The Teaching Moment in Virtual Reference – Clara Hudson

Clara Hudson is a librarian at the University of Scranton.

When doing reference by phone e-mail and chat, we lose the visual cues we get at the reference desk. This is why communication skills are so important online and on the phone. On the positive side, people are sometimes embarrassed to ask for help at the reference desk, and this adds a sense of anonymity to the reference transaction. It can make us more approachable to those who may not feel comfortable asking a question in person.

The University of Scranton provides chat reference as part of a cooperative of 23 Jesuit Colleges and Universities. They chose commercial virtual reference software because of the co-browsing features. Co-browsing allows them to teach and for the student to practice what s/he’s learning.

In reference to the criticisms of commercial virtual reference products, Clara stated that public librarians are usually the big proponents of IM because their mission is primarily to provide answers to patrons and the mission of academic librarians is to teach. If it wasn’t for the fact that my friend sitting next to me heard the same thing, I would have thought I’d heard her wrong. I totally disagree with the assertion that instruction is not part of the mission of public librarians. And I definitely disagree with the assertion that instruction cannot take place just with IM. Maybe she meant something else, but it really came out all wrong.

Clara did a study of chat reference transcripts at the 23 academic libraries in her consortium. She didn’t really have much time to elaborate on what she found in the sudy, but she did state that she discovered that the virtual teaching moment was not actually in the co-browsing, but in the conversation (the chat). She says that she saw transactions where 30 pages were pushed to a patron in just a couple of minutes and how ineffective this was. She emphasized the importance of backing any co-browsing or push technology up with explanations and step-by-step instructions. I would also add how important it is to make sure that the patron is actually on the same page. Considering that co-browsing and page pushing sometimes do not work, you cannot assume that the patron is seeing what you want them to see.

IM in the Academic Environment: One Library’s Experience – Amanda Etches-Johnson

This may not have been the correct title of her talk because I was focused on the kerfuffle with Amanda’s microphone.

Amanda works at McMaster University, which started looking at doing virtual reference in 2004. At that time, there was a lot of navel hazing about commercial VR software so it was useful to learn from the experiences of other schools. The Pew Study came out at that time showing that 75% of online teens in the U.S. use IM and another study showed that 85% of teens in Canada use IM.

McMaster decided to adopt IM for their virtual reference service because of its cost, it’s ease of adoption, the low learning curve for both staff and patrons, and the fact that it is user-centered (meets patrons where they are).

The librarians at McMaster worked to develop a policy for their IM reference service. The major question was, “do we provide research help of all kinds or just quick and dirty ready reference?” They decided to do a broad policy, allowing any research question. Amanda believes that you can do all the fancy page-pushing and co-browsing, but the virtual teaching moment is definitely in the actual conversation. And it begins with the library’s policy (the more inclusive the better). She also brought up the fact that you can send files to patrons and can insert links (which just require the student to click on them to get to a page).

She stated some of the benefits she and her colleagues have found with IM reference:

  • cost
  • small learning curve
  • lightweight
  • easy to pilot
  • user-centered
  • Instant is not necessarily the expectation – users are willing to wait because they’re multitasking.

and some of the disadvantages:

  • No bells and whistles like co-browsing and queueing
  • Third-party hosted/security issues
  • Be prepared to spend approximately three times as long as when doing face to face reference — but you can multitask too

At McMaster, they did minimal promotion of the service and have still had success with IM reference. All they did was promote it on their Web site and at the library. This really illustrates for me how attractive it is for students to contact librarians via IM — for the anonymity factor (as Clara said), the convenience (they can be anywhere), and the fact that many students are already using it.