On being a virtual librarian

Last Spring, my library signed on to AskAway, a virtual reference service. AskAway is the Wisconsin division of the QuestionPoint consortia, which provides virtual reference (via online chat) throughout the United States. That means our patrons can get reference help from a librarian, 24 hours a day, even on holidays. In turn, some of our librarians spend an hour or so per week answering virtual reference questions from patrons all over the country.

It’s been an interesting experience providing online reference help. When I first started, it was a little unnerving and overwhelming (much like the first few times I was working at the reference desk in the real world). But just like that other reference situation, those feelings fade with experience.

What can be a little frustrating is the comparatively lengthy amount of time it takes to answer an online chat question. If someone stops by the reference desk for help on a search strategy, it’s a pretty straight-forward process to show them how they can proceed. It can be much more complicated via online chat. While the QuestionPoint software does allow co-browsing (where both the librarian and the patron can see what each other is doing in their browsing window), it only is available when both the librarian and patron are using Internet Explorer. And even then it can be problematic. Yes, that means I have to use Internet Explorer when I’m providing virtual reference (boo! hiss!).

Truth be told, the co-browsing feature of the chat software could still use some work. To be fair, the folks at QuestionPoint do continue to improve the software (they are even promising it will soon work with any modern browser).

But since I tend to avoid using co-browse when I’m being a virtual librarian, I invariably end up typing instructions to the patron, instead of just showing them what to do. For example:

From this page: www.example.com
Click “Articles” at the top
Do you see the link for the database?
Click that
In the search box enter the search terms
Check the box that says scholarly sources

It can be a drawn out process compared to answering the same question in-person, or even over the telephone. But there have been studies in the library world that have found some students studying in libraries would not be caught dead asking for help at the nearby reference desk, but they will happily seek help online. In addition, allowing library patrons 24/7 access to help from a real librarian, makes the decision to provide the service an easy one.

One unique aspect about providing virtual reference is you can see the question before you decide to answer it — a luxury you do not have at the real world reference desk. During the times I have been online, there are usually 25-30 librarians throughout the country serving the same question queues I am. So if a question comes up I don’t feel real comfortable answering (such as the one I saw the other day about euclidean geometry), I can let a more knowledgeable librarian answer it. That also can be a bad thing however — you can get a little gun shy and just pass on every question.

Whenever I connect with a patron, the first thing I invariably do is open up their home library’s website. It gives me a good idea of what the student has access to, and if I can point them to a resource through their home library, so much the better.

I must say that finding information on some of those library websites has been a… challenging experience. Sometimes I find myself hunting around and clicking layers deep into the site for basic things. Things I think should be immediately visible to anyone visiting the site for the first time. But as the saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice…”