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You probably remember a time when a distant education student was a rare occurrence and academic reference services happened in the library while looking across the reference desk at the student before you. This is no longer the case. Many – if not most — higher education institutions today have a significant portion of their student body (on or off-campus) taking courses at a distance. So, it is time for us to consider best practices in reference services for distance education in higher education.

At my school, the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT), the vast majority of students live and study far from our campus in Brookings, South Dakota. For me, the in-library reference interview has become the anomaly; in the majority of cases, the students and faculty for whom I provide reference services are hundreds if not thousands of miles away. This means that it is more important than ever for academic reference librarians to develop the tools to connect with students no matter where they are and develop the skills to effectively use those tools to serve their students no matter where they are.

Because of these realities, the bias toward residential reference services is one that the serious reference librarian can no longer afford.

So how does an academic reference librarian provide library services to students who do not come to campus?

Reference Services for Distance Education Begin with Identity

It starts with our identity. I do not use the commonly accepted title of Virtual Reference Services regarding reference services to patrons outside of the brick and mortar library. That is because the title Virtual Reference Services carries the connotation that these serves are somehow not “real reference services,” but are a lesser, artificial form of the reference services that take place across the reference desk.

While we — information experts — know that our expertise is more needed today than ever before, we cannot demonstrate that truth to our patrons if we continue to think of what we do in relation to where we are. If our reference services offered at-distance are considered Virtual, it is because we have failed to make them real. So, if we are to provide real, reference services to our distance educational students, the first task is to identify the basic tools necessary to provide at-distance reference services to students.

Reference Services for Distance Education Must Vary

The largest weakness of the “Virtual Reference” system is that they tend to market themselves as the answer to reference services at-distance. But this ignores what every reference librarian already knows — that there are different kinds of reference interactions, and each must be approached differently. In addition, we must utilize the correct reference tool for any given reference interaction.

In my daily reference work, I interact with students by moving back and forth between my desktop computer, tablet, and smart phone. This way, I am always accessible to my students, regardless of my own physical location or my students’ physical location. Using these devices, I maintain the following at-distance reference points:

  • Chat Box — The chat box is typically the first point of access for at-distance reference services. By maintaining a chat widget on the library’s web page, my students can instantly see that I am available to them. All they have to do is type in a question. Most ready-reference queries can be easily satisfied through the chat box. It is not very effective, however, when extensive research is needed or a deeper reference interview is required.
  • Email — Patrons start getting anxious using a chat box if they don’t receive a response in under a minute. So if your research is going to take longer, don’t leave them hanging in the chat window. If a reference query will take more than a minute to complete, I request the patron’s email address, and I let them know when they can expect to receive an email response from me, so they can go about their day.
  • Video Conferencing — Video conferencing is an excellent tool for facilitating the reference interview, as long as you remember one thing—SLOW DOWN. There tends to be a slight level of latency with any video conferencing connection (even with the fastest system and connections). This can be a disadvantage or an advantage, depending how you use it.The limited view of the video frame does make it more difficult for the reference librarian to pick up on body cues during the interview, but if you intentionally make use of that extra moment of latency to pay closer attention to body language, you can in most cases overcome the limitations of the video frame.
  • Phone — Unfortunately, not all students have strong enough connections to make good use of video conferencing (here at ILT we require students to have this capability). In these cases, a phone call is still a better tool for the reference interview than the chat window. For while you cannot pick up on visual cues over the phone, you can at least pick up on audio cues.

Reference Services for Distance Education Must Come of Age

More and more students are not in our libraries, they are out in the world, and that is where we must engage them. In our continually changing information world, we owe it to our students to be there for them, providing them the real reference services they require, whether they are sitting across our desk or across the country.

That is real service.
Rev. David Patterson, MLIS is the librarian at a distance education graduate school, Institute of Lutheran Theology, in Brookings, SD.


Rev. David Patterson, MLIS is the librarian at a distance education graduate school, Institute of Lutheran Theology, in Brookings, SD.



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