QuestionPoint and 24/7 Reference to combine

It’s official: OCLC’s QuestionPoint service is taking over 24/7 Reference from MCLS. I’ve been sitting on this piece of news for months now, waiting for an official release to be put out. None of the websites (OCLC, QuestionPoint, MCLS, 24/7 Reference) have posted the release yet; I got it via e-mail, as our library’s chat service uses 24/7 Reference software.

The details of this are still being worked out. As far as I know, not much will change in the short term. I’ll post more on this in the coming days as I get more information.

RUSA guidelines for “virtual reference services”

The MARS Digital Reference Guidelines Ad Hoc Committee recently posted the “Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services” on the ALA web site. Skimming this document quickly reminds me of a number of issues our library needs to address with our service. In particular, I think our library needs to do a better job of informing users what to expect from the service and how to make the most of it.

The current page we have with that information was written several years ago. We’ve learned a lot since then about the nutty things that happen during chat sessions (users disconnecting themselves, browser compatability issues, firewall problems, inappropriate comments from users, etc.); I’d like to make the initial page that users see give them a better sense of what we can and can’t do in chat. Another item for the to-do list…

Back from much needed vacation

It has been over six months since my little family (a wife and a 21 month-old son) were last outside of the limits of NYC on an overnight trip. We just returned from a week in Maine, which proved to be just what we needed. For me, the highlight of the trip were all the lobster rolls I ate, especially the one at Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island, which was just across the water from where we were staying (Harpswell). The next time I go to Maine, I intend to get lobster rolls at each of these places rated as the “10 Best Lobster Shacks in Maine.”

While I was away, the chat service I am the administrator for was somewhat quiet, except for a few pesky high school students who logged in to chat while in a library classroom during a workshop. The chats weren’t as obnoxious as the ones I described in an earlier post, just bored kids goofing off.

Annoying the librarian

This past month has seen nearly a half dozen chat sessions where the user asked for help finding naked pictures of women or if there were any sexy librarians around (aren’t we all?) What is truly annoying about three of these chats was that the user was sitting at a computer on the main floor of the library within sight of the reference desk. (The service we use allows us to see the IP address of the user, so if the IP address is from our library, we’ll know what computer it is.)

Every time I got a chat from the little creep, I immediately sent him (and I’m pretty sure it is a him) a scripted message that tells him that this chat is inappropriate and that he is violating CUNY’s computer use policy. By this point, he logs off.

I keep thinking that the next time I get a chat like this (and I am sure the user is chatting from a library PC), I’ll try to keep him on the line as long as possible so that I can figure out what computer he’s at and let our public safety officers deal with him. This strategy came to mind when I recalled the cliche of TV and film where the criminal calls the police, FBI, victim, etc. while the phone line is tapped; there’s always some guy in these movies or shows who, stationed before a bank of electronic equipment and with headphones on, is desperately trying to trace the call and is screaming, “Keep him on the line! I almost have it!”

Were such a strategy to work out for me, I can also picture a public safety officer rushing up to the computer where the user was just sitting and finding an empty seat and a mouse dangling off the edge of table, swinging by its cord and still warm to the touch.

Online training for chat reference librarians

The folks at the Statewide Virtual Reference Project in Washington have put together an interesting online course that will help prepare librarians to staff chat reference services. You don’t have to register to view a lot of the great material that has been prepared for this course, such as:

tips for chatting online (PDF file)

guidelines for marketing a digital reference service (PDF file)

a checklist of internet competencies for librarians monitoring chat reference services (PDF file)

The creators of this course have done a good job of putting together their own training materials. Each page offers links not only to the creator’s materials but also to relevant reports, articles, etc. on other web sites. If you wanted to teach yourself about chat reference services, this is a great place to begin.

Great new article on chat reference

I just finished reading a fine article by Steve Coffman and Linda Arret in the July/August 2004 issue of Searcher, which is available free in full text here. One of the great things about this article is that it takes a few steps back from the minutiae of chat reference service (how our library did it, software choices, staff training tips, service evalulation, etc.) and instead looks at the big picture. Coffman and Arret offer a nice thumbnail history of chat reference (where the idea came from, where the software came from, what the early days were like, etc.) They also suggest that most services aren’t really making much headway in stemming the decline of numbers of questions asked in reference services, a problem libraries have been witnessing for the past six years.

Given the low usage of most services and the disappearance of online services that librarians used to fear as competitors for their patrons (WebHelp.com, AnswerPoint, etc.), it is fair of the authors to question whether our services are worth the money and effort. The article is actually a two-parter, with the second installment coming in the next issue of the Searcher. In light of the somewhat bleak picture they paint of the current state of chat reference, I’m very eager to see what the authors’ thoughts are on the future of these services.

Another buying guide

While looking at the website of one vendor of chat reference software, I found another purchasing guide article to recommend. This article, first published in the summer 2003 issue of Medical Reference Services Quarterly, has been republished in its entirety on the website for Docutek, whose VRLplus software is described in the article.

Poverty of written communication

Just read an article by Louis Menand in this week’s New Yorker reviewing Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

Menand had a nice quote about written versus spoken language that might help us retain some perspective on the limits of communication in chat reference:

“Speech is somatic, a bodily function, and it is accompanied by physical inflections—tone of voice, winks, smiles, raised eyebrows, hand gestures—that are not reproducible in writing. Spoken language is repetitive, fragmentary, contradictory, limited in vocabulary, loaded down with space holders (“like,” “um,” “you know”)—all the things writing teachers tell students not to do. And yet people can generally make themselves understood right away. As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It’s a hieroglyph competing with a symphony.”