Ask-WA: Learn More

What Is Virtual Reference?

Virtual reference, commonly known as VR, is reference provided through any virtual means. This can include fairly universal technologies like the telephone and email, or newer technologies including chat, instant messaging, SMS (cell phone texting), and virtual worlds (such as Second Life).

Ask-WA stresses that virtual reference is not about adding a new service in the library. Instead, it's about offering an essential service: reference, in the venues and using the technologies that are familiar and convenient for library users.

More and more, library users expect to have services provided to them online. Cell phone users want everything at the touch of a button, no matter where they are. It is up to libraries to keep up with our users and provide services that are of value, both in content as well as in delivery.

What Is a Statewide Virtual Reference Cooperative?

Cooperative's such as Ask-WA provide reference services through online technologies, often email, chat, and instant messaging (IM). These services are available via participating libraries throughout the state, and coordinated by a central administrator. Other examples of statewide virtual reference cooperatives include AskMN and AskUsNow!

The Ask-WA cooperative includes more than 50 cooperating libraries: public, academic, and special; and serves to answer more than 80,000 reference questions every year. By leveraging the QuestionPoint 24/7 global cooperative, participating Washington libraries are able to offer their patrons 24/7 access to a live reference librarian at an incredibly small cost.

How Do Libraries Participate?

Washington libraries participate in Ask-WA in a few ways. The Washington State Library subsidizes a large portion of the costs associated with the project using LSTA funds. The remaining costs are shared among participating Washington libraries; these costs are based on population served for public libraries, and by enrollment numbers for academic libraries. Costs are affordable for all participating libraries, from the smallest to the largest, and are paid once per year.

In addition to monetary investment, participating libraries agree to commit their librarians to a certain amount of staff coverage in the global, 24/7 reference cooperative. On average, most libraries cover between 2-4 hours per week in the 24/7 cooperative. During these hours, the covering librarian is expected to have no other obligations so that they can focus entirely on providing an excellent virtual reference service.

What Else Should I Know?

Ask-WA uses QuestionPoint software, which is a product available through OCLC. QuestionPoint offers email, chat, and IM reference management through a single interface for librarians.

In addition to weekly coverage responsibilities, participating libraries may spend 1-2 hours a week administering the service and answering email questions from their own library users.

When staffing Ask-WA, librarians are expected to provide excellent reference service to every user they assist. In turn, we expect the same from other libraries when they help our users.

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Funded in part by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).