Reference Transaction Handoffs: Factors Affecting the Transition from Chat to E-mail

Nora Wikoff

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This article describes a content analysis of virtual reference transcripts taken from the NCknows virtual reference service. The analysis sought to determine why librarians consider some questions to be unanswerable at the time they are submitted by users. Questions were coded by a classification of question causes and by how complete the reference interview was in the transaction. The transcripts were then coded according to the reasons given for ending the chat early. The analysis showed that most reference interviews were incomplete and that the most common explanation for why librarians could not answer questions at the time was that they were already busy assisting other users. The study indicates that more North Carolina librarians should be hired to staff the service and that librarians should make a greater effort to conduct a complete reference interview so that more questions can be answered while users are still online.

Reference’s primary function is to provide users answers when and how they need them. Chat reference services assist users from anywhere with an Internet connection where librarians can send users information immediately. Occasionally librarians cannot answer questions when received because of time constraints, because necessary resources are unavailable, or because questions require referrals. Librarians may then send answers to users’ e-mails.

This paper examines why librarians staffing the NCknows chat reference service are sometimes unable to answer questions when received by focusing on three questions: (1) What types of questions are answered later through e-mail?; (2) How complete are the reference interviews?; and (3), Why do transactions end prematurely? Librarians may use the e-mail response option when questions require more time or resources than are available when the question is received. A content analysis was conducted on unfinished reference transactions of questions submitted to the NCknows reference service from January to February 2005. By minimizing situations that make certain questions difficult to answer while users are still online, NCknows will be an effective form of reference that users can rely on for their information needs.

Digital reference services help remote users locate useful information sources. These services draw questions from users who may have never used library reference, as some users are concerned about anonymity, and others cannot visit libraries. Whether it is distance, a handicap, privacy concerns, or scheduling issues that prevent users from accessing libraries, virtual reference services tear down these restrictive walls, assisting users in any location and increasingly at all times of the day.

Librarians can also send users information later. If users disconnect prematurely, librarians can send them e-mails requesting more information. Librarians also have more flexibility to respond if more time is needed to answer questions. Once users log off, they receive a transcript of the chat session that can be consulted later.

But even virtual reference services’ proponents concede that there are drawbacks. Bibliographic instruction has always been an important aspect of reference, but chat service technology often hinders librarians’ attempts to teach users search skills. Not all services permit co-browsing, while Web sites and proprietary databases often prevent it. When librarians send e-mail responses, the search process becomes solely the librarians’ responsibility. For users to learn how answers were found, librarians must type the search strategy.

Librarians staffing virtual reference services without co-browsing compensate by typing out searches, which is very time-consuming. Questions requiring only a few minutes of time at the desk may require nearly fifteen minutes for librarians to find an answer and then explain in text.1On average, NCknows chat sessions last 13.7 minutes.2Besides the additional time required, low levels of use have been cited as another problem associated with chat reference.3

Librarians today may bemoan virtual reference’s failings, but tomorrow’s users will perceive things differently. In 2004, the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future found that possibly 97.5 percent of children ages twelve to seventeen in the United States use the Internet.4Reference librarians should remain open-minded about digital reference’s possibilities. “Services and programs must become more responsive, more flexible, more convenient, and more personalized for users, taking into consideration many different learning styles, attitudes, belief systems, and orientations to technology.”5 By doing so, librarians will position themselves to serve users who are increasingly accustomed to locating information without physically visiting the library or contacting a librarian by telephone.

Collaborative Chat Reference Models

Collaborative virtual reference services comprising multiple types of libraries are more sustainable than individual chat services, as they share startup, maintenance, and staffing costs. Use statistics are understandably much higher for collaborative reference services because they reach more people representing diverse user groups. Families, students, and the elderly in rural, urban, and suburban environments enjoy access to reference services if they or their libraries have Internet access.6

The North Carolina State Library’s Virtual Reference Advisory Committee debated whether virtual reference should be provided by one library or by several working cooperatively. The committee chose the latter, citing cost, marketing, and service concerns. A collaborative model shares libraries’ resources, regional knowledge, and staff expertise, while costs are spread out among member libraries.7 On the other hand, collaboration often means compromise, and public, academic, and special libraries have to negotiate what level of service to offer.8

Digital Reference and the Reference Interview

Despite technological advances that have expanded reference service, it remains a relatively static practice. Many librarians view desk reference as the ideal model because verbal and nonverbal cues are present to clarify users’ information needs. Also, librarians can easily provide bibliographic instruction and show resources to users in person. After conducting the reference interview and locating potentially useful sources of information, they can then ask users if the documents are helpful. Other reference formats lack aspects of the traditional reference interview, thus rendering them less efficient forms of reference.

Nonetheless, it can be difficult for librarians to conduct reference interviews at the desk, even using the many subtle verbal and nonverbal cues available. The chat reference setting compounds this difficulty, as librarians must rely solely on what users write. For this reason, chat has been called an “austere mode of communication” in which “there are no changes in voice, no facial expressions, no body language.”9 Important clues are certainly lost in the transition from desk or telephone reference to digital reference. For instance, librarians may need to ask chat reference users their grade level to determine how complex or detailed the materials sought should be, although that would be apparent to the librarian if students were to approach the reference desk in person. Perhaps more importantly, librarians quickly sense when users are stressed or pressed for time, based on their tone of voice or how quickly they talk, whereas the persona and typing style of a rushed user might be interpreted as poor chat etiquette. Additionally, librarians can tell when users they speak with do not understand something or need clarification about something, as a user’s silence or pauses can communicate much about the user’s state of understanding. But the chat format may encourage candor, especially concerning certain topics, as many chat services allow users to remain anonymous.10

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