Virtual Reference at the NCSU Libraries: The First One Hundred Days
North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries launched an online chat reference service in January using Library Systems and Services LLC's (LSSI) Virtual Reference Desk. Traffic has been modest but significant (four chat sessions per day). Staff have responded to the service with interest and excitement as well as confusion and doubts. Future directions for the service include improving librarians' abilities to work in this new medium and extending the hours of the service. The author concludes by arguing that libraries must strive to create Web environments in which answers to the most frequently asked questions are easy for patrons to find without having to contact the reference desk.
You're an old pro at chat reference if you've been in business for a day. At least that's how it feels amid the mad scramble of academic libraries following the trail blazed by pioneers like Temple University libraries and the Lippincott Library at the University of Pennsylvania. NCSU Libraries launched its live, online reference service using Library Systems and Services LLC's (LSSI) Virtual Reference Desk on January 8, 2001. The most frequently asked question so far is from other librarians wanting to know how it's going. This article is an attempt to answer that question, as well as explain why we're on this path at all and where we think we're headed. Insights from colleagues as to what it's like to do reference in this new way will be included. In conclusion, it will be argued that as well as making reference help available during more hours and by more means than ever before, academic librarians should strive to make our online environments transparent and seamless enough that patrons can figure out how to start their research and find answers to basic questions on their own.
At the NCSU Libraries, we became interested in offering online, real-time reference for many reasons. We have moved aggressively to get as many indexes, journals, and books as possible online. To use our collections effectively, patrons must go online. If we push patrons onto the Web, it only makes sense for reference librarians to follow them there. NCSU also has an increasing number of distance learning students (roughly twelve hundred), some of whom will never visit the library buildings. For them, "the library's Web site is the library," to borrow a phrase from Julie Linden. 1 We are committed to providing for distance learners ". . . library services and resources equivalent to those provided for students and faculty in traditional campus settings," as ACRL's Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services state. 2 In addition, chat offers a way to work around the inconvenience of patrons with one phone line having to get offline to ask the question they had about an online resource (Cindy Levine, humanities reference librarian at NCSU, offers an interesting counterpoint to this rationale, noting that the increasing use of cell phones may make the one-phone-line scenario less common as time goes on). Finally, virtual reference is a good fit at NCSU, a large university (twenty-eight thousand students) with students, faculty, and staff on three discontinuous campuses in Raleigh and distance learning students all over the state, the country, and the globe. Not everyone can easily stroll from their dorm or office to one of the libraries. The university, proud of its engineering and scienjpgic endeavors, has a history of embracing and experimenting with technology. The libraries have a culture that matches this focus and are always on the look out for technologies that can improve services.
At D. H. Hill Library, the main library, chat reference was first tried in January 2000, using an IRC chat server. To make a long story short, the service failed miserably. It was much too complicated for patrons to figure out how to meet a librarian in the chat room. Lesson learned: make the chat service easy to use. Patrons are confused enough (otherwise they wouldn't be asking questions) without confusing them with the technological means by which they are supposed to ask their questions.
After shopping around for a good product that would be easy for patrons to use - no downloads, no configuring, just fill out a form and click - we chose LSSI's Virtual Reference Desk (see figure 1). In addition to chat, the Virtual Reference Desk offers what LSSI calls co-browsing. If a patron asks a question that leads the librarian to look up books in the catalog, the librarian can send the catalog screen to the patron's browser (see figure 2). Each successive screen in the search is sent to the patron. In LSSI's lingo, the librarian is "escorting" the patron. This feature caught our attention. On the phone and while chatting, reference interviews can become downright silly as librarians describe pages and processes on the Web to patrons who can't see them. Co-browsing allows the librarian to follow an old maxim for good communication: show, don't tell. The maxim is especially apt in our case, given the visual nature of the Web. The software also allows librarians to send files of any type to the patron - Word documents, PDF files, whatever the librarian wants to send (see figure 3). At the end of each session, both the librarian and the patron receive transcripts complete with all the URLs visited. It was an easy sell.
Figure 1. Patrons Fill Out a Form and click "Connect." They Need No Software Except for a Browser.
Figure 2. The Librarian Can Escort the Patron through a Catalog Search
Figure 3. Librarian's View of the Virtual Reference Desk
Once the software was acquired, an even more important consideration was how to staff the service. 3 The Research and Information Services department at D. H. Hill Library had solved that problem back in 1999 when it created a separate reference desk called the Off-Site Services (OSS) desk. At the OSS desk, (a room close to the regular desk), the librarian on duty answers phone and e-mail questions. The new desk, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, is staffed in one-hour shifts by a librarian. Each reference librarian has a mix of hours at the traditional reference desk and at the OSS desk. The new desk is an effort to give equivalent services to regular patrons at the traditional desk and to those off-site patrons in their offices or homes who call or e-mail. Moving the phone off the regular desk has allowed librarians to answer questions without having the phone patrons and regular patrons interrupt each other. Having all reference staff monitor and answer e-mail questions in shifts throughout the day has improved the turnaround time dramatically. A response to e-mail questions is promised within eight hours, although four hours is the average turn-around time. The Virtual Reference Desk is another means by which questions can be answered from off-site, so the job of answering chat questions falls to whichever librarian is on duty at the OSS desk.
On January 8, a link was added to the NCSU Ask a Librarian Web page, and forty-one patrons showed up over the course of the first month. The librarians hoped the volume would be manageable as they got used to the software and this new method of communicating. February brought more inquiries - sixty-three. After the campus newspaper and several library publications publicized the service, we nearly doubled that number in March with 114. April held steady with 124.
A total of 342 questions over four months is a modest beginning, but a comparison to the volume of e-mail questions is revealing. During the same time span, January 8-April 30, the NCSU Ask a Librarian e-mail service has received 469 questions, 140 percent more than the chat service. But a closer look at those numbers reveals that the difference lies entirely in January and February, when the chat service was new and unpublicized. Starting in March, a statistical dead heat occurs between the e-mail and chat services - 119 questions via e-mail and 114 via chat. The figures for April are similar - 105 for e-mail and 124 for chat. That is to say, within four short months, the new online reference service is just as popular as the e-mail service that has defined virtual reference at NCSU for the past eleven years.
The questions we have received have been, for the most part, typical reference questions - how to find books and articles, technical difficulties with off-campus access to databases and electronic journals, questions about patent searching, and a heavy dose of "where can I find something online?" Other librarians asking about the service have, of course, inflated the numbers.
There have been some difficulties. A few transactions never get off the ground; others crash midway through; some get lost in the clouds. Patrons' browsers sometimes crash. Other times, patrons just wander away, leaving the librarians chatting with themselves. The anonymity of online communication leads to odd behaviors not usually seen at the reference desk or heard on the phone.
As for the software itself, our primary concern has been with co-browsing proprietary databases. Steve Coffman of LSSI says co-browsing works with some databases and not with others. However, using a version of the software called Basic, our librarians have hardly ever successfully co-browsed databases. As a rule, it just isn't done. Coffman has recommended switching to a new version called Interact that handles this better, a change that is taking place as of this writing. It is hoped that LSSI can work with vendors to make co-browsing databases a reality because this is exactly what we would like to show students.
Reference Librarians' Reactions to the New Service
The sixteen reference librarians at D. H. Hill Library have had interesting and thoughtful reactions to their first few months of chatting with patrons. Some are enthusiastic about this experiment; others are more hesitant, wondering what niche chat fills that the traditional desk, phone, and e-mail could not better accommodate. So far, no one has derided the service as an experiment not worth trying.
There have been many encouraging chat conversations during which patrons have been impressed by the service. Eric Anderson, a library assistant, described showing Web pages to a patron and said, "The user really perks up when they can see what you're doing."
Chat, however, is a way of communicating that will take some getting used to. Most reference librarians at D. H. Hill Library, unlike many of the undergraduates, were not in the habit of chatting before the service started. It is a medium that requires some adjustment for those who like to craft their writing slowly and carefully. "I'm someone who likes to re-write what I've written," said Anderson, who has been doing e-mail reference at D. H. Hill Library since 1990. "I'm a perfectionist. It's a strange medium to work in for someone like me."
Rapid-fire conversations without nonverbal cues have interesting implications. "I've always known the importance of body language and all [that] we do at the desk to make people comfortable," said Mary Ellen Spencer, public documents coordinator. "I'm more aware of it now that we do chat because the absence of them is so striking." The lack of nonverbal cues can make chat difficult. For instance, the fourth person in line at a regular reference desk can see why they will have to wait, but the third patron in a chat queue won't know why they waited so long and may show much less patience. But Spencer also pointed out a positive side to not seeing or hearing patrons. "I don't get to see if the person is dressed well or how old they are. It makes us patron-blind in a way. It has made me more aware of how I react to those things at the desk."
Cindy Levine, humanities reference librarian, finds chat a strange way to communicate. "I feel like if I could talk to the person on the phone or if I had time to formulate an answer it would be better," she said. "I either want more immediacy or more time to think, and chat is caught right in the middle." Later, trying to explain why the overlapping back and forth of chat leaves something to be desired, Levine asked, "Have you ever played ping pong under a strobe light? It seems like it should work, that there's enough information there, and you should be able to hit the ball." But, as she recalled from this interesting childhood experiment, it doesn't work. "You realize how dependent your brain is on all the intermediary cues."
Despite its synchronicity, chat can be a painfully slow way to communicate, requiring patience on both ends of the conversation. Steve Coffman of LSSI is honest about the limitations of the medium. ". . . chat is a rudimentary and cumbersome way to convey anything, much less the complex content of many reference interactions." 4 Coffman is betting on the future of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This technology would allow us to hold on to the good aspects of virtual reference - its real-time nature, the ability to show remote patrons processes on the Web, and its location online, where an increasing amount of our collections and patrons are - and replace the clumsy chat mechanism when voice communication technologies become standard on the average computer. After all, we already know that the most effective use of the Virtual Reference Desk is to co-browse with patrons while talking to them on the phone.
The new service has created a new dynamic at the OSS desk. There are now two live, synchronous media to attend - phone and chat. Eric Anderson once tried to handle three chats and a phone call all at the same time, a level of juggling that worries Cindy Levine. "It's like talking on a cell phone and driving a car. I know people think they can do it, but statistically, they don't drive as well." Levine's biggest fear is that librarians may answer questions less accurately in order to give quick answers.
Spencer sees multitasking and accuracy as training issues. "At the desk we have strategies for dealing with overload. There are things you can do. What we haven't done successfully yet is develop those for [the OSS desk]. We need to give people strategies so that they don't feel like 'All this is happening to me, and I'm all alone.'"
Many of the reference librarians at D. H. Hill Library think that the success of the chat service depends on their ability to exploit the Virtual Reference Desk's co-browsing feature to show patrons research strategies. As Spencer put it, "We have to use it as more than just a substitute for the phone."
So now we have an online service. What next? At the NCSU Libraries, we see a long list of interesting challenges ahead.
First, we need to make sure that links to reference services are in all the places on our Web site that they should be. We also plan to investigate putting links to Ask a Librarian on database interfaces. Coffman of LSSI is talking to database vendors about a standard method for libraries to get a piece of this virtual real estate. For example, when patrons at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill use databases such as Medline via OVID, they are offered a link on the OVID main search page to the Ask A Librarian e-mail reference service at the university's Health Sciences Library. Kate McGraw, information services coordinator, estimates that about one-quarter of the health sciences library's e-mail reference questions come from this link. This makes sense - what confuses patrons more than databases? It is precisely the place that patrons most need to see a Need Help? sign. The UNC librarians also get the added value of receiving patrons' search strategies in addition to the questions.
In order to become more effective at chat reference, further training, practice, and time to share tips and stories of successes and failures is needed. All of us need to become better chatters. As a group, we need to develop strategies and a staffing model to deal with the overload scenario of three simultaneous chats and a phone ringing off the hook. For this, we are considering using AOL Instant Messenger as a means of calling out for help. The lone person at the OSS desk could send a quick message to the whole reference department, asking those at their computers in their cubicles to log on to the Virtual Reference Desk and pick up the slack. We would then have an internal chat network to support our external chat service. We need to remember to use our judgement and switch from chat to the phone when appropriate, just as we now understand that a question involving back-and-forth e-mails can be clarified over the phone. Just because a complex reference question arrives via chat does not mean it can be answered with three sentence fragments and two URLs. We also need to remember when we are on the phone spelling out URLs and describing online procedures that we can have patrons join us online so that we can show them what we are talking about via co-browsing. It's a matter of getting used to a new tool, integrating it with the familiar ones, and knowing which ones to use when.
We need to extend the hours of our service. The old "9 to 5" won't cut it. As the only academic library to staff a reference desk twenty-four hours a day with professional reference librarians, it only makes sense to offer the chat service as many hours as possible. We can't help the thirty-year-old professional woman of distance education lore - she who works on two online courses after tucking in the kids - if we're only available during banker's hours. Extending the service into the busy evening hours is a logistical hurdle that will be addressed in the coming academic year.
The NCSU Libraries have a confidentiality policy that is applicable to all user records. This will assure patrons that - in accordance with North Carolina law and library ethics - that information is not shared with anyone outside the library. We plan to develop a procedure whereby we regularly download transcripts and data from the Virtual Reference Desk, retain aggregate statistics only, and have LSSI then purge our records. The confidentiality policy, to be linked off our Ask a Librarian Web page, will tell patrons that we take this issue seriously. Most patrons probably have never even thought about confidentiality at the library. It is hoped they will be pleasantly surprised to know that librarians care about their privacy as much as doctors and lawyers. Indeed, privacy gives libraries a rare chance to shine. The Virtual Reference Desk is the perfect example; LSSI has customized for libraries software that was developed for e-commerce sites. While dot-com Web sites have the ability to attract millions of enthusiatic users, we can only dream of having their investment capital, their marketing savvy, their designers and programmers. However, when it comes to ensuring personal privacy, corporations can't possibly compete with us. It's as simple as the distinction between customers and patrons. We won't be selling our patrons' personal information because selling is not what we do.
The NCSU Libraries plan to take advantage of LSSI's "meeting room" feature, which allows a librarian to chat and share materials online with multiple people. I plan to use meeting rooms as a way to teach bibliographic instruction classes to geographically dispersed distance learning students. (See Viggiano and Ault's article in this issue on the Florida Distance Learning Reference and Referral Center's experiences with using chat for instruction.)
For now, the NCSU Libraries' chat service is staffed only by reference librarians at the main library, D. H. Hill. NCSU has four other branch libraries that could also offer via chat their specialized expertise on veterinary medicine, textiles, design, and natural resources. Coordinating reference services between multiple departments and multiple libraries even within one university is a complicated task regardless of the medium, but LSSI's Web-based system lends itself well to such collaboration. We will also investigate the benefits of collaborating with other libraries in our local Triangle Research Libraries Network, which includes UNC, Duke, and North Carolina Central University, and perhaps even libraries around the world through the Library of Congress' Collaborative Digital Reference Service project. (See Diane Nester Kresh's article in this issue.)
A Challenge for All of Us
Most importantly, the NCSU Libraries and other academic libraries need to improve their Web sites, catalogs, online services, and tools. Now that service is available to help patrons at any hour and via every medium that is practical in this day and age, there is a need to work on the reasons why patrons have to ask certain questions in the first place. This is not to suggest that the day has arrived when reference librarians can be replaced with AskJeeves. However, library Web sites should be able to answer the most frequently asked questions better than most do today. Reference librarians can only answer questions from the kind of people who ask reference questions. Some patrons will never come to the desk, call, e-mail, or chat with the reference staff. They will simply walk away without answers. Even for those patrons who are comfortable asking librarians for help, their time should not be wasted by making them contact us for answers that the Web site could provide in context. Reference librarians will always receive plenty of difficult questions that require their knowledge to answer no matter how brilliant the Web design, but surely better homepages can help answer the most common questions that are heard every day at the desk.
At the top of Vanderbilt University's main library Web site is a drop-down menu that answers these questions: "How do I . . . Find a book? Find articles? Get a book? Get articles? Renew a book? Recall a book? Get from Annex? Get help? What else?" (figure 4.)
Figure 4. A "How Do I" List Answers Frequently Asked Questions
Think about your own library's homepage. How many of Vanderbilt's questions does it answer easily? Which questions does your Web site not answer at all? A good academic library Web site should answer all these questions in a way that an intelligent, patient freshman with little library experience can understand. Notice that Vanderbilt's questions do not use the words catalog, database, index, interlibrary loan, circulation, or reference. Someone in Nashville was thinking like a patron.
Many library homepages, NCSU's included, can be thought of as lists of ingredients with no recipes. Here's a catalog, some databases, e-journals, and ILL forms - now go do your research. Having praised Vanderbilt, now let me use their elegant list of questions to criticize their recipe-like answers. For example, "How do I get a book?" takes you to a page that tells you how to use the catalog, call numbers, WorldCat, and interlibrary loan to get books. What if instead of creating separate documents to explain our services, the services explained themselves? "How do I get a book?" could take you straight to a catalog that explained what it contained and did not contain, routed you to indexes if in fact you were looking for articles, and automatically suggested interlibrary loan if your search for a book came up empty? "How do I find articles?" could lead to an online wizard that asked you a series of questions and led you to appropriate indexes that could be extensively integrated with the library's catalog and electronic journals. In this way, the databases themselves could lead patrons back to your catalog to learn whether or not your library contained print copies of or provided online access to a particular journal. 5 In this weird cooking adventure, the ingredients themselves suggest how they can be used and combined.
Library tutorials can be useful, especially if they explain complex processes or concepts independent of particular systems. FAQs and knowledge bases have their place. But too often they just make up for the fact that libraries and vendors design tools that can be used only by those who already know how to use them. Amazon.com staffers don't sit around creating tutorials on how to find books in their catalog; their catalog explains itself. Before dismissing Amazon's catalog as simple in comparison to library catalogs and databases, recall that Amazon lists books they own and store in many different warehouses (not to mention music and other wares), lists books they don't own, estimates how long it will take to get any book, and when a search fails, provides links to used book stores, auctions, and a service that will keep looking for the book and inform you when it is found. All that, and you don't need to learn any jargon or go through a minute of training.
Librarians need to fight against technical solutions that are too complicated for most patrons to understand. When your number-one reference question is about your proxy server, get a better proxy server. NCSU Libraries recently switched to EZproxy, a product that does not require patrons to configure their browsers. This should simplify our services greatly and, in most cases, eliminate patrons' need to ask questions about the proxy server. They don't even need to know it exists. We should resist as much as possible vendor products that require patrons to download or configure software or remember yet another password.
Continuing to make our Web services more clear to patrons will not be easy. It will take hard work on our Web pages, catalogs, and internal systems. It will also require cooperating with and putting pressure on vendors and publishers to make their interfaces sensible and their data interoperable with our catalogs.
Of course there will always be patrons who will need to talk to us no matter how well our Web site answers their questions. Reference librarians will continue to help these patrons, indeed, treasure them. But everyone else - the vast majority - should be given a chance to figure out the basics of the library and its services without having to pause and contact the reference desk. This will remain true no matter what Star Trek-like holographic communications systems future librarians will use at the reference desk.
References and Notes
1. Julie Linden, "The Library's Web Site Is the Library." College and Research Libraries News 61, no. 2 (2000). Accessed May 2, 2001, www.ala.org/acrl/website.html.
2. Association of College and Research Libraries, ACRL Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services, fall 2000, Philosophy. Accessed May 2, 2001, www.ala.org/acrl/guides/ distlrng.html.
3. Actually, we have no software. The Virtual Reference Desk is Web software running on Egain's servers. Egain is the company that makes the software; LSSI has customized it for libraries. Some parts of the software are created by another company, Hipbone.
4. Steve Coffman, "Distance Education and Virtual Reference: Where Are We Headed?" Computers in Libraries 21, no. 4 (2001). Accessed May 2, 2001, www.infotoday.com/cilmag/ apr01/coffman.htm.
5. One way in which databases and catalogs can be integrated is through the OpenURL framework designed by Herbert Van de Sompel and his colleagues. If vendors and libraries were to use OpenURL, a patron could find a citation and abstract in, for example, the Compendex database. The record would have a link that said something like, "Where can I get full text or find this in my library?" The link would then present the patron with options set by her library - links to full text, to the catalog holdings, and even to novel services such as "look up this article in Science Citation Index to see how it has been cited." Such a system could lead patrons where they want to go and even to places they had not considered. See: Herbert Van de Sompel and Oren Beit-Arie, "Open Linking in the Scholarly Information Environment Using the OpenURL Framework," D-Lib Magazine 7, no. 3 (2001). Accessed May 2, 2001, www.dlib.org/dlib/ march01/vandesompel/03vandesompel.html.
Joshua Boyer ( email@example.com) is Reference Librarian for Distance Learning at North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh.