A handful of vendors offer software for virtual reference. This software has such features as built-in question assignments and routing to librarian group accounts, statistics, co-browsing, knowledgebases, and feedback forms. Some libraries employ mailto links or web forms and/or a popular chat client such as AIM instead.
For more information on virtual reference formats and technologies, see:
For real-time virtual reference, many libraries are part of chat co-operatives or consortia. Most institutions don't possess the staffing levels necessary to monitor chat enough hours for the service be attractive to users. Some co-operatives are even able to offer 24-hour chat. This is likely a big benefit to users, who not only can get in-person help all the time, but also are never hindered by having to remember or look up service hours. However, some libraries providing chat reference still refuse to have librarians from other institutions serve their patrons, sacrificing increased service hours for a desire to control all transactions (presumably to offer better answers to patrons who do happen to connect during operating hours).
Critics of virtual reference point out that it is more inefficient than face-to-face reference transactions at the reference desk (as is telephone reference) and can increase the service demands of librarians, possibly to the point of straining their professional image.
However, virtual reference has the potential to reach new users and make things easier for existing ones (such as distance education students) and alleviate the so-called "fear of reference" effect. See this Dig_Ref post for further commentary along these lines.
- Ask Wisconsin Best Practices Guidelines Quality assurance practices and procedures
- Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services From ALA RUSA/MARS
- Open Directory Project category List of vendors
- 24/7 Reference OCLC virtual reference product
- OmniReference Multi-Channel Virtual Reference tool for libraries (Combines Email, Chat, SMS, Twitter, & Facebook into one Dashboard)