U libraries’ online chat goes 24/7

Reference coordinator Tony Ihrig types on the university libraries online chat service Tuesday. The chat program has moved to an online 24/7 reference desk used to reach more students and will answer specific questions.

Paul Bangasser

Reference coordinator Tony Ihrig types on the university libraries online chat service Tuesday. The chat program has moved to an online 24/7 reference desk used to reach more students and will answer specific questions.

University Libraries have turned their online chat service into an around-the-clock virtual reference desk. The move was made this fall to modify the online service, which has been available at limited hours for the past few years, so that students who need reference help can get it any time of the day âÄî be it noon or midnight. Cody Hanson, technology librarian in the Coordinated Educational Services Department , said the service has already generated a lot of interest. âÄúPutting up this pilot 24/7 service gives us a picture of demand,âÄù Hanson said. Hanson said it will allow the libraries to know at what hours students need the most reference help. Library assistant Maria Stracke staffs the chat service once a week for two hours at a time. She said she usually gets around five students per shift in the chat room. âÄúThe chat tends to be very specific questions, whereas [at the library] I might talk to more students, but the questions are less library-related at times,âÄù Stracke said. She said the e-mail service, which she also staffs, is typically used by students, faculty and people not associated with the University. The chat, on the other hand, is predominantly student-used, she said. While most students probably donâÄôt know of the new around-the-clock service, some said theyâÄôd be willing to use it in a jam. Biology junior Ashley Masching said it would be convenient since she lives off-campus and canâÄôt always use the libraries in person. Health care administrations sophomore Matt Mukomela said he would prefer to get out of his apartment, but he can see situations where he would use the online service. The ability to have librarians on demand at all times of day is provided by Minitex , a network of academic and public libraries in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and housed at the University itself. Minitex is funding a separate program called AskMN, which serves as the backbone of the University chat service. Carla Pfahl, AskMN coordinator at Minitex , said the company will be funding the program through the end of June. After that, they might have to push for grant funding, or for each library to contribute to the service. For now, itâÄôs free of charge to University libraries. Pfahl said undergraduates have been most active on the chat service between 9 p.m. and midnight, so AskMN will be focusing more support in that time frame. Pfahl said sheâÄôs also been working on adding more libraries to the AskMN service around the state, with 10 to be added before December. During the hours University librarians arenâÄôt available to staff the chat service, a federally funded national cooperative service called 24/7 Reference takes over, consisting of academic librarians around the country. Hanson said he doesnâÄôt think thereâÄôs a discrepancy yet between the number of students who come to the libraries in person and the number of students using the online service. Although there are âÄútons of studentsâÄù using the chat room, Hanson said they still see more in person.