When I read David King’s post about Ask-a-Librarian services last week, I didn’t have a strong emotional response to it. That was, until he wrote a follow up which brought my attention to some of the responses people had made to it. With email reference, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not a synchronous medium. We try to get back to students as quickly as we can via email (and we staff it on weekends from home so that an email from Friday night doesn’t wait until Sunday night to get answered), but I’m pretty sure most patrons don’t expect to hear back from us with an answer within five minutes. I don’t think it’s ever taken us 48 hours to answer a student’s question (nor has it probably at many of the libraries that posted such a statement), and if it’s that complex a question, we certainly write to the student and let him or her know that we’re working on it. Like David, I think it’s a little weird to only accept certain types of questions via email, and in fact, I’d say that it’s pretty darn discriminatory. If you have a patron who is physically incapable of coming to your library or has a disability involving their ability to hear or speak, this may be the only way they can ask their question.

It was some of the comments on David’s post (and in follow-up posts on other blogs) that really made me write this post. Particularly this comment from “Jill” (which also included her sweetly telling David that he’s out of touch with the realities of public services):

As to defining parameters for the service, I don’t see this as a bad thing. Unless you have a staff member dedicated to monitoring virtual reference at a location away from a public service desk, in-person patrons should absolutely take precedence over a virtual patron. Common sense dictates that you pay attention to the person who is physically in the same space as you. Not that the virtual patron’s question is any less important, but you do need to set some guidelines of who to help first

I may be as dense and out-of-touch as David, because I don’t see why common sense dictates that in-person patrons should take precedence. Why? Because they are standing in front of you and the virtual patron is easier to ignore? It’s still a human being sitting at their computer waiting for your answer. Because they took the time to come to the library? Don’t we all have patrons who are physically unable to come to the library? The logic of this really escapes me.

In academic libraries, I’ve seen a lot of virtual reference policies that say that they will always give priority to in-person reference queries. Anna confirms that her library has just such a policy in her post:

There is a note on the IM page of the website which states, “Users at the Main Service Desk have priority over IM users. IM users are taken in a first-come, first served order. If you would prefer not to wait, you may always email a librarian.” Essentially, this is the only way we can manage IM reference service with one person handling it at the same time they are answering questions at the desk and responding to email queries. So far, our users have been understanding, and IM reference makes up approximately 10% of our reference interactions.

I don’t see this as discriminating against our virtual users. Anyone in customer service will tell you that the person standing in front of you takes priority.

I work at a library that has fewer than half the staff of Anna’s library at the University of Richmond (and we serve a larger combined graduate/undergraduate population). We have six librarians who staff all of the hours we are available to provide reference services and only one person covers IM, phone, email, and physical reference all at once. Yet our policy for reference has always been “first-come, first-served.” If I am online working with a student via IM, I will not tell them to wait or give me their email address when a physical student comes to the desk. I will tell that student, “I am working with another student through IM, can you wait a couple of minutes?” Each situation is different and sometimes I can work with both simultaneously. Sometimes I will take down the question and email address of one of them (if their question is particularly in-depth and/or their paper is not due in 10 hours — sometimes we’ll do this regardless of having competing priorities because the question is huge or would be better answered by another librarian or I want to do more digging on it and the patron needs to go) and will get back to them as soon as things settle down. But I never give preference to the student physically standing in front of me — each type of reference customer is equally important and deserves the same level of service.

I really have to question the logic of the statement “the person standing in front of you takes priority” for libraries that offer synchronous virtual reference services. People keep saying it, but no one has explained why they should take priority. And I don’t get it. Is it because your physical patrons are more important than your virtual patrons? Because the reference interview can take longer with a virtual reference patron? Because it makes you uncomfortable to tell someone standing in front of you that you’re working with someone online and they’ll have to wait a moment? I really can’t understand that statement at all.

When I developed our IM reference service three years ago, I was guided by the ACRL Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services, which includes the following statement:

Members of the distance learning community, including those with disabilities, must therefore be provided effective and appropriate library services and resources, which may differ from, but must be equivalent to those provided for students and faculty in traditional campus settings.

If you are saying that in-person questions take precedence over the medium open to distance learners for contacting you, you are not providing equivalent services. I can’t stand when distance learners are treated like second-class citizens — having been a distance learner and a distance learning librarian, it really makes my blood boil. And this is just one example of how service to on-campus patrons takes precedence over service to online patrons. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re less deserving of timely and high-quality services. They pay your salary as much as every other student does. Here’s our help page for distance learners which clearly does not state that there are any limits to the reference services available to them or that questions from other patrons take precedence over their questions.

I know plenty of libraries do not serve distance learners, but I think the spirit of this document should apply to all virtual users of our library. There are many reasons why people may not come into the library to ask their question. It’s not just because they’re lazy or didn’t feel like it. Perhaps they are disabled. Perhaps they do not have transportation. Perhaps they have a mental illness like social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia or are asking a question that they’d be too uncomfortable to ask in person. What excites me most about providing synchronous virtual reference services is not the convenience, but that it has made reference services accessible to many people who never would have or could have used our reference services before. And to tell these people that your physical patrons take precedence is a subtle message that they are less important than the people who could make it to the library.

And let’s not forget that there is a whole other synchronous reference medium that’s been around for many, many years: the phone. At our library, when the phone rings and I’m working with a patron, I’ll answer the phone, take down their info really quick and let them know I’ll call them back because I’m with another patron. If I’m on the phone with someone and another patron comes to the desk, I’ll let the in-person patron know that I’m answering a reference question on the phone and that I can work with them in a few minutes or they can write down their query and leave me their email address and I’ll get to their question as soon as I’m done. It’s no different from how we treat our virtual reference patrons. And I don’t understand why it should be any other way.

I know that the reference interview can be more challenging and take more time in the virtual medium. I know it’s hard to staff four forms of reference service at once. I get it. I work in public services too, at a library where our reference stats have not gone down over the past five years and where we have a very small number of staff members to cover reference (and we don’t use students). But to say that there’s some logical reason why the person standing in front of you should receive preference over the person on the phone or in your chat window makes absolutely no sense to me. Can someone explain it?