In libraries around the world there are people asking librarians for research assistance. As technology has advanced and communication strategies have moved outside the physical library buildings, librarians now respond to reference queries online. This study analyzed two forms of virtual reference; instant messaging (IM) and log-in chat. The purpose of this study was to find out if there is any inherent difference between the way the patrons or the librarians used these two virtual services. An exploratory research design focused on numerous aspects of virtual reference communication. During the spring terms of academic years 2011 and 2012 at a community college, 1,341 transcripts of IM and log-in chat sessions were recorded. Using a systematic sampling process, 320 transcripts were sampled and their content analyzed. Findings indicate that a length of the transaction significantly affected the outcome of all transactions. Log-in chats were generally longer than IM chats and it was found that; they were more complicated, the librarians were more responsive and friendly, patrons were more satisfied and the librarian was generally able to conduct a reference interview more often. Additionally the findings indicated that both IM and log-in chat were very similar in three aspect; patron formality, completeness/accuracy of the librarians' answer and the reference interview adding/changing or clarifying the patrons question. There were four major conclusions of this study: The log-in chat portal had longer online reference transactions and better overall outcomes; instant messaging portal queries, although similar in many aspects to log-in chat, were ultimately treated in a less formal manner by patrons; librarians gave reference interviews and complete/accurate answers equally in both platforms and there were similar overall success rates in both platforms. Based on the findings in this study it is recommended that academic libraries serving a general population of students use both the IM and log-in chat portals on their library websites. Patrons appear to appears to be using each portal for different and equally important reasons. Further study of virtual communications practices is needed to enhance the findings of this study as more institutions expand their patron base beyond those who can physically meet with a reference librarian.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (EdD) -- Learning technologies; Electronic reference services (Libraries); Instant messaging; Internet in library reference services; Academic libraries -- Reference services -- United States

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Davis, Kay D.;