A Library Reference Online Chat Service Review

internet service Pixabay licensed under CC0 1.0

I recently used an Ask a librarian online chat service at a reputable university library. I chose not to name the library or librarians for this review to protect the privacy of those involved.

My enquiry was about permalinks which I’d seen in the library cataglogue.  I wanted to know what they were, and whether they were reliable links I could use for my blogs, or whether they were session-specific and would break. Furthermore, I wanted to know if I used a permalink, would a member of the public, not affiliated with the university, be able to view my source.  I checked the university’s guide to citing and referencing, and searched Google but could not find an answer I could decipher, which led me to use an Ask a librarian online chat service.

Researchers such as Schiller, Shaw and Spink refer to RUSA guidelines to evaluate behavioural performance for online chat library reference services, which are based on 5 areas:

  • visibility/approachability;
  • interest;
  • listening/inquiring;
  • searching; and
  • follow-up of chat reference services

In terms of ‘visibility/approachability’, the online chat gateway was very easy to find on the university library homepage, and the operating hours were very convenient – every day of the week with similar hours to the library’s opening hours.  I made contact during operating hours, however, it took 20 minutes before my online chat began.  This is in contrast to a maximum 1 minute wait-time as a feature of best practice (Schwartz cited in Schiller).  To begin the chat, I needed to complete an enquiry form asking for my name, email address and topic.  Once submitted, an onscreen message appeared:  Sorry no chat agents are currently online.  Twelve minutes later, I discovered a librarian (L1) had just emailed me. I tried to reply but email delivery failed, so I returned to the chat portal, and voilà, a chat window opened within the webpage, and L1 and I began to have a real-time conversation.

Considering the area of demonstrating ‘interest’, I felt this was not fully satisfied by L1.  Although L1 provided helpful information in the email I received, I still had more questions to ask.  Soon after our chat began, L1 abruptly exited the chat.  L1 asked a clarifying question, and before I could respond, I was greeted with another librarian (L2) who informed me that L1’s shift had finished.

Despite this fairly disappointing start, both librarians fulfilled their duty of listening/inquiring and searching.  My enquiry was eventually fully resolved by L2.  On reflection, both L1 and L2 asked clarifying questions and provided links to information sites so that I had a reference point to go back to, demonstrating a teach-to-fish rather than give-fish methodology.  Providing prompts for me to investigate myself made my learning more memorable and encouraged me to be an active participant.

Once I felt that my enquiry was resolved, I expressed satisfaction.  Our parting words were friendly.  In terms of ‘follow-up of chat services’, I received an email request to complete a survey on my experience, which only included questions related to level of satisfaction and not how much I learnt.  In addition, in our parting comments, L2 did not invite me to make contact again.

Ranganathan’s fourth law of library science, save the time of the reader,  certainly applies to library reference online chat.  Although my wait-time was longer than expected at the beginning, my enquiry was resolved faster than other communication pathways.  In terms of customer experience, I would suggest protocols be put in place to help manage customer expectations around wait-time and changing librarians mid-enquiry.  Ask a librarian is a service, nonetheless, its main goal is to educate.  With this view, I came away from the experience a satisfied patron.