The Good, the Bad, but Mostly the Ugly: Adherence to RUSA Guidelines during Encounters with Inappropriate Behavior Online

Jack M. Maness, Sarah Naper, and Jayati Chaudhuri

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Using a scoring rubric based on RUSA’s “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers” (RUSA Guidelines), librarians’ performance in 106 chat reference transcripts in which a patron was determined to be acting inappropriately were compared to 90 randomly chosen transcripts from the same time period in which no inappropriate behavior was identified. Librarians serving appropriately behaving patrons scored significantly better on two of five major dimensions of the RUSA Guidelines. Recommendations for librarians serving inappropriately behaving patrons and for improving the two affected dimensions are given.

It is possible that library patrons have always misbehaved. From disruptions to damaged property, librarians have for decades sought to cope with the occasional patron who becomes rude, abusive, destructive, or irrational. As library collections and services have changed in format and availability, patron misbehavior has changed. From the tearing of pages to the systematic downloading of journal issues, from loud conversations to prank virtual reference calls, new behaviors necessitate new standards for professional conduct.

While most professional standards are not directed solely at preventing or mitigating inappropriate behavior, it is certainly incumbent upon librarians to follow guidelines of professional conduct in such situations. One of the most cited is RUSA’s “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers” (RUSA Guidelines), originally published in 1996 and revised in 2004 to be applicable to remote forms of reference, such as e-mail and chat services.1 These guidelines continue to be widely accepted and referenced in professional literature. While adherence to these guidelines cannot prevent or mitigate all encounters with inappropriately behaving patrons (nor was it explicitly intended to), it can perhaps achieve success in some cases. The RUSA Guidelines themselves recognize that “the positive or negative behavior of the reference staff member (as observed by the patron) becomes a significant factor in perceived success or failure.” Librarians providing chat reference would best serve their patrons by being aware of and practicing the RUSA Guidelines as much as possible.

This study examines librarians’ adherence to the RUSA Guidelines when dealing with patrons behaving appropriately as compared with librarians serving patrons displaying some level of inappropriate behavior, as determined in a previous study.2 The study seeks to determine if adherence to RUSA Guidelines definitions of positive behavior helps mitigate rude or inappropriate patron behavior in chat reference, or if other recommendations are necessary. The intent is to help shape librarians’ concept of what positive behavior is in online reference environments, particularly chat reference.

Literature Review

This literature review focuses on providing an overview of recent assessments of virtual reference services. Virtual reference assessment literature tends to gravitate toward one of the following camps: (1) description of institutions’ innovative applications of virtual reference assessment; (2) identification of patron and service demographics; (3) comparison with regular reference; or (4) virtual reference transcript analysis. Examples of recent literature describing applications of virtual reference assessment include descriptions of the use of virtual reference assessment data as part of the budget cycle, descriptions of virtual reference assessment at an integrated academic and public library, or specific training strategies developed after as a result of identified training gaps.3

A recent notable example of patron and service demographics analysis is Houlson, McCready, and Pfahl’s work at the University of Minnesota–Twin City campus.4 Such analysis also could focus on specific populations, such as Walter and Mediavilla’s description of the differences between teen and adult communication skills or Shachaf and Snyder’s analysis of differing user needs for racially diverse populations.5 Fennewald’s analysis of the different types of questions asked by virtual and in-person users and Moyo’s analysis of the rate and nature of instruction in virtual and in-person transactions are examples of literature that compares virtual reference with regular reference.6 Examples of transcript analysis include Pomerantz, Luo, and McClure’s description of evaluating North Carolina’s NCKnows transcripts and Lee’s comparison of Australian e-mail and chat reference transcripts.7

Recent transcript analysis literature includes a few articles that specifically used the RUSA Guidelines as part of the analysis. Ward’s account describes use of the searching section of the RUSA Guidelines to develop criteria that was used in evaluating the completeness of seventy-two University of Illinois reference transactions.8 Zhuo, Love, Norwood, and Massia describe the use of modified RUSA Guidelines to assess one hundred instant message transactions at Central Missouri State University.9 Ronan, Reakes, and Ochoa report on using the RUSA Guidelines to evaluate the reference interview of fifty reference transactions from a random sample of virtual reference services across the United States.10 Perhaps most pertinent to this study is the work conducted by Kwon and Gregory, as well as that by Shachaf and Horowitz, which correlate various dimensions in the RUSA Guidelines to patron satisfaction.11

None of the literature, however, specifically applies adherence to the RUSA Guidelines to situations where patrons behave inappropriately.

AskCoLorado and Inappropriate Use

All transcripts evaluated in this study were provided by AskColorado, a statewide virtual reference service that at the time of the study was maintained by service from thirty-nine public library systems, twelve college and university libraries, eleven school districts, and six specialized libraries.12 The service averaged four thousand questions per month in 2007, more than doubling the monthly averages since its inception in September 2003.13 Approximately 350 librarians staffed the service, usually between 2 and 8 simultaneously.14

Evaluating the quality of AskColorado’s virtual reference service has been a concern since it began. It was recognized at inception that reference librarians encounter extra challenges during a chat reference transaction that may not be as apparent in face-to-face transactions. Many times in a solely text-based environment, absence of body language and gestures make it harder to understand the information need of a patron. Marie Radford, a preeminent scholar in virtual reference communication, indicates that more research needs to be completed to understand, improve, and evaluate the quality of a virtual reference transaction.15

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