Surging virtual reference services: COVID-19 a game changer

Marie L. Radford, Laura Costello, Kaitlin Montague


In March 2020, academic libraries across the United States closed and sent everyone home, some destined to not reopen for months. University offices closed. Classes were moved online. Suddenly, librarians and staff pivoted to working from home and to all remote services, without time for planning logistics or training. To study the impact of this extraordinary and sweeping transition on virtual reference services (VRS), we conducted a major study of academic library responses to the pandemic that focused on librarian perceptions of how services and relationships with users morphed during this COVID-19 year.

Academic librarians rallied to our call, and we collected a total of 300 responses to two longitudinal surveys launched at key points during the pandemic. Data collection focused on two phases in 2020: 1) shutdown and immediate aftermath (mid-March to July), and 2) fall ramp up and into the semester (August to December). Via Zoom, we also interviewed 28 academic librarian leaders (e.g., heads of reference and/or VRS, associate directors for User Services) from September to November. Surveys and interviews centered on adaptations and innovations to reference services, especially VRS and perceptions of changes in user interactions.

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Copyright Marie L. Radford, Laura Costello, Kaitlin Montague

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