Reference Services Assignment 7: Virtual Reference and Technostress
Mark R. Lindner
LIS 504A Fall 2004
Prof. Terry Weech

Vulnerability as a component of technostress (Van Fleet and Wallace) is a very real feature of today's reference environment.  Technostress was defined by Brod as "a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner" (Brod).  Kupersmith identified four components of technostress; performance anxiety, information overload, role conflicts, and burnout (Kupersmith).  Van Fleet and Wallace added three more specifically geared to virtual reference; loss of personal identity, resource challenges, and vulnerability (Van Fleet and Wallace, 188-9).  One important feature of these three new components of technostress is that they can affect both librarian and patron.

So, what is "virtual reference" and "vulnerability" in relation to it?  Virtual reference, or digital reference, "there is no consensus on which term to use," "allows users to access information and assistance online, using e-mail, chat, video, voice software, or any other Internet technology" (Zanin-Yost).  Vulnerability was not concisely defined by Van Fleet and Wallace, but I take it to mean "fear or anxiety regarding the potential danger of digital technology" (Van Fleet and Wallace, 189), and the actual harm, physical, mental, social, or political that may arise from the use of these technologies.   

Until recently, those expressing fear or anxiety about the harmful effects of digital technologies "were frequently treated as woefully uninformed or guilty of being active Luddites" (Van Fleet and Wallace, 189).  I find this so indicative of the state of our society.  Some of these voices were, of course, uniformed or actively Luddite (and what is the problem with the second?).  But, often, these voices were, and are, the most informed.  The rhetoric of the technological system has to disavow these voices though, as they stand in the way of ‘progress.’  Van Fleet and Wallace mention that fears of patron vulnerability were dismissed by stating that these issues fall under current principles of patron privacy and confidentiality (189).  They also focus a substantial portion of the article on the potential impact of the USA PATRIOT Act, stating that it "imposes real threats for both library staff and patrons and can be expected to heighten technostress in the reference environment, particularly but not exclusively in the arena of virtual reference" (Van Fleet and Wallace, 190).  They offer a small sample of profound questions that need answering:

"What professional responsibilities and obligations do librarians have with regard to ensuring confidentiality in a virtual reference environment?  Are statements that everything possible will be done to ensure patron privacy adequate—or even honest?  What are the implications of creating records of transactions that previously existed only in the consciousness of the librarian and the patron?"  They include several more deep and troubling questions in this list (Van Fleet and Wallace, 190).

Van Fleet and Wallace add two more coping strategies to help offset these new components of technostress; vigilance and advocacy.  In fact, over a third of this short article is taken up by a resolution against portions of the USA PATRIOT Act that was passed by ALA Council at Midwinter 2003.  Other than commenting that neither of these strategies "is novel in the history of library relationships with government," and that they are "embodied" in the previously mentioned ALA resolution (Van Fleet and Wallace, 190), they say nothing else about these strategies. 

In fact, this is one of my two major complaints with this article.  This could have been an excellent article, even at its short, four-page form.  It seems to me that Van Fleet and Wallace used this forum, and their status as editors of Reference & Users Services Quarterly, to make a primarily political statement, rather than a substantial contribution to the literature on technostress and reference services.  My second complaint is that they barely developed their three new components of technostress, and they said virtually nothing about the two coping strategies.  Again, this feeds back into the primarily political nature of the piece.  The USA PATRIOT Act is a very important topic; but so is the impact of increasing technostress.  And as long as many in the profession think that it is a non-subject, the larger picture is important.  The totalitarian aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act are better fought in other fora, or at least in articles in which it is the clear and primary focus.

Now, I'd like to spend the rest of this short paper fleshing out some of what Van Fleet and Wallace were hinting at.  Today, I received the November 2004 issue of American Libraries in my mailbox.  Andrew Pace's column, Technically Speaking, with impeccable timing, addresses "The Technology of Patriotism."  He addresses the subject of data mining and how there are software companies "making millions off government-mandated compliance" to the USA PATRIOT Act (Pace, 58).  Pace asks some very relevant questions:

"Can you identify the activities of individual patrons in your web-server access logs?  … Does your integrated library system keep a borrower history or a fines history?  [ILLiad; my comment] …  Does your vendor have root access to your library servers?  Does your library have a privacy agreement with its chat-reference provider?  What is your library's relationship with its Internet Service Provider (ISP)" (Pace, 58)?

Other questions I would add based on my experience, "Is your data even on your own servers, or on your vendors?  Who owns the data?"

Another issue that causes technostress in both librarians and patrons is the "increasingly ephemeral nature of the reference collection that has created cognitive dissonance…" (Kluegel, 121).  Electronic reference tools, databases, and sources within databases are all fluid.  They are here one day and gone the next; often with no warning.  "Because this is the new reality, it pays to approach the reference desk with an open mind, ready to adjust one's strategies to the day's resources" (Kluegel, 121).  This may be a realistic and pragmatic attitude in the current climate; but more importantly, what are we going to do about it?  This is not warfare for heaven's sake! 

Jensen points out many reasons why the importation of the unobtrusive methods of study in traditional reference are "entirely unwarranted," are "an irresponsible misuse of time," "can effectively paralyze the service," and "is an abuse of resources" in the virtual reference environment (Jensen, 143, 145, 146, 147).  This is particularly the case in light of what properly scrubbed virtual reference transcripts provide in the way of "vast pools of useful data, generated by fascinating interactions with authentic patrons" (Jensen, 148). 

Another issue of vulnerability is a high-tech version of the ‘prank call.’  Clearly, in Australia at least, pranksters have discovered the AskALibrarian services.  The following excerpts should be clue enough, but feel free to follow the links in the bibliography.  "now im thinking. you bitch, youre meant to answer my question not direct me to search. so i start acting like a retard. … Ahh rofl-waffles its great fun. try it sometime and email me the transcripts and ill post em :D" (Blight).

I would love to go into my own personal experiences in User Services and elsewhere, but I am out of space.  I think that Van Fleet and Wallace have provided us with some important insights into technostress and virtual reference.  And while the USA PATRIOT Act is an extremely important influence on the component of vulnerability, I just wish they had kept the article a little more focused on the main subject. 

Works Cited

Brod, Craig. Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1984.

Jensen, Bruce. "The Case for Non-Intrusive Research: A Virtual Reference Librarian's Persepctive." The Reference Librarian.85 (2004): 139-49.

Kluegel, Kathleen M. "Electronic Resources for Reference."  Reference and Information Services: An Introduction. Eds. Richard E Bopp and Linda C Smith. Third ed. Library and Information Science Text Series. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2000. 97-125.

Kupersmith, John. "Technostress and the Reference Librarian." Reference Services Review 20 (1992): 7-14, 50.

Pace, Andrew K. "The Technology of Patriotism." American Libraries 35.10 (2004): 58-59.

Madman, The. "lol." 25 October 2004. Online posting. The Blight. 4 November 2004.  <>.

—-. "Librarian2-Vic Part II." 26 October 2004. Online posting. The Blight. 4 November 2004. <>.

Van Fleet, Connie, and Danny P. Wallace. "Virtual Libraries—Real Threats: Technostress and Virtual Reference." Reference & Users Services Quarterly 42.3 (2003): 188-91.

Zanin-Yost, Alessia. "Digital Reference: What the Past Has Taught Us and What the Future Will Hold." Library Philosophy and Practice 7.1 (2004).

This paper © 2007 Mark R. Lindner   All Rights Reserved.