Virtual Reference: Behind The Curtain

If you have been following this blog, you will know what we do at the reference desk, where I spend most of my work day.  It is when reference librarians are in the workroom that our work is specialized.  One will process requests for materials, another will work with books to be mended, discarded, or sent to the bindery, and so on.  I am our library's coordinator for a small crew of IP's, (information professionals), who help with a statewide virtual reference service called Ask a Librarian.

Ask a Librarian started as a project funded by the State Library of Florida with a nucleus of community college libraries, but our library joined early on, in 2003.  The idea was to establish an online presence for trained information professionals who "can guide you to the answers you need in minutes rather than your wasting hours navigating hundreds of unhelpful and irrelevant web sites."  Today, Ask a Librarian has 119 participating community college, university, and public Florida libraries.

Virtual reference was conceived as a screen-sharing experience.  The user and the librarian would share a browser window and a chat box, with the librarian "escorting" the user in a search for answers on the Web, while conducting the "reference interview" with chat.

From the beginning, this approach presented problems.  The shared browser window did not work reliably, owing to the great variety of operating systems and browsers in use.  Many librarians were uncomfortable "escorting" users while they searched the Web for good information for them, (a sometimes uncertain and time-consuming process).  They preferred searching outside the shared interface and pasting worthwhile links in the chat box.  Some users were uncomfortable with librarians sharing a window on their computer.  It felt invasive to them.

Ask a Librarian initially used a console called Docutek VRLplus.  The only screenshot I have is from an error report.

Do you see?  There was a problem with the shared browser window on the right.  Docutek in the end made browser-sharing optional, and enabled posting hot links in the chat box.

In 2008 Ask a Librarian migrated to a new product, Instant Service, which added an e-mail feature for libraries without their own reference e-mail arrangement.  Screen-sharing was still an option, but pushing links in chat continued to be the overwhelming preference, and now Ask a Librarian has dropped the screen-sharing component entirely.  Instant Service has since become  ATG Live Help.

Here you see a frivolous request.  Details show neither a user-name nor an actual question.  It's not unusual to get empty or idle requests from bored schoolchildren.  We were once bombarded with silly questions from a classroom in New Zealand.

Here is a chat session in progress.  Roberto from Miami asked, "How can I borrow books that are not in the system?" (We can see which library web site they have come in from.).  I had to go to the web site of the Miami-Dade Public Library and figure out where patrons can request new materials and interlibrary loans.  I found a link under More Library Services, Suggestions for Purchase, which takes you to a web form that doubles as an interlibrary loan request form if you check a button and agree to pay $2 per request.

 I had a good hour at the Collaborative Desk this week.  I was able to help Roberto find out about interlibrary loans at his library.  Another man who came in through the State Library's site needed to know how to get a copy of his Florida birth certificate.  When I found out that he was now in Tennessee, I sent him a link to the Florida Vital Records Office in Jacksonville.

Users going to Ask a Librarian from their library's web page see a notice that their question will not necessarily be answered by staff from their library, but often they think that we are in their library, and can help them with reserves and patron account issues.  Sometimes we have to suggest that they use the e-mail option, (which goes to their library), but we do the best we can, helping them navigate their library's catalog or databases.

You can see the address box and "Push" button above the chat window that lets us send the user a link which opens a new window on their desktop.  This shows in the transcript as Sending:  http://www.mdpls.org/catalog/suggestion.asp.

Ask a Librarian added the functionality to receive and reply to text messages last year.  I haven't seen many yet.  Testing our library's texting address was comical.  The reference staff are all too old to have any experience with texting, and it took some asking around before we found someone who knew enough to send a test text message on their mobile.


Steerforth said...

That's an interesting idea. My wife used to be an 'Information Manager' and I thought that Google would have made her job redundant, if she hadn't left to raise my heirs to the throne.

However, there are plenty of people - some of them well educated - who still struggle with internet searches after years of use, so I'm glad that there is yet another reason for not abandoning our libraries.

You're clearly very IT savvy and could probably make a small fortune somewhere else, so I hope your employers appreciate what an asset you are to the community.

Brett said...

As good as Google is, and I well remember how it surpassed the older search engines such as Altavista and Lycos, its search results are based on traffic volume, not quality of information. Even Google needs a knowledge of search operators and information behavior to produce highly relevant results. Frankly, a search engine is often the last resort of a good reference librarian.

We are strange birds, and lucky to have our own niche. Alas, I don't have an entrepreneurial bone in my body.