Friday, September 22, 2006

Linking to chat services in the catalog and defending coop services

Our library here at Baruch College is part of the QuestionPoint 24/7 Reference service and participates in the academic chat reference cooperative. While helping a faculty member at the New Jersey Institute of Technology this morning, I noticed a neat little feature that appears in the library's catalog when you get a null search. The searcher is presented with this little message placed smack in the middle of the search results screen:

Your search resulted in no hits.
Live help from Research HelpDesk.
"Research HelpDesk" is set in that message as a link to a page about the library's IM service (a page that oddly doesn't also link to QuestionPoint, the sevice that brought the patron to me in the first place). If you'd like to see what it looks like, here are null search results in the catalog for my name. (If that search result times out, just go to the catalog yourself and try some searches that will likely result in zero items found.)

Unlike the catalog link to the "Research HelpDesk" that only offers connections to the IM service, the library's web site offers a link to "Ask Us..." on the home page that lists the IM and the QuestionPoint services. Although the faculty member I helped must have to come onto the service via the "Ask Us..." link from the library home page, I think it's a great idea to offer links to any live help service (chat or IM) from within your databases and catalog. What NJIT did by making a special, hard-to-miss link appear after a null search is a brilliant idea.

To return to the patron story, I should mention that I was able to steer the faculty member in under 10 minutes to the correct database that offered access to the item he had earlier found in a web search. In that space of time, I did a reference interview to confirm exactly what he was looking for, located on the web the item he was looking for so that I could get the full picture of what I needed to track down in the library's collections, and then used the library's web site to determine which database would definitely have what he was looking for (a database that I have personally never used before).

I hope to find time soon to write a post that will offer a better defense of cooperative chat reference than this the little story above, which argues solely on the basis of anecdotal evidence (and just one picayune anecdote at that). There has been an interesting and lively conversation lately about how well cooperative services can provide quality reference; see Jessamyn West posts here (make sure you check out all the comments) and here, Jenny Levine's post here, Steven Cohen's post here, Luke Rosenberger's response to West and Levine here, Caleb Tucker-Raymond's response to everyone else here, and then Jonathan Smith's post here. There's been a lot of great debate already; I just hope I have something new to add to the conversation.


At 6:36 PM , Anonymous Jody Boyne said...

Hello Stephen, all,

Pardon my length - I don't post much at all or write journal articles, so... I write also in support of VR. All posts here and in other venues make relevant and useful points. I see a VR learning curve over the last several years among both users and librarians that can be seen reflected in the literature as well as blogs, lists, et al. I continue to think VR is the best thing since sliced bread. After a first career in counseling and college teaching, both which help in reference, I've worked as a reference librarian at a large university system's main library since 1994 and for OCLC QuestionPoint 24/7 Reference since 2001. We're independent contractors, so a caveat that we (and my thoughts) don't represent the organization. In an earlier post I saw a figure for one librarian's 10K IM reference sessions and was curious to guess how many I've done, finding a rough total of 52K since 2001 at 25 hrs/wk. Since I work reference almost exclusively at my library 20 hrs/wk while full-timers average 6, I figure I've spent what might otherwise take most full-time academic reference librarians 50 years to accrue - my current age - providing an interesting perspective on both F2F and VR.

I think much discussion we see is communal learning curve and a chronicle of evolution and development - "History is a long conversation"!

I love meeting and helping patrons in person and nothing supplants this. Research shows VR has become often a patron's first contact with a librarian or their library and resources. VR has range, from quick answers to more lengthy research instruction - when traffic permits, I've spent an hour or more online showing a student how to search subject area databases. As a standard, I think VR sessions ought take search instruction as far as determining controlled vocabulary for a patron topic.

I use a long list of pre-scripted chat messages to save time, as we often help 3 patrons simultaneously, hopefully adding a few personally written messages when applicable to avoid the "Are you a machine?" question. Asking early if the patron wants books, articles from the library's online databases, or websites sets up an initial understanding that there is a range of resources available that may be necessary and can elicit the "My teacher said not to use Google" response. Teachers are on a learning curve as well, though playing catch-up, and need instruction. There are many good "Creating an Effective Research Assignment" sites by librarians.

My counseling background leads me to value reference interview highly, though I've spent a few thousand hours on quality control followup, and in the compression of VR, excessive and often unnecessary exchanges may come across to patrons as obtuse and lead to disconnection. The corollary risk is a wrong assumption of patron needs. I always tell library school reference interns, "If you just answer the question, you probably haven't answered the question."

I've found that if a patron wants websites, sending a specific site or three before sending all search results can head off the "I can't use Google" response. As someone posted, primacy to the librarian (and the search). Lii and other resources are great, though take many more clicks and have fewer resources. Moving to library resources hopefully informs the patron of the need for their investment of time and effort.

I love helping a worldwide patron community, knowing my next question can come from anywhere in the world, even from an internet rickshaw in India, question hastily pasted in with email and patron disconnected to save money. Libraries may at first feel proprietary about their patrons, and correspondingly resistant to helping others, as the literature on non-affiliated patrons shows. Certainly local librarians are best at local-specific questions and resources, though the majority of subject questions are non-local. Along with patron dismay at a librarian not being local, patrons also may say they received better help than locally. All dependent on question, time available, librarian, patron, et al.


Jody Boyne


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