Reflection on the 2023 North American Virtual Reference Online Conference (NAVROC)

By Sydney Brogden, BC ELN Student Librarian

The North American Virtual Reference Online Conference (NAVROC) took place from February 21-23, 2023. For those who were unable to attend or would like to revisit a session, recordings will be available on the conference website soon.  

The keynote presentation and theme for the conference was Wholehearted Libraries: Meeting the Needs of Community, from Dr. Michael Stephens of the School of Information at San Jose State University. This theme translated into the great variety of sessions presented over the three half days. Sessions covered a wide range of topics, some of which are directly applicable to AskAway while others are more relevant in the broader virtual reference environment.  

Sessions directly relevant to AskAway 

Sessions with direct applicability to AskAway brought up interesting tensions. From technological tensions to service approaches, these sessions provided insights that prompt reflection.  

For example, an interesting tension was discussed about the desire to keep up with changing technology, like implementing chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI) tools for chat reference, as well as much discussion around the desire to humanize services. This is a difficult paradox to address, as there may be opportunities to use technology to triage questions and facilitate efficient use of staff time and resources, however the current capabilities of these tools may not humanize services to the level desired.  

Relatedly, an interesting difference arose in the varying approaches to humanizing services – especially across borders. The AskAway community is familiar with a completely anonymized service, where service providers receive little to no background information on patrons at the outset of a chat interaction. This is in place to protect patron privacy, provide broad access to the service across institutions without a login, and to comply with Canadian privacy laws. In contrast to this approach, some American services require users to login for access to the service. This allows service providers access to personally identifying pieces of information (home institution, student ID, email, and full name among others), which can be helpful for facilitating humanized conversation with the use of names and enables streamlined conversation follow-up options.  

In another session, Conversation Analysis was introduced as a method for recognising and repairing miscommunications in chat. This approach is helpful for service providers as a framework that can help providers identify where miscommunication may have taken place and to initiate repair of a conversation by redirecting and restoring the productive flow of conversation. Several common types of miscommunications in chat were identified, including mistyping, typing in the wrong window, giving instructions when not co-present, ambiguous terminology, and differences in expertise. These miscommunications highlight the need for well conducted reference interviews to establish understanding prior to diving into an effective conversation – which can be particularly tricky in the online environment. A quote shared by Suzanne Bersten and Sara Memmott captures this sentiment well: “The librarians’ job is therefore to provide both information and instruction to anonymous strangers whose level of expertise is unknown to them”.


Interesting sessions in the broader virtual reference space 

Although some sessions may not have been directly relevant to AskAway as a service, they contained interesting perspectives on virtual reference and research support that may be applicable in the professional lives of AskAway community members outside of AskAway.  

Amy Dye-Reeves shared an approach to virtual research consultations that uses Google Jamboards to facilitate sessions. For meetings held over video conference, this tool provides a space for the librarian and the student to collaborate. The added benefit of this approach is that the student can leave the consultation with a record of what was discussed, as well as a concrete list of next steps.  

On a related theme in the same Lightning Talk session, Priscilla Finley shared ideas about using flipped classroom strategies for virtual consultations. This approach aims to engage the student prior to the research consultation to establish interests and needs, determine level of expertise, and provide initial tutorial resources beforehand. This allows students and librarians to build complementary expectations for the consultation session. By providing basic tutorial resources before the meeting, time spent together during the meeting can be used to dive into a deeper level of questions and instruction, which provides an opportunity for more meaningful outcomes.  


Ties to Keynote 

In his keynote talk on Wholehearted Service: Meeting the Needs of Community, Dr. Michael Stephens shared a variety of insights on well-being, taking time to pause and reflect, and the importance of soft skills. These ideas represent the core foundations of library services, and ideally carry through to our remote style services, as they can be thought of as a natural extension of the library.  

Keynote session: 

A relevant reminder shared during the session was that while we may love the work we do, “[we] do not have to live and breathe libraries every moment of the day”. This mindset is effective, as we can wholeheartedly provide services, and then step away to rest and recharge. Stepping away is key to engaging in other activities that enable us to bring fresh perspectives to our work in meaningful ways, like those explored throughout the NAVROC conference.