Part of last week’s “class” involved a discussion on virtual reference chat. A couple colleagues who have experience in this area were sharing some of their experiences and insight into this aspect of librarianship. As someone who has never had the opportunity to work in reference–virtual or otherwise–I found it quite interesting. More in fact because just that day I had done my job-shadowing at Conestoga College and one of the librarians who was hosting me, did have an ASKOn (the virtual reference service offered by Knowledge Ontario and used by a variety of public and college libraries in the provide) session that day. I wasn’t there for the whole thing, but he did give me a quick overview of how it worked.
My natural assumption of VR chat was that it would be challenging, primarily due to the fact that those involved would miss out on both the physical cues of communication as well as the auditory ones (unless of course there’s voice chat). My next natural inclination, also based on a lack of visuals, was that a VR interaction/interview would also take longer than f2f because of you can’t “show” the patron the set of steps taken or what the screen looks like, etc. It just seems to me there would be a lot more “description” involved. (And I only based this supposition on the challenges I’ve faced when trying to “walk”–over the phone–my mother through how to create a Word file/manage her email/download photos from her camera.) And, it appears that I wasn’t far off. Colleague Research Guardian shares some of her thoughts and experiences as an Ask A Librarian (the virtual reference service offered by a group of Ontario universities) intern in a recent posting on her blog, Distance Librarian, and she highlights some of these specific issues.
I then decided to take a read through the article “Are We Getting Warmer? Query Clarification in Live Chat Virtual Reference“. Interestingly, one of the most important things I took away from the article, also supports an observation made by Research Guardian: the importance of customer service. Here are two quotes to highlight that “service with a smile” is golden with patrons (whether virtually or in person):
- “…74% users reported that relational, interpersonal factors were more important than content-related factors in assessing FtF reference interactions…” (p. 261)
- “…asking users the follow-up inquiry of whether their question was answered completely to be a strong predictor of satisfaction” (p. 262)
The other thing I find interesting about reference–and again, this is reference in general and not specific to VR–is how often patrons don’t really know what they want to ask. I know we all learned that in 9003, but it still kinda surprises me. And in fact when I was job-shadowing, I asked just that of one of my hosts. And he said it was true: that what someone thinks they need or want is rarely that. To that end, there’s another cool quote in the article describing question negotiation. It’s defined as “…one person’s attempt ‘to describe for another person not something he knows, but something he does not know” (p. 260). Try and say that 10x fast!
Oh! And finally, the other thing I didn’t really think about–which would add to a patron not really being clear on what he or she was asking–is the fact that many reference interviews/interactions occur because of “imposed queries” (p. 261): for example, questions that are the result of an assignment, or asking on behalf of someone else. In terms of the assignment aspect, this is where academic librarians would benefit from liaising with instructors in order to have a heads-up about upcoming research assignments. This is in fact what they do at Conestoga: have copies of assignments in the Library Resource Centre in order that should a student require specific course related reference, the librarians do have a sense of what is required. Of course, this works best in a smaller library environment. (Can you imagine it working at Weldon?!?)
Radford, M. L. et al. (2011). Are we getting warmer: Query clarification in live chat virtual reference. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(3), 259-279.