Libraries Providing Virtual Reference Service via Virtual Reality: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

The short answer is: not yet, but that doesn’t mean that libraries shouldn’t prepare for the eventuality.

Reference Desk, UCLA School of Law

Many academic, public, and special libraries offer virtual reference services to their users. The American Library Association defines virtual reference as:

Virtual reference is reference service initiated electronically, often in real-time, where patrons employ computers or other Internet technology to communicate with reference staff, without being physically present. Communication channels used frequently in virtual reference include chat, videoconferencing, Voice over IP, co-browsing, e-mail, and instant messaging…

Reference services requested and provided over the Internet, usually via e-mail, instant messaging (“chat”), or Web-based submission forms, usually answered by librarians in the reference department of a library, sometimes by the participants in a collaborative reference system serving more than one institution.

There has been extensive academic research done on libraries offering services in predecessor virtual worlds such as Second Life. Libraries’ and librarians’ presence in SL has waned after an initial burst of enthusiasm, mainly due to budgetary constraints, the relatively steep learning curve associated with Second Life, and the fact that few people were prepared to use what they considered a game platform to access library services (i.e. a mismatch between anticipated users and actual users). However, this earlier wave of research gives us a glimpse of what virtual reference via VR could look like. In fact, one person (Cedar Librarian) has already built a functional library on the social VR platform High Fidelity, using public-domain versions of classic books. (I would, however, argue strongly that the “library” is the actual service of a librarian, rather than simply a static collection of books, even if they are digitized and accessible via a computer.)

One important issue that virtual reference service via VR would face is the licensing of resources. Libraries sign license agreements with commercial database publishers which restrict access to institutional users only. This means that, if I were to provide reference services to a user not affiliated with my institution, I would not be able to provide them with copies of books and articles. However, there are still many useful non-commercial information resources such as Google Scholar that we could refer users to, as well as the myriad of resources of their own local public and academic libraries. Librarians refer users to other libraries all the time.

Another key issue is the cost of VR equipment and the learning curve associated with social VR platforms. While I would argue that it is easier and more natural to get started in Sansar than it is in Second Life, it’s still a significant challenge for many people to take their first steps in VR. The first generation of VR headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, were complicated to set up, and required an expensive gaming-level computer. However, cheaper standalone VR headsets like the Oculus Quest promise to bring VR to an ever larger audience of consumers, including potential library users.

I can forsee a future (starting perhaps a decade from now) where many libraries would offer virtual reference services to users via virtual reality (“VR in VR”, if you like). Users could make appointments for their avatar to meet in-world with a reference librarian, who would assist them in finding electronic and printed information resources to answer their questions. Alternatively, library staff could sit at the virtual reference desk at regularly scheduled shifts, available to whoever dropped in with a query. The reference interview would encompass both text chat and voice chat, and include hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions, just as in real-life conversations. Academic, public, and special libraries could even work together to create a collaborative, 24/7 reference service which spans the globe and has locations on many popular social VR platforms.

One day, you might just consult with your reference librarian in virtual reality.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

As I said, it’s not here yet. But it’s coming, and perhaps sooner than you might think.

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