The Teaching Librarian

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Digital Reference

Chat Reference

[Note: For more recent ramblings on digital reference, please see my blog.]

One of the earliest successes of the Internet has been the popularity of online chat. Well before libraries began experimenting with the technology as a means of offering reference assistance, chat had become a familiar feature in the virtual landscape. Since 2000, there's been an explosion of interest in the library world of adapting chat technology, which allows user and librarian to send short written messages back and forth instantly. Such software allows librarians to create a setting where the interaction with the user is live (or real-time) but limited to written exchanges of information. Some chat programs offer an open virtual reference room where one or more users can enter at a time and exchange messages with the librarian. In this scenario, any user in the virtual reference room can see all the messages typed by everyone else in the room (the librarian and all the other users). Of course, many users will not want their requests for information to be public knowledge and will want to take advantage of a common feature of chat software: the ability to create private chat rooms for one-on-one messaging (in this case, between the user and the librarian).

Most libraries are using chat software that has not been specially designed for the library market (such as AOL Instant Messenger.) Other libraries, though, have decided to borrow software technology originally designed to meet the needs of online customer service. While this more sophisticated form of software offers chat between operator and user (customer service rep and customer, or librarian and patron), it also includes features that take it well beyond the simple chat programs listed here. Such software packages are commonly referred to as web contact center software. The line dividing chat software from web contact center software is a little fuzzy, but I tried my best to separate the discussion of each to separate pages on this web site. As I see it, chat software simply allows for text messaging and nothing more; Web contact center software is just chat software with a whole lot of bells and whistles that greatly expand the level of interaction between librarian and user.

Advantages of Using Chat for Online Reference

  • feels somewhat like a live reference interaction
  • eliminates problems of mishearing what is said
  • user can save text of chat session to refer to later
  • helpful for those with hearing or speaking impairments
  • can ease communication among those for whom English is a second or other language
  • takes time to adjust to the short, telegraphic messages sent back and forth
  • traditional reference interviews probably aren't possible given the limits of what can be typed back and forth
  • doesn't allow for any nonverbal communication between user and librarian (there's no visual or auditory cues about the user, etc.)
  • user may not have same level of patience with the librarian's efforts to help (in the online world, users typically expect everything to be instant, convenient, and efficient)
  • if user logs off prematurely, it may not be immediately apparent to the librarian, especially if the librarian is busy looking something up in a book or on a computer for the user
  • misspellings from the user
  • some librarians just won't feel comfortable offering reference service in this environment
  • can't point to things (such as page in a book) in the same way you can at a reference desk

Marketing Chat Reference

While planning the technical and practical aspects of a chat reference service can be challenging, letting your users know that the service exists is the biggest hurdle. Most users don't even expect that they can get live help this way on the web, let alone live help from a librarian on the library web site. In addition to the ways that libraries traditionally market their services and resources (flyers, bookmarks, advertisements, etc.), librarians launching a chat reference service should be thinking about all the ways that they can put in front of the user links to their chat reference page or the button that launches a chat. Here's some ways to do that:

  • on every single page of the library web site
  • on web site pages for organizations or institutions that are related to the library in some way:
    • academic libraries: on your college's web site; on your school's course management software (Blackboard, WebCT, etc.)
    • public libraries: on local government web sites; on web sites for local schools; on web sites of local community organizations
  • desktop shortcuts on PCs in public areas of the library (as well as on laptops you may lend to patrons, on PCs in computer labs on college campuses, etc.)
  • downloadable toolbar that gets installed on the user's browser (like the Google toolbar or the Yahoo! companion)
  • links to service on databases you subscribe to
  • links to service on OPAC screens (LSSI has announced that their Virtual Reference Toolkit can work within the integrated library systems from Gaylord and from Sirsi).
Forms of Digital Reference

E-mail Reference

Chat Reference Collaborative Networks

Index of Chat Reference Services

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E-mail your comments or suggestions to Stephen Francoeur

Last updated: August 30, 2002