David Lee King wrote a post about Ask-a-Librarian services and the restrictions we put on them that has generated some great conversations about the changing nature of reference transactions.
Yes, it is true that answering questions via email or chat can take longer, and that we usually don’t have enough staff to assign one person to just cover those services at all times and it’s true that most of us are so busy, throwing yet another communication channel into the mix can be overwhelming. However, it’s vital that our patrons are able to access us however they want to reach us, especially as contacting us online is quickly becoming the preferred method. So I agree that putting restrictions on the number of questions that can be asked per week or the type of question we’ll answer via the service is wrong. As for it taking some time to get back to customers (we’ll answer within 48 hours…), I think we’re reaching the point where it doesn’t matter how they ask us, all questions should get equal priority.
If only we had some way to indicate to customers in front of us that we’re working with someone else. Maybe don a set of huge headphones (Bluetooths just make everyone feel stupid that they didn’t realize you were on a call) whenever you start answering a chat or email question. And remember in-person triage methods work just as well online. If the email is going to take a while, get them started with some links and resources and clarifying questions. And just as you would in person, keep them informed. Let them know that the library is closing at 5 for a holiday, so don’t expect a reply until Tuesday. We kick patrons out at closing, so tell them you’ll have to finish your reply in the morning. Let them know you’re the only person on the desk right now so it might take you a while.
But better yet, let’s use the advantages of technology to find a better way to serve remote patrons. You may have guessed from the “About” section of this blog that I’m all for more collaboration in public libraries. I worked with MCLS 24/7 Reference before it merged with Questionpoint and I was chair of the AskColorado Steering Committee for six years and saw first hand how popular these services are. And with more library transactions occurring online, collaboration just makes sense. It may be hard to collaborate on in-person reference service as the person is in front of you expecting to see your books and resources, but when it’s a telephone, chat or email question, why can’t any librarian answer it? If it’s a specific request like local history resources or copies of pages from a reference book, it can be referred back to your library, but otherwise why not pool our resources to create a countrywide virtual reference service that also handles phone and email questions? Policies can be put online and you can give back end access to your resources, so those staffing the service can cobrowse your databases or catalog with your patrons. The staff at this centralized service will soon become proficient at fast replies, appropriate referrals to subject experts and online searching.
So rather than having every library create their own chat, twitter, email and Second Life reference service, let’s stop reinventing the wheel and work together for a national 24 hour seven days a week, English and Spanish (and maybe Hmong and Portuguese?) online and phone Ask-a-Librarian service. As any statewide or international 24/7 virtual reference service can tell you, your business will increase with each transaction. Reference is not dead, it’s just waiting for libraries to claim it online.