Title of Paper Proposal: 


Users and Librarians Engaging in Virtual Spaces: Using Critical Incidents to Inform Practice and Education in Chat Reference


Proposal Submitted by:


Marie L. Radford, Ph.D. (Contact Person)

Associate Professor

Rutgers, the State University of NJ

4 Huntington St.

New Brunswick, NJ 18901-1071

Voice: 732-932-7500 ex.8233 

Fax: 732-932-2644

E-mail: [email protected]




Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Ph.D.

Consulting Research Scientist

Research, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.

Voice: 303-246-3623   

Fax: 614-718-7378

E-mail: [email protected]


Abstract (476 words):  


Live chat virtual reference services (VRS) have become mainstream access points for tech-savvy seekers of online help from librarians over the past ten years (Sloan, 2006). Research informing LIS practice and education is critical for sustaining the relevance of library services in these rapidly expanding virtual environments. This paper reports new results from the final phases of a two-year grant project.* It highlights findings from an investigation that compares the perceptions of VRS users and librarians by means of the Critical Incident Technique (Flanagan, 1954). This qualitative method is designed to elicit the most memorable aspects of an event or experience from participants (Ruben 1993) and has been used successfully in LIS for research in face-to-face reference service evaluation (see Radford 1993, 1996, 1999, 2006a).



Critical Incident (CI) narratives in which VRS librarians and users describe successful and unsuccessful chat interactions, are being collected through 400 online surveys (from 200 users and 200 librarians) and 200 telephone interviews (with 100 users and 100 librarians).  The theoretical perspectives of Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) and Goffman (1959, 1967) provide frameworks for a content analysis of these CI to address the following research questions:



  • What are the critical factors that determine users’ perceptions of success and satisfaction in VRS?
  • What are the critical factors that determine librarians’ perceptions of success and satisfaction in VRS?
  • How do users and librarians differ in their perception of factors critical to their perceptions of success and satisfaction in VRS?
  • What is the relationship between information delivered/received (task/content) and interpersonal (relational) dimensions of VRS in determining perceptions of satisfaction/success?



Qualitative analysis of each CI involves repeated reading, identification, comparison, and categorization of themes using NVivo software. The categories and coding method were developed in a previous study (see Radford, 1993, 1999) and applied to VRS in prior research (Radford 2006b) and in earlier phases of the current grant project (Connaway & Radford, 2007; Radford & Connaway, in press) The final data collection and analysis phase is nearing conclusion. All VRS librarian online surveys and telephone interviews have been completed and analysis is underway. User online surveys are in progress and user telephone interviews will be finished soon with analysis scheduled to be accomplished by the project’s conclusion in September 2007. If this proposal is accepted, a full report of the results of the CI analysis will be provided.



The Critical Incident Techniqueprovides a method for expanding insight and understanding of the VRS interaction. Based on these research findings, the authors will discuss implications and detail recommendations for LIS education that encourage reflective practice and service excellence in face-to-face and virtual environments. An important feature of the CI analysis is that it will provide an increased understanding of VRS from the viewpoint of both users and librarians so that greater success and satisfaction for all involved can be achieved.









*Note: This research project, “Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives,” is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.


Bibliography of Cited References


Connaway, L. S. & Radford, M. L. (2007). The thrill of the chase in cyberspace: A report of focus groups with live chat librarians. Informed Librarian Online [electronic journal] [Available:  http://www.informedlibrarian.com/guestForum.cfm?FILE=gf0701.html]

Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 5, 327-358.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual, essays on face-to-face behavior.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

Radford, M. L. & Connaway, L. S. (in press). “Screenagers” and Live Chat Reference: Living Up to the Promise. Scan.

Radford, M. L. (summer 2006a). The critical incident technique and the qualitative evaluation of the Connecting Libraries and Schools Project. Library Trends. 54(1), 46-64.

Radford, M. L. (June, 2006b). Encountering virtual users: A qualitative investigation of interpersonal communication in chat reference. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 57(8), 1046-1059.

Radford, M. L. (1999). The reference encounter: Interpersonal communication in the academic library. Chicago: ACRL, A Division of the American Library Association.

Radford, M. L. (April 1996). Communication theory applied to the reference encounter: An analysis of critical incidents. Library Quarterly, 66(2), 123-137.

Radford, M. L. (1993). Relational aspects of reference interactions: A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of users and librarians in the academic library. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. DAI A54/07, 2368.

Ruben, B.D. (1993). “What patients remember: A content analysis of critical incidents in health care,” Health Communication, 5, 1-16.

Sloan, B. (2006). Twenty years of virtual reference. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 11(2), 91-95.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication. NY: Norton.