Virtual Reference @ Your Library
Your school’s budget has been cut. The library can’t stay open after school for as many hours, if at all. Worse yet, you’re being asked to serve as the librarian at not one, not two, but three different schools now. You still want to provide your students with exceptional curricular support, but how?
School libraries have historically faced the greatest financial and staffing challenges. The libraries’ open hours are limited. Staffing during these hours is often done by paraprofessionals or volunteers. The librarian might only be there 10 hours per week. How is it possible to provide quality, reliable homework help in this situation? If students can’t get homework help directly from the school librarian, where can they turn?
Real-time online reference services have been around for some time now. As with many newer technologies, the academic libraries picked it up first, due in large part to their flexible funding and staffing structures. In the last few years, public libraries have jumped on board, with school libraries following hot on their heels.
I believe school libraries and the students they serve have the most to gain from real-time online reference. The users, in this case students, are generally very comfortable with computers and with chat technology. In fact, many of them would rather chat online with a teacher or librarian than ask for help in person. I have seen students in the public library chatting away on an online reference service, while there is a real-life librarian sitting not twenty feet away at the reference desk. Clearly “online” is a preferred medium, at least for some students.
There are two basic forms of real-time online reference that schools can consider offering to their students: web-based chat and instant messaging.
Web-based Chat Reference
Web-based chat requires that the library purchase server-side software (such as QuestionPoint). This software allows the library to set up a webpage with a built-in chat module. In short, students go to a specific webpage, click on a button to connect to a librarian, and then chat back and forth on the webpage. Web-based chat often has extra features, beyond simple chatting. Librarians may be able to “push” webpages to the student, which causes a webpage to open up on the student’s computer without the student having to do anything. Librarians and students may be able to “co-browse,” allowing both the librarian and the student to see the same page, as text is entered, search buttons clicked, and so on. Web-based chat will also often provide both the student and the librarian with a transcript of the chat for future reference.
The downside to many web-based chat products on the market (besides the fact that the library has to shell out some serious dollars for the software) is that they have rather strict system requirements, due in large part to these extra features. Some services do not support browsers other than Internet Explorer, Macintosh computers, or certain firewall configurations. Some users experience a bad session due to these requirements and don’t come back for a second try.
However, there is a huge upside to web-based chat services. Many state and local library cooperatives have collaborated to offer a web-based chat service. For example, in a ten-library cooperative, each library can staff the service for three hours per week, making the service available thirty hours per week to all of their students. Cooperatives of this nature offer a large return on time investment, and significantly reduce the initial financial commitment from each library as all member libraries share in the cost for the purchase and maintenance of the software.
Examples of web-based chat cooperatives:
- Association of Southeastern Research Libraries’ Ask a Librarian: http://www.ask-a-librarian.org/press.cfm
- Florida’s Ask a Librarian: http://www.askalibrarian.org/
- California’s AskNow: http://www.asknow.org/
California’s AskNow cooperative not only offers general reference services, but also offers students access to professional tutors from 1-9 pm every day through an arrangement with Tutor.com’s Homework Help program. If there is a web-based chat cooperative in your area, it may offer additional services like this one.
Instant Messaging Reference
Instant Messaging Reference works using free downloadable instant messaging software. Examples include AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger. To use this type of reference service, students must have downloaded one of these free chat programs onto their computers. The librarians must do the same. There also exist instant messaging aggregators, such as Trillian ( http://www.trillian.cc/), which will allow a user (like a librarian) to answer questions from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo users, all through the single Trillian chat interface. This option is certainly attractive, as it allows the library to offer services to many of its students regardless of which chat program they prefer. The user’s experience is this: in the chat program, the student will send a message to the library’s screen name (e.g. “MySchoolLibrary”), and then the librarian & student chat back and forth.
The chief downside to Instant Messaging is that, unless you cooperate with other libraries, you cannot possibly offer the service for as many hours as a cooperative web-based chat service can provide. Currently, I do not know of any group of libraries that is cooperatively offering Instant Messaging Reference, but I think this would be a huge leap forward. Just as libraries can cooperate with a web-based chat service, why can’t they cooperate to offer IM services?
Another downside to Instant Messaging is that it does not offer any of the bells and whistles that web-based chat does. You can send hyperlinks and files through most IM programs, but the librarian can’t push pages or co-browse with the student. While some IM programs allow both the student and the librarian to keep transcripts, they are not secure, so be cautious of what types of information you are keeping about your students.
The upside to Instant Messaging is two-fold: it will connect your students with a local librarian and many students already have some form of IM software already installed on their home computers, and keep their chat software running to chat with friends while they work on their homework. Librarians can offer help when and where students are doing their homework with IM Reference.
Examples of Instant Messaging Reference services:
- Thomas Ford Memorial Library: http://www.fordlibrary.org/chat/
- Marin County Free Library: http://www.co.marin.ca.us/library/im.cfm
- Saint Joseph County Public Library: http://www.sjcpl.org/asksjcpl/asksjcpl.html
What’s right for my school?
In deciding which of these services is best for your students, you should keep several questions in mind:
- Does your state or other local consortium of libraries already offer a cooperative web-based chat reference service? If so, what are its terms for participation?
- Do your students instant message?
- How many hours a week of staffing can you contribute to an online reference service?
- Are you willing to try to arrange a school district cooperative to offer either of these types of services?
You may find that you can only offer two hours of time per week. In that case, a cooperative web-based chat service will probably benefit your patrons the most. If you can offer more time than that, consider getting yourself an instant messaging screen name and testing the waters. See if students respond to it and ask you questions. You don’t have to offer it all the time, perhaps just two after-school hours each day. See what happens, and go from there. Offer one, offer both, but offer your students some form of online reference. You will be taking the library’s services to where the students are, a worthy goal for any library.
Sarah Houghton is the e-Services Librarian for the Marin County Free Library in San Rafael, California. She is also President of the California Library Association's Information Technology Section, a consultant for the Infopeople project, runs a blog ( LibrarianInBlack.net ), and was recently appointed to LITA's Top Technology Trends Committee.