. Cooke

This investigation of new approaches to improving collaboration, user/librarian experiences, and sustainability for virtual reference services (VRS) reports findings from a grant project titled “Cyber Synergy: Seeking Sustainability between Virtual Reference and Social Q&A Sites” (Radford, Connaway, & Shah, 2011–2014). In-depth telephone interviews with 50 VRS librarians included questions on collaboration, referral practices, and attitudes toward Social Question and Answer (SQA) services using the Critical Incident Technique (Flanagan, 1954). The Community of Practice (CoP) (Wenger, 1998; Davies, 2005) framework was found to be a useful conceptualization for understanding VRS professionals' approaches to their work. Findings indicate that participants usually refer questions from outside of their area of expertise to other librarians, but occasionally refer them to nonlibrarian experts. These referrals are made possible because participants believe that other VRS librarians are qualified and willing collaborators. Barriers to collaboration include not knowing appropriate librarians/experts for referral, inability to verify credentials, and perceived unwillingness to collaborate. Facilitators to collaboration include knowledge of appropriate collaborators who are qualified and willingness to refer. Answers from SQA services were perceived as less objective and authoritative, but participants were open to collaborating with nonlibrarian experts with confirmation of professional expertise or extensive knowledge.

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Suggested Citation:

Radford, M. L., Connaway, L. S., Mikitish, S., Alpert, M., Shah, C. and Cooke, N. A. (2017), Shared values, new vision: Collaboration and communities of practice in virtual reference and SQA. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 68: 438–449. doi:10.1002/asi.23668