Reference Service Plan

Virtual reference services have become an important tool for reference librarians in academic libraries. Libraries continue to expand into the online resource realm, and institutions broaden their enrollment by offering distance classes. Many students may never have the opportunity to visit their institution’s library, and many who do may not need to due to the prevalence of online resources. Libraries began providing virtual reference first with email and now with chat services, texting, and even social media. But libraries have the ability to improve any such service.

The reference service plan below grows from the typical “Ask a Question” link found in some form on many academic library websites. The size of the academic institution for this plan would be a full-time enrollment of fewer than 5,000 students. A larger institution would bring additional challenges such as the difficulty of reaching out to all the faculty to implement the plan below. The patron-base for this service will be students of the academic institution: college, graduate, and doctoral students.

1. Service to implement

  • This reference service plan focuses on the text and email reference service provided to students. Specifically, the plan requires a subscription service such as Mosio’s Text-a-Librarian, that allows either a text message or email response (a choice made by the patron).
  • This subscription text service will be implemented inside the institution’s learning management system (LMS).

2. Current difficulties

  • Typically, the link for text or email help is found only on the library’s homepage. This practice assumes patrons will visit the library website at some point in their search for information.
  • Students may be unaware of this service. One could reasonably expect additional use of this service if there were additional awareness. One recent study found over half of their respondents did not use the text service because they were not aware of it, and over half of those unaware would consider using it after they became aware of the service (Luo, 2014).

3. Goals

  • The library will extend the text and email reference service into the institution’s LMS.
  • Student use of the text and email reference service will increase by 15% compared to its current use.
  • Library staff who respond to the texts and emails will deliver consistent and quality reference services.

4. Implementation

  • The library will reach out to Campus Technology and request that a link be provided on the student’s homepage inside the institution’s LMS. The link could be the official link to the service—creating a tab “stuck” to the side of the page—but would likely be portion of text with a hyperlink to the text and email service.
  • The library will also reach out to professors, asking them to embed the link to this text and email service into their course page on the LMS. The library would pitch this as a means of improving student use of library resources on class assignments, improving assignment quality with little additional work from the professor.
  • Library staff at the reference desk will respond to the texts and emails through a single account as “Reference Staff.” Staff will keep the service open in their internet browser while on the clock at the library and answer questions throughout their shift.
  • Buy-in to this effort does not need to be universal, but the broader the acceptance, the better. One LMS, Moodle, provides an easy homepage for a link. Not every LMS offers this. Also, not every professor will actually provide the link in their course page. The goal will still remain a 15% increase in this service’s use.

5. Measurement and assessment

  • The library will gather statistics on the total number of reference transactions through this service and compare them to the total number of transactions from previous years (before the links inside the LMS). This comparison will allow library staff to know if the 15% increase was reached.
  • The library will use these statistics to further promote the service to professors in an attempt to gain broader participation in this effort.
  • Quality and consistency between library staff responses will be assessed through a random sampling of responses. The single “Reference Staff” account will create anonymity, allowing a broad sample without singling out any particular staff member. Responses will be evaluated corporately by the reference staff in a group setting. A recent study has shown this to be an engaging environment for growth and improvement of virtual reference services (Logan & Lewis, 2011).



Logan, F. F., & Lewis, K. (2011). Quality Control: A Necessary Good for Improving Service. The Reference Librarian, 52(3), 218–230.

Luo, L. (2014). Text a librarian: a look from the user perspective. Reference Services Review, 42(1), 34–51.

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