Talking in the library flourishes – online

Paul Sand

Usually, University students and staff must visit the reference desks in any of the University’s 11 libraries to get answers regarding library research. However, real-time online chats with library staff might make face-to-face queries a thing of the past.

Introduced in February 2001, the chat option through the libraries’ Web site has grown from an experiment to a full-blown operation offered 32 hours per week, helping nearly 1,000 visitors this semester.

John Butler, coordinator of Digital Reference Services, said online chat between library staff and patrons is popular with academic libraries around the country.

The chat option – along with the increased number of e-mail requests the library receives – is just part of making library resources available online, Butler said.

To access the chat option, visitors must go through the “Ask Us!” part of the libraries’ Web site. After entering their full name, affiliation with the University and e-mail address, visitors are connected with a member of the staff. They can then ask a staff member research-related questions.

Butler said when the visitor and staff member are connected, their Web browsers combine. Any site the staff member accesses, the visitor follows.

This collaborative chat also allows staff members to point out things of interest and search databases together, he said.

“That is probably the real breakthrough in chat technology,” Butler said.

Co-browsing allows for a more instructional experience than via the telephone, Butler said.

“We also want students and requesters to learn something from the process so the next time they have a need, they know how to manage it,” he said.

Reference librarian Carla Pfahl answers questions through the chat a few hours per week. She said students’ questions, which make up 67 percent of online requests, center mostly on general knowledge, including how to use the libraries’ Web site and access databases. Twenty percent of questions come from faculty and staff who are more familiar with the library and usually know specifically what they are looking for, she said.

Pfahl said one of the challenges of communicating over real-time chat is that visitors are more efficient in chatting than most librarians.

“You almost have to slow the patron down because they want to move so fast,” she said.

While it is uncommon to chat with more than one visitor at a time, Pfahl said she has helped four visitors at once.

After the session has ended, a transcript of the conversation is e-mailed to the visitor and archived by the library. The visitor also receives links of the pages visited during the session.

“Ideally, we retain the record for service enhancement and ideally to save the content of transaction with any kind of personal information stripped,” Butler said. “That information interests us very little.”

Butler said the archived sessions are used to track trends in queries and to help train staff members new to the chat setting.

The online chat is staffed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and Sunday nights. These hours, Butler said, are based on traditional library usage and patterns in e-mail requests. He said this area of library service is so new that studies on its effectiveness are just emerging now. The library will conduct user analysis in the spring, he said.

Paul Sand welcomes comments at [email protected]