Capping Project
Digital Reference Tools
Museum Internet Resources and Educating Future Historians

Virtual Reference

Virtual reference is another component of digital reference for historians that must be developed. Duff, Craig and Cherry state that there is a high need for “expert virtual archivists” (22) Historians heavily rely on archivists and other information professionals for their information needs. Orbach quotes a historian as commenting: “the main key to successful research is getting an archivist to help you” (37). Delgadillo and Lynch state that historians tend to “rely on individuals they perceive to be more knowledgeable than others.” They list library subject bibliographers, archivists, curators and special collections librarians as important sources of information for librarians (Delgadillo and Lynch 255). Clearly, historians regard personal contact with information professionals as an important component of their research.

However, unlike reliance on print and traditional resources, there is likely a developing role for virtual archivists and information professionals to be utilized as resources by historians. There are studies which purport to indicate that virtual reference is ineffectual; a study by Cummings et al revealed a low success rate of virtual reference at Washington State University (81-96). However, other evidence indicates digital reference services are effective and have a place in the information service community. A study by Croft and Eichenlaub reported on high user satisfaction with email reference at Royal Roads University (117-147). Such evidence indicates that users are becoming more accustomed to digital reference resources; email reference, after all, is a stepping stone to virtual reference.

Virtual reference is becoming increasingly accepted as an effective reference tool in the literature. Lesley Moyo states that virtual reference offers features not available in face to face reference interviews. The most important feature is that virtual reference can be assessed more effectively due to the ability to “archive transcripts,” (229). Other services include “sharing of transcripts with patrons, creation of knowledge bases, session logs and statistics, and immediate feedback from the pop-up survey that appears at the end of the interaction” (Moyo 229).

Virtual references offer opportunities not available with face to face interactions. What does this mean for historians? Historians value expertise and experienced information from reliable sources. If those sources were available online to historians, in the form of virtual archivists and librarians, they would be able to access the expert knowledge of those professionals online from their own homes. In order for virtual reference to be viable for historians, the virtual reference staff must have the knowledge and expertise of the archivists and librarians, historians normally rely on for face-to-face assistance. Information professionals also must keep in mind that some situations are not viable for virtual reference and they must be ready to transfer the interview to another format such as phone or face to face contact (Selby 43).

Virtual reference professionals must be flexible in their use of the medium. In addition, as Joseph Janes notes, the virtual reference service and its capabilities must be well marketed and advertised to the user community (9). Historians must be made aware that virtual reference exists and that it is a viable service, that is as reliable as a face to face reference interaction. In contrast to reliance on traditional and print sources, there is reason to believe that historians do not have to rely on traditional reference interview formats; virtual reference is an effective way to allow historians to access the expertise of information professionals, including archivists, from their own personal computers. Virtual reference could be a valuable component to any digital reference service offered to historians.