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1 Apr 2009 / Julie

it’s not virtual reference or how not to be a robot

i run a virtual reference service. statewide, even. i love it. i think it helps change the stereotype of libraries. but when i explain what i do to a non-librarian i get blank stares. i’ve ranged from “librarian” to “I run an online information service” to everything in between. i either get blank, glazed over stares or comments like “oh, so you like books.” ::headdesk::

I’ve often thought it was the “virtual” part of “i run a virtual reference service” that is the sticking point. Well, the “reference” part too. But today i heard Michael Whitchurch of Brigham Young University say that calling something virtual makes it feel less real. Let’s see:

virtual reality: you can’t touch it.
virtual banana: you can’t eat it.
virtual tourist: you can’t drink the water
virtual reference: we’re robots


Okay, so what is it? we’re helping people online. we’re answering questions remotely. HEY! Remote Reference! But we’re still stuck on reference. which no one but librarians understands. nor should they. Why are we expecting folks to bend to use when we should be bending to them?

Remote… Information help! Maybe. It’s a work in progress. But i’m all for not making our librarians not sound like robots. Or our service sound like a search engine.

So we’re not robots. interesting thing about that. I always say the way to not sound like a robot is to have a conversation. Don’t just push information at them. But conveying emotion and interest is hard when all you have is words. But wait, books are full of more emotion than movies are… oh, that’s because you’re filling in the blanks with your imagination… and because a good book tells you what’s going on. Like a librarian should tell their customer what’s going on. instead of “here’s a link to Queen Victoria…” try “Oh that’s great! I think we can find what you’re looking for in xx, i’m going to search that to see what i can find… give me 2 mins, brb.” wow, what a difference. conversation. transparency. and no robots in sight.

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