Z711.45 → Electronic Reference Services

Call it what you want - electronic, virtual, chat - this type of reference service has actually been around for some time now, but I see it picking up steam more and more now as academic libraries strive to reach their students in new ways. It certainly makes sense - undergraduates have access to information via their phones and iPads in ways that previous generations could only dream of.

Since the beginning of September, I've been participating in Scholar's Portal and OCUL's Ask a Librarian service as an intern. The purpose of this service is to provide university students and faculty with on-the-spot reference and information services - within the operating hours, at least - that covers a wide range of subject matter, programming, and schools. Chat reference, being a synchronous form of rapport, can help students because the service is convenient, quick, and (somewhat) anonymous.

Since I've begun participating in the program, I've noticed several positive aspects - and a few drawbacks - of the service. A great article I came across was Best practices in chat reference used by Florida's Ask a Librarian virtual reference librarians by Ward and Barier (2009, full citation below). The authors present a number of common librarian concerns about chat reference, and a lot of them are very similar to the thoughts and feelings I've been having over the past five months. My thoughts are after the jump!

It pays to be a generalist. Since these are university students that are using the service, librarians - like with most reference services they provide - need to be able to be generalists. It's our bread and butter, really, especially in an academic library environment. With two simultaneous chats happening, an operator could be helping a student search CINAHL for sources on nursing and cancer while also working with another student to find a required reading in JSTOR. It's many levels of programs, facets, and instruction all at once.

Getting the "Oh my God!!" reaction. It doesn't always happen but when it does, it's golden. One of the difficulties of chat reference is that its inherently impersonal - I had one person that asked "Is your name really ____?!" as if they did not believe they were talking to a real person. Sometimes the user disables the chat before you can get a proper closing or goodbye in. But there are times - great times - when you've helped someone with something that they were absolutely struggling with before contacting the service. You can tell you've just made their day. While chat can certainly be impersonal, its easy to read into what the user is saying with those multiple exclamation points! 

Great teamwork. The beauty of these shifts is that you're always working with other librarians - either representatives of their academic libraries or other interns. From the point of view of an intern, it's really a great way to see how colleagues deal with a particularly daunting question or issue. And if you're the one with the daunting question, there are always people to talk to and ask advice. Overall all, this is probably the best behind-the-scenes part of the service!

Dealing with end-user assumptions. This is perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects that I've had to come to terms with when on shift. Since the service aids about a dozen different university libraries and their students - there are a lot of end-users that operate with the assumption that the librarians are based out of their library. It's not a terrible thing to assume, really. But even when I know a certain academic library really well, students still list of course numbers and acronyms like I should know what they are. I don't feel terrible asking for clarification - a librarian generally has to at some point in a reference interview - but I can tell that it can annoy some users.

Making some assumptions of your own. The beauty of virtual reference is that it can be done from any location. The obvious downside to this is that neither the operator nor the user can see what's on the other's screen. Even if you understand perfectly what the user wants in regards to information, you still sometimes have to trust that they're accessing the same webpage that you are. For example, the other day I was helping someone find an article that was required reading. While it only took me 2 minutes to find, it took nearly 30 minutes to break it down into smaller steps - starting from the beginning, i.e. the library's homepage - in order to make sure that the student was doing the same thing I was. Sometimes they weren't. It can turn into a really descriptive process, sometimes. I found myself having to describe webpages in detail ("The header of this page is blue and the title is '____'. There's a sidebar on the right which is where you want to access the volumes and issues..." and so on like that). It can be frustrating sometimes, but as long as you know that it will have to be broken down into smaller steps it can be okay.

Operating under pressure. Cue the Queen, please. It's not enormous pressure, but the fact that this is a real-time exchange of information means that it's there in some form. This is one of the other big things that I had to adapt to, as I generally deal with reference via e-mail (and a small percentage in-person). It's a combination of factors, I think, that make chat reference a bit more of a cooker than other forms of reference. For example, users often log-on for assistance after they've tried everything and starting to become frustrated with their search efforts. They want answers and they want them now. Adding to that pressure is the fact that as an operator, I have over a dozen academic library webpages to navigate quickly and efficiently to find answers - and each is slightly different. I've built up some practice after a few months of doing it and generally know where to find things fast, but those first few weeks were a doozy.

Though there are some inherent difficulties with chat reference - not the least of them is navigating the software and dealing with technical issues - the use of chat reference services is being increasingly seen as a necessary means to reach users. It's no longer just a supplement for in-person reference, and students use the chat function in order to get solid answers quickly. Overall, I've been really impressed with my experience as a chat operator and with the service itself. I can certainly see its value to university students - I only wish it were around when I was an undergrad.

If you want to learn a bit more about virtual reference services, here are some helpful articles:

Koshik, I., & Okazawa, H. (2012). A conversation analytic study of actual and potential problems in communication in library chat reference interactions. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(10), 2006-2019. doi: 10.1002/asi.22677

Ronan, J., Reakes, P., & Ochoa, M. (2007). Application of reference guidelines in chat reference interactions. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 13(4), 3-30. doi: 10.1300/J106v13n04_02

Ruppel, M., & Vecchione, A. (2012). “It’s research made easier!” SMS and chat reference perceptions. Reference Services Review, 40(3), 423-448. doi: 10.1108/00907321211254689

Strothmann, M., McCain, C., & Scrivener, L. (2009). “Ask a librarian” pages as reference gateways to academic libraries. The Reference Librarian, 50(3), 259-275. doi: 10.1080/02763870902873289

Ward, J., & Barbier, P. (2009). Best practices in chat reference used by florida’s ask a librarian virtual reference librarians. The Reference Librarian, 51(1), 53-68. doi: 10.1080/02763870903361854

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