The ties that bind chat cooperatives

The chat cooperative that my library belongs to, the 24/7 Academic Cooperative (which is administered by 24/7 Reference) includes academic libraries at dozens of colleges and universities from across the U.S. (and one in Canada). The greatest challenge of doing reference work in such a large cooperative is that users expect you to know as much about their library as you know about your own. If the cooperative just consisted of libraries in New York City, where my college library is, it would be easier for me, as I know a few things about many of the libraries in my area (thanks to local conferences where I meet colleagues working nearby and thanks to the occasional visits I’ve made to other libraries here).

Since it isn’t likely that I am going to visit the libraries that in the 24/7 Academic Cooperative (much as I would like to), I have to rely on other means to familiarize myself with those libraries as I assist their patrons in chat. Although many questions in the chat cooperative don’t necessarily require an intimate knowledge of a member library’s policies and services, there are a notable number that do. Questions like these from users at other libraries in the cooperative are often challenging for me:

– “Is there a photocopier on the 3rd floor of the library?”

– “Does the library have a pencil sharpener?”

– “I have a telecourse this semester. Does our library have the review sessions videotapes?”

– “Is there a problem with the remote access to databases service or am I doing something wrong when I try to login?”

– “The link to the full text of an article in such-and-such database takes me to a page that says I need to enter a user name and password, but our website indicates we have full-text access to this journal.”

The last two questions can be hard for me to answer even when the user is from the college where I work. Imagine trying to handle those questions when the user is from another college across the country. If I am lucky, there may be a librarian online from that user’s school that I can transfer the chat to. But in most cases, I am left to my own devices, trying to help the user whose library I am unfamiliar with. So how do I proceed when I really don’t know that much about the user’s library?

There are two main sources of information that I draw upon. One source is the library’s own web site (more on that later). But the first source I look at is a policy page that has been created by the library whose patron I am assisting. Our cooperative requires that each member library create a detailed profile of itself (especially its services and policies). That profile is typed into an online form, which in turn generates a web page that librarians in the cooperative can access. Most of the basic fields in the form are simply places to put a link to a relevant page from the library’s web site. The basic fields in the form that the library need to fill out are:

– home page

– web catalog

– databases

– research guides

– phone

– location

– hours

– library cards

– loan periods

– loan limits

– renewals

– holds

– late fees

– interlibrary loans

– course reserves

– cooperative arrangements/delivery

Some libraries add more than a link in each field and instead provide details on the policies and service. The more info I find here, the easier time I have helping the user with his or her questions, especially if those questions are for things that are what I think of as local knowledge (such as in the challenging questions mentioned earlier). These local knowledge questions typically relate to services or problems that are not adequately addressed (if at all) on most library’s web sites. It would be nice to believe that libraries are capable of creating a web site that offers complete details on every service it offers, but so far I have yet to see such a site. There is always some nitpicking caveat to a service that goes unmentioned on any library’s site.

Such small (yet often crucial details) also often go unmentioned on the policy pages that libraries are asked to create when they become members of the 24/7 Academic Cooperative. When it comes to updating, one advantage policy pages have over a library web site is that the former is more easily updated. If I know that my library has just added a new service, I can quickly summarize it on the policy page on the day that I first hear of it; to create and mount a new web page on our library site about a newly launched service typically takes days or weeks of effort that involves at least two or more staff. Most policy pages set up for the cooperative are maintained by the same person who also is the administrator for the library’s chat reference service.

Because the policy pages are not publicly accessible and are created with a librarian (and not a library patron) in mind as the intended audience, it is permissible to use library jargon. While jargon is a pain for our users to decipher when it appears on a library web site, for librarians in the cooperative reading a policy page it offers an efficient shorthand. Thus, the policy pages are useful cheat sheets that quickly bring a librarian up to speed when he or she is helping a patron from another institution.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that a library has not done a thorough job of completing its policy page. If that is the case, then my only lifeline is the library’s web site. It’s not uncommon for library web sites to also be missing critical information (and, I am sad to report, that includes my library’s web site, too). You can really gain a fair amount of sympathy for users when you try to help them figure out their library’s web site and find it lacking.

In a future posting, I hope to offer some suggestions for ways that libraries in a cooperative can better keep each other informed about each other’s services.