Formality in Chat Reference: Perceptions of 17- to 25-Year-Old University Students


  • Jennifer Waugh



virtual reference, chat reference, formality, computer mediated communication


Objective – To examine the ways in which the formality of language used by librarians affects 17- to 25-year-old university students’ perceptions of synchronous virtual reference interactions (chat reference), in particular, perceptions of answer accuracy, interpersonal connection, competency, professionalism, and overall satisfaction.

Methods – This qualitative study used semi-structured interviews to examine the perceptions of participants. Participants reviewed and responded to two virtual reference transcripts, portraying a librarian and student asking a simple question. One transcript portrayed a librarian using traditional, formal language while the other portrayed a librarian using informal language. Five 17- to 25-year-old university students were interviewed. Data were analyzed using a phenomenological, qualitative approach to discover common themes.

Results – Analysis suggests that participants perceived the formal librarian as being “robotic” and impersonal while the informal librarian was thought to be more invested in the reference interaction. Several participants viewed the formal librarian as more competent and trustworthy and questioned the effort put forth by the informal librarian, who was perceived as young and inexperienced. Participants’ perceptions of professionalism were based on expectations of social distance and formality. Satisfaction was based on content and relational factors. Several participants preferred the formal interaction based on perceptions of competency, while others preferred the informal librarian due to perceived interpersonal connection.

Conclusion – Formality plays a key role in altering the perceptions of 17- to 25-year-olds when viewing virtual reference interaction transcripts. Both language styles had advantages and disadvantages, suggesting that librarians should become cognizant of manipulating their language to encourage user satisfaction.


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How to Cite

Waugh, J. (2013). Formality in Chat Reference: Perceptions of 17- to 25-Year-Old University Students. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 8(1), 19–34.



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