This is the authors' final version of an the article Arendt, J., & Graves, S. J. (2001). Virtual question changes: Reference in evolving environments. Reference Services Review, 39(2), 187-205. doi: 10.1108/00907321111135448


Purpose – As virtual reference and online discovery tools evolve, so do interactions with patrons. This study aims to describe how synchronous virtual reference transactions changed over a six-year period at a university library.

Design/methodology/approach – Transcripts from October and February from October 2004 to February 2010 were coded for question type, interlibrary loan discussions, and referrals. Subcategories for holding types and referrals were also recorded.

Findings – The number and types of questions changed with the virtual reference platform used, both increasing and decreasing. The number of questions more than doubled from the beginning to the end of the six-year study period. The number of holdings questions at the end of the study period was six times higher than the number at the beginning. Patterns relating to interlibrary loan discussions and referrals were noted.

Research limitations/implications – The study examined transcripts from one university library. Findings cannot be generalized but provide examples that may be similar in other libraries. Practical implications – The number and type of online reference questions that a library receives can change dramatically in a short time. Libraries should monitor question transactions, especially after software changes. Libraries also should consider how the placement of chat widgets changes the quantity and nature of questions and train staff appropriately.

Originality/value – This study examines transcripts across a longer time span than previous studies. It is unique in its examination of virtual reference widgets embedded in proprietary databases and link resolvers.