virtual reference


I have been thinking a lot lately about how a library chat service is a great way to promote a library.  It inherently has elements that makes your library look good: It’s prompt, friendly, convenient and provides real-time answers to questions without a trudge to the library.

We quietly rolled out  a chat service late this past spring and it steadily has been attracting users during the quiet summer months.  Come autumn, we anticipate a heavy increase in use.

Behind the scenes right now, we are planning how to staff the service, the best chat technology to use and how to market the service.  All important stuff.  But what really gets me excited — and where I think the library promotion bit comes in — is in thinking about how best to interact with users via the service.

Talk with Me

The more I think about it, the more I think the success of a chat service comes down to individual conversations.  You might think it’s easy to chat (i.e., instant message) with a library user, but over the years at other libraries I have found that it entails tact, informality and gentle handling — a combination of relaxed writing and careful attention that the user receives excellent customer service — which is surprisingly hard (for me at least) to get right.

But here is the cool part: I have found that when a chat interaction goes well and a user swiftly gets what he/she is looking for, the interaction creates a satisfied user who is not only likely to use the service again but to tell others about it — thus creating highly desired ‘buzz’ or word-of-mouth marketing for the library.

It’s true: I’ve often seen it over the years.  For users, the utility of the chat service is fresh and often a bit surprising: Their answer comes quickly, from a sincerely friendly librarian, and the user simply had to ask a question via a chat screen.  This tends to create a lot of repeat customers.

OCLC Report

But don’t take my word for it.  A recent OCLC report ‘Seeking Synchronicity: Revelations and Recommendations for Virtual Reference’ essentially states the same thing.  Based on years of research, the authors contend that the ‘ideal blend of convenience and service’ of virtual reference builds lasting relationships with users.

marketing intelligence graphicThey state that for virtual reference to work well for users, libraries must focus on the relationship-building aspects of virtual reference: that is, they must improve how they market the service and how they interact with users virtually.

The authors’ insights and recommendations include:

  • Apparently, the main reason people do not use chat reference services is not because they don’t think such services are useful, it’s because they simply don’t know they exist.  Once people know about chat services, they tend to use them because they’re friendly and convenient.
  • Following from the first point, libraries should market their chat service whenever possible, including, and perhaps most importantly, during face-to-face moments.  To reinforce the message, libraries should hand out business cards with a QR code to the chat service.
  • The authors also found that users really appreciate good customer service.  In chat interactions, therefore, libraries should be positive, sympathetic, personalised and to emphasise what users can do instead of what they cannot.
  • Also, humour and informality are very important.  Users appreciate it when a librarian is (or attempts to be) witty, not overly formal and avoids using canned scripts.  This tends to lead to the most friendly and personalised chat interaction for the user.
  • Users are very sensitive to rejection and often worry they’re bothering the librarian.  Therefore, librarians must take care not to end chat sessions abruptly, reprimand users, limit the time of the chat session or send users elsewhere without providing any helpful information.
  • Users of chat services want answers quickly.  Therefore, librarians should include search or information literacy instruction only after providing an answer and then only if the user seems receptive to receiving the information (determined by asking him/her).
  • However, though users want answers quickly, librarians should ask at least one open-ended question early in the chat transaction to clarify (if needed) what the user is looking for.  The report authors found that this increased users’ satisfaction with chat services tremendously.

Finally, and I think most importantly:

  • Libraries must make access to chat services as ubiquitous as possible.  Not only should access be from the library home page, but also from within VLEs, the university web pages, and online catalogs and databases.  Also, ideally, chat services should be 24/7 (oh how I would love to see such a service in the UK for academic libraries!).

The report confirmed my sense that library chat services are all about the conversation.  When the exchange goes well,  users ‘are quick to virally market our services if they have had a successful encounter — and just as quick (or quicker) to spread negative reports if they have not’ (pp. 71-72 of the report).

Chat services can build ‘respect’ and ‘credit’ for the library (so says the report), but only if libraries sincerely try to build rapport with users and understand their needs.  Providing accurate answers is just a part of the interaction.

Warmth and Humility

For me, the question isn’t whether we ought to provide a chat service — or virtual/mobile applications for that matter — it’s the 21st century, and for goodness sake — yes — we ought to as our users tend to be delighted when we do.  The question for me is how to make the user experience the best it can be (short of giving out free candy).

For me, the question is how best to build relationships.  In a chat interaction, it helps I think to be as sympathetic as possible to a users’ needs, and not just an expert purveyor of information.  Users need the expertise, of course, but they do not need (or desire) a seemingly cold or disinterested librarian.  This isn’t what it’s all about in the new world of social media.  It’s about a conversation laced with warmth and humility — users will appreciate it, use the service again and, most importantly, tell others about it.

Now if we could just get more libraries to provide chat services and to market them better.  More about that in future posts!

keep your conversation cheerful

Always keep your conversation cheerful!

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License ‘ask the brain’ image by  Thomas Hawk 

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  ‘marketing intelligence’ image by  Intersection Consulting 

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  ‘keep your conversation cheerful’ image by  clotho98 

For 2+ years I worked as a librarian for a 100% online university, an experience which showed me one possible — and highly likely — future of enquiry services at traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ academic libraries.  This post is based on a presentation I made at thePersonalised Library Services in HE syposium in March 2011.  Some version of this post will also appear in a must-have book on the topic co-authored by Andy Priestner and Libby Tilley, published by Ashgate Publishing.

Most librarians are to some degree virtual librarians these days.  They regularly communicate and answer enquiries with users via the Internet.  And they likely all have thought about how best to work with remote users in terms of doing a reference interview or offering friendly service.

bunny slippers

As a virtual librarian, I could wear these to work

In the spring of 2008, however, I began working for a 100% online university in the United States, which had library services, but no chance ever of the librarians’ meeting users face to face or regularly interacting with the university administration.  The major challenge was to provide library services to a group of students who for a number of reasons (discussed below) felt disconnected from the university and each other.

My job was to provide library services to the students in an online doctoral program for K-12 educational leadership.  The students were passionate about reforming their schools, most worked full time, had major family responsibilities, and many were the first to go to university from their families.  The doctoral program in education promised a doctorate in three years, but was no degree mill: the curriculum was rigorous and demanded a lot of introspection and writing.

Unlike many online universities, the students never met in person during their three years.  Instead, their communication with their professors and each other happened primarily via the virtual learning environment.  Unofficial communication largely was via Skype.  Though the curriculum was rigorous, the school was socially quite isolating and lonely in some ways.  Despite its best efforts to keep students engaged and participating, students regularly would be silent for weeks.  Many also expressed feelings of isolation and alienation.

empty classroom

Without face-to-face interaction, the students felt quite isolated

When I first started, library services were minimal.  Students could email the library and were promised a response within 24 hours.  Students could work with a librarian only two hours per two-month term.  There was library support for only for their dissertation writing courses, but not for their subject-matter courses.  There was no blog or wiki for regular updates and conversations.  Orientations to the library were sporadic, though new students started each month.  And evening library services, when students tended to need the most help, was done by a third-party provider unconnected to the university and unknowledgable of the students’ topics and assignments.

With few librarians to support the students, and with the program itself in its nascent months, this was understandable.  But it was clear to me that students were not receiving library services that would help them become advanced scholars in their fields.  So, during my first year, I set about to make changes to make the library more friendly and targeted to student needs.  Specifically I:

    • Regularly began to monitor all course forums, both the dissertation and subject courses.  There were 40+ of these, but I managed to get into each one at least once per week and search for my name and library-related topics.  I regularly posted information to help students do searches and about plagiarism, citation styles, and using EndNote.  There were many assignments where students reflected on the research process, and these were perfect opportunities for me to chime in about how to find sources, write literature reviews, and use the library.  I even regularly responded to postings about personal news, such as new babies, to help provide a friendly face to the library.
    • Worked with faculty to customize the information I sent out.  I regularly contacted the professors teaching the courses to find out how I could best support their students and would regularly send out messages with course-specific tips and resources.
    • Developed a wiki with about 25 articles with tips about how to use the library, cite resources, EndNote, current awareness, and writing.  The wiki also linked to several online tutorials that I created.
    • Made and delivered weekly webinars on using the library, citing sources, and using EndNote..
    • Became the resident expert on certain topics, such as citing resources and avoiding plagiarism, and even wrote a dissertation publication manual.  I became the one that everyone turned to with questions on these topics, and I would regularly proofread students’ lists of references.
    • Set up online office hours when I would be guaranteed to be at my computer, but I also kept Skype online and regularly instant messaged with students via Skype during the evening hours.
    • Essentially set out to market the library and its resources at every turn I could.

Overall, it seemed from kudos sent to me and mentions that I found in the forums, that students and faculty were happy and appreciative of my help.  Much of this satisfaction, it seemed, stemmed from the personal relationships I built with students and faculty.  Students and faculty tended to feel isolated in the online school environment, despite the requirement to post and respond regularly in the forums.  I was a friendly, non-judgemental person students seemed to feel comfortable with just to chat with, sometimes about their personal life.  I never discouraged this sort of personal interaction: it definitely helped provide a friendly face to the library, and often after having built the trust of a casual conversation, students would then ask library questions.

During this time, my style as a librarian evolved.  Never having worked in a 100% online environment before, I wasn’t entirely sure how to provide services.  I quickly got to know the needs of the students, and one need over others stood out: They were incredibly busy people, passionate about changing the educational system, but often lacking advanced research skills.  When students contacted me, there were often frustrated and desperate.  Quick reference interviews — and even these are quite hard online — would reveal that they often did not know what a scholarly resource looked like or how to paraphrase properly.  As a librarian I was keen to teach students how to use the library’s databases, but I certainly was not beyond doing a little extra work to attach a handful of articles that looked relevant, just to get the student started.  Enquiries regularly took over an hour, but the extra work paid off, as grateful students were able to see clearly what sort of databases, search terms, and resources were acceptable, and how to begin to use the plethora of electronic resources the university offered.  My work really focused less on the collections per se, and more on what services I could provide to the students.  The students definitely appreciated the personalised services that they got from me — and their information literacy skills clearly improved as a result.

work at home mom

Still life of mom with toothbrush

In retrospect, the online position fundamentally changed my approach to being a librarian.  It made me understand that library services in a virtual environment necessarily need to be personalised, or many students will be lost.  I am definitely a better librarian for having had the opportunity to push myself to offer the fastest and most personalised services I could.  Working 100% online and trying hard to meet the needs of the students really forged my identity as a librarian who reaches out and proactively tries to provide a good and relevant service.

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