Conceptualizing Collaboration and Community in Virtual Reference and Social Question and Answer Services.

Document Type



This short paper reports preliminary findings from Cyber Synergy: Seeking Sustainability between Virtual Reference and Social Q&A Sites, a multi-year project exploring how to better leverage existing virtual reference services. It investigates how to harness subject expertise of librarians through virtual collaboration, and connect with potential users through social question and answer services to create a more open, innovative, and sustainable future. Insights from qualitative analysis of in-depth telephone interviews with twenty-five virtual reference services librarians on topics including referrals, collaboration, and social question and answer services have been sought to inform new service designs. The communities of practice approach is used as the theoretical framework and has three fundamental elements: (1) domain, (2) community, and (3) shared practice. When facing questions outside of their expertise, participants usually refer these to another librarian or, occasionally, to a different type of expert. Participants are able to refer questions to other librarians because they feel that they are qualified and willing to collaborate, as delineated in communities of practice. Knowing who to ask is a major facilitator to collaboration, while unwillingness to collaborate, not knowing who to contact, or ability to verify credentials are important barriers. Librarians viewed answers in social question and answer services as less authoritative and less objective, but they were not against collaborating with experts, provided they had demonstrated professional expertise or extensive knowledge.

APA Citation

Radford, M.L., Connaway, L.S., Mikitish, S., Alpert, M., Shah, C., & Cooke, N. A. (2013). Conceptualizing collaboration and community in virtual reference and social question and answer services. Information Research, 18(3). Available at