- Joe Murphy, email@example.com
Better Practices From the Field:
Management Models and Considerations for Virtual Reference.
By - Joe Murphy (firstname.lastname@example.org), Kline Science
[This Forthcoming installment of the column “Better Practices From the Field” will appear in Science & Technology Libraries 28: 5 (2008)].
Our adoption of cutting edge reference services sometimes outpaces our creation of management models capable of supporting them. Sci-tech libraries have been at the forefront of enhancing traditional services with a wide range of virtual reference services to help us meet our patrons’ increasing demands for mobility. However, a unique set of practical management considerations are required in order to successfully move from quick set-up to full service support.
Meebo or Trillian? Razor or iPhone? Skype or Gizmo5? Second Life or There? Choosing a technology for reference requires evaluating management considerations because of the implications each carries for its delivery and quality. We will be focusing on instant and text messaging below as examples, but the following considerations apply to any diffuse reference service, whether it is instant messaging, text messaging, VoIP, automated information kiosks, or virtual worlds.
The technology should integrate with and enhance existing services. It should involve a minimal learning curve for librarians and none for patrons, and be flexible to allow for changes in technology and patron expectations. It should offer added value that other tools do not. Permission should be secured for acquiring, paying for, and implementing the technology and any affiliated software or web code. Also, secure the dependable tech support that is necessary for a reliable service.
Instant messaging (IM) has been embraced as a dominant medium for virtual reference by many libraries. However, the novel technical concerns presented by IM require new considerations. The major technology consideration for IM reference is the choice of IM services. Librarians can avoid having to choose among IM clients (AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk etc) by using an aggregator such as Trillian (http://www.ceruleanstudios.com/) or Meebo (http://www.meebo.com/) through which patrons can reach us regardless of their preferred IM clients. Most IM services now provide codes for chat widgets that can be embedded in library webpages so patrons can get help at the point of need. Web-based IM systems, such as Meebo, provide unique benefits for staffing by freeing librarians from designated computers. Meebo offers added benefits of public and private chat rooms, an iPhone specific access page, file transfer, and voice/video chat. Meebo is also great at facilitating internal communication among staff members who can reach each other with personal IMs and embedded chat widgets.
The largest technology consideration for a text messaging reference service is choosing between using a mobile device or SMS/email conversion software that translates text messages into email messages. Such software, like Australian based Altarama (http://www.altarama.com.au/refxsms.htm), requires less training for librarians, and facilitates exporting statistics for evaluation. However 9as of early 2008), most options for this type of software have prohibitive prices or place unreasonable expectations on patrons such as having to send messages to an international number. A text messaging reference service can benefit from the mobility librarians gain by using a cell phone and becoming comfortable with the brevity of this communication method. Considerations for choosing a specific mobile device include service contract and data plans, the strength of phone signal reception in the library, features affecting staff such as type of keyboard (qwerty vs. number pad), as well as added value such as email capabilities.
A carefully planned management model can make or break a virtual reference service. Successful models address procedures and staffing, as well as accountability. They ensure that patrons’ expectations are met, allow for growth, and can weather changes in staff and technology. Authority for the service and responsibility for creating, maintaining, and updating it should be clearly identified.
I suggest staffing multi-unit services not participating in consortia with a central department or person that can refer questions out to specialists as necessary. Of course it’s difficult to refer questions with some technologies such as mobile text messaging devices. A point person or department needs the authority to coordinate scheduling and provide resources in support of librarians providing this service. Other considerations include procedures for limiting the services to the intended audience and policies for changing shifts and transferring patron queries.
Patron expectations can be framed with policy statements that address response time, hours, types of questions appropriate for the service, and what information we want from patrons. Plan ahead with a marketing program including funds and assigned responsibility, and identify goals and procedures for evaluation.
The best way for librarians to learn about these technologies is to play with them! The largest barrier tends to be librarians’ fear of new technologies or non-traditional services. We will not learn if we fear the technology or if we fear failing. It helps if we can step out of the mindset of a librarian evaluating a tool and instead approach it as a fun toy. Having librarians use these tools in a relaxed environment without pressure helps us build trust, relieve techno stress, and increase chances of gaining buy in. Simulate reference transactions for active learning and point out additional features, short cuts, and help files. Supplement training with multimedia orientation tutorials from vendors or on YouTube.
Every service provider should be familiar with the technology, and the larger view of why the tool and service has been chosen. We need to feel that the technology and service is important to us and benefits us in order to feel a sense of ownership and internal motivation. We can kill two birds with one stone by developing policy statements so staff are familiar with and can point to procedures and policies.
Training can assist librarians with the large hurdle of adapting to the different communication conventions by helping them feel comfortable using short hand, letting go of strict punctuation, and embracing abbreviations and concise answers. A list of popular shorthand and abbreviations can be a helpful tool.
Providing reference service through IM, text messaging, Facebook, Second Life, or other forums requires a set of evolving competencies, in addition to those outlined in Science & Technology Libraries Vol 28 (1/2).
Implementing social networking and other 2.0 library services provides the exciting side benefit of opening up new ways for patrons to ask reference questions. They may ask questions through Myspace’s IM, Facebook’s new chat feature, or comments on our blogs, Myspace profiles, or YouTube videos, as notes on flickr photos, as Twitter “@replies,” or even as Facebook wall posts. These new venues for reference require all of the same considerations as other services, and some new ones that address shifting expectations, as well as social networking literacy skills and 2.0 competencies for librarians.
Providing reference service in alternate venues may require us to transform, refocus, or replace traditional services. This may represent a shifting of the deck chairs in the larger movement towards diffuse library services. We should discuss as a profession how providing reference at these shifting points of need may transform us into online information concierges, available to assist our patrons throughout the diverse information landscape!
These management decisions will help us continue forward from the idea of meeting our patrons’ evolving needs to implementing sustainable and successful virtual reference services, whether it is with instant messaging, social networking, text messaging, VoIP, or Second Life. Let’s continue to explore and discuss our evolving role, and share best practices for the myriad possibilities of virtual reference services.
- Joe Murphy, email@example.com
- This column will appear in Science & Technology Libraries 28: 5 (2008).