Digital reference (or virtual reference) is a service by which a library reference service is conducted online, and the reference transaction is a computer-mediated communication. It is the remote, NextNextcomputer-mediated delivery of reference information provided by library professionals to users who cannot access or do not want face-to-face communication. Virtual reference service is most often an extension of a library's existing reference service program. The word "reference" in this context refers to the task of providing assistance to library users in finding information, answering questions, and otherwise fulfilling users’ information needs. Reference work often but not always involves using reference works, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. This form of reference work expands reference services from the physical reference desk to a "virtual" reference desk where the patron could be writing from home, work or a variety of other locations.
The terminology surrounding virtual reference services may involve multiple terms used for the same definition. The preferred term for remotely delivered, computer-mediated reference services is "virtual reference", with the secondary non-preferred term "digital reference" having gone out of use in recent years. "Chat reference" is often used interchangeably with virtual reference, although it represents only one aspect of virtual reference. Virtual reference includes the use of both synchronous (i.e., IM, videoconferencing) and asynchronous communication (i.e., texting and email). Here, "synchronous virtual reference" refers to any real-time computer-mediated communication between patron and information professional. Asynchronous virtual reference is all computer-mediated communication that is sent and received at different times
The earliest digital reference services were launched in the mid-1980s, primarily by academic and medical libraries, and provided by e-mail. These early-adopter libraries launched digital reference services for two main reasons: to extend the hours that questions could be submitted to the reference desk, and to explore the potential of campus-wide networks, which at that time was a new technology.
With the advent of the graphical World Wide Web, libraries quickly adopted webforms for question submission. Since then, the percentage of questions submitted to services via webforms has outstripped the percentage submitted via email.
SkillsTech has been working with the E- Reference concept since inception. Being associated with many of the E- Reference projects in both Govt and Non-Govt organisations, SkillsTech is promoting this technology driven structure.