hundred years ago, anyone who wanted to speak with a reference librarian had to go to the library and approach the reference desk. Or perhaps call on the phone, but probably not all libraries offered that service.
In the 1990s, the introduction of the public internet caused a great disruption of library services. Slowly but surely, libraries started to offer virtual reference services (VRS) by email, instant messaging, chat, Skype, videoconferencing, etc. Most of these technologies proved best for short, uncomplicated questions and unsuitable for in-depth research questions.
At the same time, much information became available electronically, either on the web or library subscriptions to various proprietary databases. To this day, though, a lot of information remains available only in print.
Every library mounted a web site. Its reference department page would provide all kinds of helpful resources and instructions.
When the pandemic forced closure of library buildings, these 20 or 30 years of experience with VRS became critical to maintaining any kind of reference service at all.
Before the pandemic, VRS supplemented face-to-face reference service. At some libraries, it was little used and little known. Some libraries didn’t offer it at all. These libraries soon learned the value of VRS as they scrambled to get it started. At probably all libraries, librarians had to learn to use new platforms, such as Slack or Zoom, and screen sharing.
The bumpy transition to virtual reference services
With library buildings either shuttered or operating with only minimal on-site staff, reference librarians had to get used to working at home. They had to deal with new strains on work-life balance. They often had to watch out for their children’s needs while relearning how to do their jobs.
Email reference service expanded. At the InfoNow service of Los Angeles Public Library, email volume grew from an average of 70 emails per day to almost 200. Librarians also had to provide more comprehensive answers than before (with additional links, videos, screen shots, etc.) while not overwhelming the patrons.
As demand for VRS grew, libraries realized that staff needed additional training in the various components, especially live chat.
VRS requires different time-management skills. Schedules become less predictable. With so many choices for how to meet virtually, librarians’ appointment forms must include more detailed instructions than before. Patrons who want to use Zoom need to request a link. Patrons who want to talk on the phone need to know the number to call. And so on.
Because most academic libraries had already used VRS before the pandemic, they moved to the entirely online environments more smoothly than elsewhere on campus. On many campuses, the administration asked the libraries to answer all kinds of institutional information besides reference services. That raises the libraries’ profiles and earns additional visibility and respect.
Although typical reference service has always appeared to be one librarian working with one patron, it has always required collaboration. Librarians already familiar with various VRS technology have found ways to help others. Reference librarians working from home may not have passwords to get into the circulation system. So they have developed new ways to work with circulation staff.
These are only some of the ways that library staff has had to devise new ways to communicate with each other.
The transition from traditional references services to relying entirely on VRS proved stressful for both library staff and patrons. For the most part, both sides identified enough with the others’ stresses that unpleasantness has been the exception.
Library references services returning to a new normal
As face-to-face meetings begin to resume, they have taken on a different form. Everyone wears masks. Meetings take place in larger spaces than the librarians’ offices in order to maintain a six-foot distance. Reference desks, if in use, now have Plexiglas dividers. An additional monitor sits on the patron’s side so both can look at the same screen while maintaining distance.
Masks and enforced distancing will eventually fade away. Plexiglas and screen sharing in face-to-face reference service might not.
By now, both library staff and patrons have become more familiar and more comfortable with VRS. Expect it to play a more important role in library reference services even after the pandemic ends.
Expanded VRS has brought with it new attention from hackers and spammers. Libraries have had to step up cybersecurity vigilance. That, too, will outlast the pandemic.
One long-standing social problem has become more obvious during the pandemic: The digital divide means that not all patrons have had easy access to library services. Libraries have always been in the forefront of finding ways to bridge it. COVID-19 has forced them to find new ways.
One way to combat it now is to keep library WiFi operating even though people can’t come in the building. Not all library staff have internet access at home. But most libraries probably have library hot spots for circulation. If they must purchase some for their staff, these will ultimately add to the number available for patrons when library buildings reopen.
If society as a whole recognizes and addresses our broadband problem, the pandemic will have at least one good effect.
How COVID-19 has transformed reference services for public and academic libraries / Mahnaz Dar, Library Journal. November 10, 2020
Surging virtual reference services: COVID-19 a game changer / Marie L. Radford, Laura Costello, and Kaitlin Montague; College and Research Libraries News (83 no. 3, 2021)