I took my problem:
“I am looking for information on how to sleep-train a toddler.”
to two different virtual reference desks: one at an academic library, the other at a public library. What follows is my experience through the lens of Cassell and Hiremath’s analysis of the elements of a reference interview: establishing rapport, “negotiating the question,” developing a search strategy, finding information, and follow-up and close (p. 17).
I would not have noticed the chat functions on either library website if I hadn’t been looking: in both cases, the relevant link is only accessible from a second-level page. (In contrast, the physical libraries have large “Information” signs identifying where to start for in-person assistance.)
I expected to see boilerplate messages appear as my message entered a queue and was assigned to a librarian. This was the case for the academic library, which uses the AskAway program. Boilerplate, certainly, but polite and friendly in its reassurance that my message would soon receive a response. It wasn’t long before a real person took over. By contrast, all messages with the public library were clearly from a human right from the start. And whatever the disadvantages of automatic messages, the public library chat was perhaps too informal at the outset. Compare:
- Hello, fiona (No e-mail provided)
- Librarian@AskAway: Librarian ‘Librarian@AskAway’ has joined the session.
- Librarian@AskAway: Hello and welcome to AskAway. I’m reading your question now, and I’ll get back to you in a moment …
- Public Librarian: hi
Without nonverbal cues such as facial expression, eye contact, and tone of voice, text is important. I was surprised at the informality of the public library’s chat system—no logos or other institutional identification, no standard greetings, and a casualness that initially made me doubt the quality of the help I would receive. Nonetheless, I felt reassured as the interview progressed.
Radford (2008) asks, “How do clients and librarians compensate for lack of nonverbal cues in chat reference?” (p. 1048). Both online librarians compensated in various ways. For instance, they let me know when they were taking time to search so I knew to expect a delay:
- Librarian@AskAway: Ok – let me try a few searches…I’ll be back shortly so I can offer some suggestions…
- Public Librarian: be back soon
They also maintained contact throughout, and the academic librarian in particular demonstrated enthusiasm with friendly words (e.g., “Great!” and “You bet”), exclamation points, and even emoticons.
Negotiating the Question
As recommended by Ward and Barbier (2009, p. 58), at the beginning of the chat session, each librarian inquired further to get a better sense of my needs:
- Librarian@AskAway: Are you doing academic articles on this topic or looking for practical advise [sic] or examples?
- Librarian@AskAway: I should ask – where have you been looking so far on the library website?
- Public Librarian: are you interested in books ? are you looking at some scholar lyariticles [sic]
- Public Librarian: are you asking as a parent?
In both cases, this established what I wanted and my degree of familiarity with the library.
Developing a Strategy; Locating the Information
The librarians built a rapport as they helped me search, primarily by encouraging me to search with them. They recommended databases, sent links, helped me construct and refine my searches, and sent the results of their own searches.
Follow-up and Close
I tried to avoid initiating what Radford terms the “closing ritual” (p. 1049) myself, to see how the librarians would do so. As before, the academic librarian was especially enthusiastic:
- Librarian@AskAway: feel free to do some exploring and log back in later if you need assistance!
- Me: OK, will do! Appreciate your help
- Librarian@AskAway: Your [sic] so welcome! Happy searching:)
And while the public librarian did not explicitly encourage my return, he or she was friendly enough:
- Public Librarian: good luck…
- Me: thanks for your help
- Public Librarian: welcome, have a good day and a good night later
- Me: you too. Bye
- Public Librarian: bye
Ultimately, the chat reference interviews were successful. I left both with a better awareness of how to search the catalog, and the interactions were sufficiently pleasant that I would try the services again. In fact, the interviews were “successful” rather than “very successful” only by contrast to the impressive in-person interviews that followed.
Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma. (2011) Reference and Information Services in the 21st century(2nd Revised ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.
Cavanagh, M. (2006).Re-conceptualizing the Reference Transaction: The Case for Interaction and Information Relationships at the Public Library Reference Desk. Canadian Journal of Information & Library Sciences, 30(1/2), 1-19.
Radford, M. L. (2008) Encountering virtual users: a qualitative investigation of interpersonal communication in chat reference. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 57(8), 1046-1059.
Ward, J. & Barbier, P. (2009) Best Practices in Chat Reference Used by Florida’s Ask a Librarian Virtual Reference Librarians. The Reference Librarian, 51:1, 53-68.
[Done as part of assignment for LIBR 503 at the UBC iSchool]