Though Virtual Reference Services Have Increased, They Face Challenges and Opportunities in the Wake of COVID-19


  • Hilary Bussell The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, United States of America



A Review of:

Gerbig, M., Holmes, K., Lu, M., & Tang, H. (2021). From bricks and mortar to bits and bytes: Examining the changing state of reference services at the University of Toronto Libraries during COVID-19. Partnership16(1), 1–10.


Objective – To compare data about the provision of reference services at the University of Toronto Libraries (UTL) prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to identify obstacles and opportunities facing UTL reference services in the future.

Design – Survey questionnaire.

Setting – A large public research university in Ontario, Canada.

Subjects – Thirty-nine libraries across the three campuses of UTL.

Methods – A Microsoft Forms survey comprised of 37 questions was distributed in August and September 2020.

Main Results – Twenty-four libraries responded to the survey, for a response rate of approximately 62%. UTL’s chat service saw a 200% increase in September 2020 compared to September 2019 (since UTL participates in chat as part of the Ontario Council of University Libraries Scholars Portal, some traffic may have been from non-UT users). The option to book a reference appointment with a librarian was available at most of the libraries before the pandemic, and remained available during the pandemic. The survey results suggested that the shift to remote learning resulted in a significant expansion of virtual reference appointments; 75% of libraries reported offering virtual reference, compared to 17% before the pandemic.

Consultations and in-depth reference questions rose during the pandemic, with a quarter of responding libraries reporting an increase. Librarians became a larger share of the staff providing reference services during the pandemic, whereas the number of libraries using library technicians or student assistants to staff their reference services decreased. There were changes to formal reference service hours as well, with half of responding libraries reporting a reduction; however, most noted that they continued to answer reference questions over email at other times.

In response to the survey question asking for general comments about reference services, some respondents described worries about whether students taking only online classes would engage with online reference services, and whether overstressed faculty members would refer their students to librarians. Several respondents noted positive outcomes in moving towards a primarily online reference model, including more options to connect with students and an uptick in reference requests.

Conclusion – The authors note several challenges and opportunities for libraries in shifting to a remote reference model. Challenges include confusion on the part of users about where to go for help and increased workload for librarians. Opportunities include the chance to explore how virtual technologies can be used to make reference services more easily available to library users even after physical spaces have opened back up.


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How to Cite

Bussell, H. (2022). Though Virtual Reference Services Have Increased, They Face Challenges and Opportunities in the Wake of COVID-19. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 17(1), 134–136.



Evidence Summaries