Digital Reference as Early Warning System for Systems Issues

Today, while covering chat reference, I noticed an earlier session where a  major problem was reported by a student that no one else had noticed: links to full text in our discovery service (from Summon) had mostly stopped working.This is the first time that a problem has been reported in a chat session or in an email reference query. It seems like the greatest source of news that this database isn’t working, or the full text for that article or journal is unreachable, is from chat and email reference interactions. Problems like this don’t seem to get reported at the reference desk so much. My theory is that if a student is having a problem, they are far more likely to report it immediately than later on; the only way to reach us immediately is through our digital reference services (we also get some from the telephone at the reference desk). Our current admin for our digital reference service does a marvelous job of passing on to me and the head of collection management problems first noted in chat and email interactions.

I’m beginning to think that we might want to explore building out a problem-reporting system that is tied to our digital reference suite from QuestionPoint. It could be coming up with a a system for users who are encountering technical problems to report them within the framework of  our digital reference services using some sort of structured form that gathers the info we need. Or it could be designing a system that makes it easier for librarians to report these issues as they encounter them in reference interactions.

However we decide to work with the information coming in, it’s clear we’ve got a really valuable source of feedback about our systems coming in via digital reference channels and we would be well advised to continue paying close attention to that feedback.

Space for Our Services

It’s quite simple, really. If you want folks to use your digital reference service, you have to make it easy for them to find it. In fact, they shouldn’t even have to go hunting for it; it should be right there in front of them as much as possible. A year and a half ago, I was excited when a change in the EBSCOhost platform allowed libraries to insert chat widgets into all search results pages that got generated (see Paul Pival’s post with step-by-step instructions about how to set it up). Some libraries had already managed to find a way to get chat widgets placed in their library catalogs, but getting a database company to free up space like this seemed truly revolutionary. In the years since, no other vendor that I know of allows this kind of customization. Yes, many platforms give us ways that we can put custom links in and graphics. What we really need, though, from the likes of LexisNexis, ProQuest, etc. is just a little bit of space for our widgets, just a sliver.

I should note that this plea for space was sparked by an announcement from the California Digital Library that the WorldCat Local instance for the entire University of California library system would have a chat widget in it. The announcement isn’t quite accurate, as the chat widget itself is not embedded in the interface; instead, there’s just a graphic (albeit, a nice one) that says “Chat with a librarian” and that when clicked, opens a pop up window with their chat widget. At that graphic is only on the search results page (it should probably also be on the search page too).  I think it would have been much cooler if the widget was actually embedded in the page, as our chat widgets in EBSCOhost can be.


Cornell University’s Chat Service Turns 10

A note of congratulations to the library staff at Cornell University, who are celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the launch of their chat reference service. I remember in fall 2000 looking closely at how they ran their service as my library was in the planning stages for its own chat service (launched March 2001).

For a thumbnail history of chat reference services, the best starting point is Bernie Sloan’s 2006 article:

Sloan, Bernie. “Twenty Years of Virtual Reference.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 11.2 (2006): 91-95. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.

Collaborative email reference at Queens Library

For those of you who aren’t from New York, it may be news that the city actually has three separate public library systems:

All three systems are doing wonderful things despite by underfunded for years. A few days ago, while sitting on a panel to discuss the changing reference landscape, I heard from Donna Ciampi at Queens Library about a really interesting collaborative email reference service for patrons who speak one of the many Chinese dialects. The service is staffed by librarians at Queens Library and the Shanghai Library(!!!) If you go the Chinese language page on the Queens Library site, look for the link for CORS, which takes you to a page with a form (on the Shanghai Library site) for submitting your question.

My goal at the panel was to explain how the collaborative chat reference service in QuestionPoint works and to encourage my audience to consider collaborative reference services an important, growing trend in the way libraries can meet the information needs of users. I noted how hard member libraries in QuestionPoint’s academic cooperative work together, but I must admit here to being amazed by the effort on the part of the librarians at the Queens Library and the Shanghai Library to establish this joint project.

QuestionPoint’s academic cooperative is limited to college libraries in the United States at the moment. Australian libraries that use QuestionPoint on their own have so far resisted joining the cooperative. I have heard, though, that a group of public libraries in the United Kingdom are planning to join QuestionPoint’s public library cooperative soon. I hope that in the coming years we see more and more reference partnerships like the one between the Queens Library and the Shanghai Library.

It’s ok to refer digital reference patrons to print materials…really

In our cooperative chat reference service, I have noticed that some librarians rarely point students to print resources when those resources may in fact be the best (and sometimes only) source of information for the topic in question. In one example, a student logged in repeatedly asking for help on the same question, and no one thought to recommend what is pretty much a standard reference source that would have quickly answered the question.

There are a lot of reasons why a librarian in chat or IM might rush to recommend an online source:

  • The librarian assumes that the patron isn’t on campus (or even in the library) and thus has no interest in print resources. This assumption is not often accurate. In our chat service, we find that at 40% of all chat sessions originate from computers here on campus.
  • Fearing impatience (often, rightly so) from the patron, the librarian takes a satisficing approach to the patron’s information need and rushes to show the student something that is maybe, just maybe, good enough to placate the patron for the moment. It may be that some librarians then intend to recommend to print sources, as they feel they have earned the trust of the patron; some do go on and suggest specific sources or suggest a search strategy in the catalog, but many never do.
  • The librarian mistakenly assumes that since the patron is online, ergo the patron only will accept online sources.

Although I am beginning to scale back on my acquisitions here at the library in Baruch for print reference sources, I still feel that librarians in digital reference must advocate on behalf of the richness of their print collections whenever appropriate. If we don’t speak up for print collections and remind users of them, who will?

Screencasts for chat reference training

A week ago, my library at Baruch College started officially sharing its subscription to QuestionPoint with the libraries at three other CUNY schools: Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and the CUNY Graduate Center. We are still in a soft launch period now, as the librarians at those other schools will need some time to get acclimated to doing chat reference as part of the 24/7 Reference Academic Cooperative that QuestionPoint offers.

For the purposes of training my colleagues in our consortium about how to use QuestionPoint for chat reference, I slapped together a wiki (I never seem to run out of reasons to launch a new wiki) with links to QuestionPoint documentation, contact info, and a shared schedule. I’ve also finally had a good reason to try using Macromedia Captivate, which had been installed on my machine for a month unused (!), to create some screencasts. My hope is that these screencasts will cut down on the time I have to spend on the phone or composing e-mails with step-by-step instructions.

So far, I’ve got a screencast explaining how to create personal scripts in QuestionPoint and another demonstrating how to assign a resolution code at the close of a chat session. I must confess to have really enjoyed the process of recording the screencast and then tinkering with the pacing and special effects. I hope to have a half dozen of these screencasts done by the end of winter. Any feedback (in the comments section) on what I’ve done so far would be greatly appreciated. If you feel like nosing around our humble little wiki, you can do so here.

QuestionPoint’s blog is now public

For nearly a year, QuestionPoint offered their subscribers a password-protected blog that, for those of us who use web-based aggregators like Bloglines, left us frustrated by our inability to safely add the feed to our reader. This week, QuestionPoint has dropped the password and opened up the blog to all who care to read it. Let’s have a “hurrah” for this move toward greater transparency!

Read the blog here and get the feed here.