Erica Gamble Reference & Online Services Instructor M.

Beestrum 10 June 2010 Service Report 3 of 3: Online Chat with a Librarian The reference department at the Northwestern University Library offers its faculty and students myriad modes for communicating their information problems. For example, the NU library user may: physically visit one of NU’s reference desks (NU has 11 subject-special libraries at their Evanston campus and 3 at their Chicago campus), call the library, schedule research consultation with a librarian, talk to a roaming librarian, or IM or email a librarian. NU library users interested in remote live chat or instant messaging (IM) a librarian, can access a chat box by following the “Ask a Librarian” link on the NU Library homepage. The IM box is prominently featured on this webpage and NU Library chat users can enter their questions directly into this box. Reference’s IM hours are provided along with the 4 screen names of NU Library reference desk under the “IM Hours” link above the IM box. What Happened? At 10:36am on Thursday, June 10, 2010, I sent a message to an NU librarian via the IM reference service (See Chat Transcript, Appendix A). The librarian responded immediately. However, once I articulated my query, the librarian left me waiting for 15 minutes while they went to check what was available. I typed, “hello?” to see if the librarian was still there. The librarian responded immediately by asking me if I knew whether the online collection I was looking for actually existed. I told the librarian that the online collection may not specifically be part of Northwestern Library’s collection. Two minutes later, the librarian referred me to a history specialist “rather than waste anymore of [my] time.”


Per my inquiry, the librarian informed me that the resource I found using Google seemed to be “exactly what [I was] looking for.” The librarian also told me that the “chat service gets quite a bit of use.” The librarian dismissed me with the phrase, “Happy research!” This chat reference transaction took place over a 25 minute period. Evaluation of Service Based on Contributing Factors and Readings To evaluate this relatively short and uneventful reference experience, I will discuss both positive and negative aspects of the IM reference transaction with the NU Librarian. The chat librarian seemed friendly and open to questions. Whenever I entered a question into the IM box, the librarian would respond very quickly. Having never used chat reference before, I was both impressed by and pleased with the quick response time. According to our readings about virtual reference, users prefer a quick response with some information and the assurance of the chat librarian that either the user is welcome to ask more questions or that the librarian will contact them when they have found out more information about the topic. The librarian was able to provide me with contact information to a subject-specialist. The contact information was the most detailed information that this librarian provided. However, the librarian did apologize for not being able to assist me and showed empathy for my research topic by typing things like, “it sounds like an interesting topic!” and “Happy research!” The chat librarian confirmed that my found resource was credible. The librarian informed me that the Library of Congress was absolutely a credible resource and reassured me that I was on the right track. I suppose the chat librarian assumed that he/she provided me with adequate information because many reference service best practices were ignored (Cassell and Hiremath). For example, this chat reference with a librarian lacked the reference interview – possibly the single 2

greatest faux-pas of the reference transaction. The librarian failed to gather any contextual information about my query, such as identifying what research I had already done. The chat librarian failed to clarify/restate my question. This may make a NU library chat user confused as to what he or she should expect from the chat reference transaction. The NU chat librarian provided only vague responses and did not probe for more details about my information need. According to Cassell and Hiremath in their section about answering reference questions virtually, “it is recommended that the librarian should respond with a small amount of information plus a request for clarification.” Clearly this librarian was not following recommended procedure because, after 7-8 minutes of waiting, I was unsure about whether the librarian was even working on my question! From the lack of communication between me and the chat librarian, one might infer that no attempt at user instruction was made. Although I found a credible resource using the Library of Congress, I was directed to that site via Google. The chat librarian did nothing to ensure that I was aware of other, more organized databases. An information seeker, with similar library chat reference experiences to my own, would most likely turn to Google first with their next information problem. Finally, the NU chat librarian ended the reference transaction with negative closure. After referring me to a subject-specialist, the chat librarian did not find out if there were any other problems he/she would be able to assist me with and failed to invite me to use NU’s chat service again. Poor marketing + Indifferent service = Death of Chat Reference in Libraries.

Concluding Thoughts Although there were some positive aspects to this IM transaction, overall, it was neither a positive experience, nor a helpful experience. However, the experience was a useful one. 3

Thursday morning, the chat librarian at Northwestern University was not adequately motivated to really assist me with my information need. I encountered firsthand reasons why a library patron would choose to never use chat reference again! As a library science student in an increasingly “cybrary” culture, I can only hope that general chat reference etiquette improves. Chat reference is a fantastic way for distance learners to utilize library services, but chat reference librarians need to help users become comfortable and familiar with this service so that users begin to turn to the library rather than rely more heavily on Internet search engines (Fox 19). Finally, the best way to promote the library’s chat reference service is to ensure that librarians are comfortable with the features and potential of chat reference service (Garlish 10)! Works Cited Cassell, Kay A., and Uma Hiremath. Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century: An Introduction. London: Facet, 2006. Print. Fox, Vanessa. "Pew Internet Study Finds Americans Turn to the Internet First for Answers." Information Today. 25.2 (2008): 19-20. Garlish, Betsy H. "Doing Virtual Reference Along with Everything Else." Computers in Libraries. 29.1 (2009): 8, 10, 30-1.


Gamble Appendix A – Chat Transcript with a Northwestern University librarian. Chat Reference via Northwestern University’s IM services.


Northwestern University Library. “Reference Collection: IM or Text Us.” Northwestern University, 2009. Website. URL accessed on 16 July 2011. 10:36 (me) hello. is there a librarian available to assist me? 10:36 (main-reference) hi, how can I help you? 10:37 (me) I was looking for an online collection of information about the maritime/nautical aspects of the expansion of the U.S. to the West. 10:38 (main-reference) Just a moment while I see what is available. 10:38 (me) thanks! 10:53 (me) hello? 10:53 (main-reference) Do you know that such a database exists, or are you hoping? 10:54 (me) I think I heard there was an online collection. It may not be any of the library's databases. 10:55 (main-reference) I'm not finding it; let me refer you to the subject specialist rather than waste any more of your time. E-mail Harriet Lightman, the American History specialist, at If it exists she will find it! 10:56 (main-reference) If you'd rather call her her number is 847-491-2920. 10:56 (me) oh. thanks! 10:57 (main-reference) sorry I wasn't more help; it sounds like an interesting topic! 10:58 (me) By the way. I found something online using Google: The Library of Congress is a credible resource right? 10:58 (main-reference) absolutely. 11:00 (me) Do many students use this chat service? It seems pretty easy. 11:01 (main-reference) yes, this sounds exactly like what you were looking for. Yes, the chat service gets quite a bit of use. 11:01 (me) Great news! Thanks! 11:01 (main-reference) Happy research!

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