The purpose of this study was to synthesize the research literature that has investigated library-based chat reference service. We define library-based chat reference as a synchronous, computer-based question answering service where users of the service ask question(s) which are answered by library employees or contracted agents. Following the methods for conducting a systematic review, we developed inclusion criteria for our data set and collected data from research on chat service dating from 1995 to January 2010. We limited our data to empirical research using established qualitative or quantitative methods. The final data set included 59 documents. We used White's (2001) digital reference service framework to guide our data analysis and unitized the data to the level of the research question(s) asked in each of the studies, resulting in 146 research questions. We focused the bulk of our analysis on the six categories of the framework where the research emphasis was strongest: parameters of the service; clients; parameters of the service; questions; question-answering process; response guidelines; staffing and training; and mission, objectives, statement of purpose.
Our aim is to analyze the literature on chat service from a broad perspective to uncover larger themes and streams of knowledge. We believe that this perspective is relevant to those who are currently engaged in chat service in some capacity—academics, librarians, managers, and IT developers. Our research presents the collective knowledge in this area and provides groundwork for researchers as they explore new questions related to chat service. It unifies for practitioners a collection of findings about chat service to enhance and improve their practice. The results suggest areas of opportunity for managers who wish to further develop chat as a library service, and the results synthesize current understandings about chat service which may be useful for IT developers to extend and innovate chat technology in libraries.