Virtual Reference Discussion Group Inaugural Meeting Notes

Virtual Reference Discussion Group

Staffing a Virtual Reference Service
ALA Midwinter 2003, Philadelphia
Saturday, January 25, 2003 4:30 PM 5:30 PM
Overture Room, Doubletree Hotel

Typical staffing problems in Virtual Reference Services include integrating live on-line reference services with traditional services, models for staffing, and scheduling. Share your experiences and brainstorm solutions to your toughest problems.

The 120 attendees at the inaugural Virtual Reference Discussion Group shared many useful and innovative ideas for staffing an online real-time reference services. Librarians gathered in small groups of approximately ten to twelve people, and shared their questions and experiences, led by an experience virtual reference librarian who facilitated conversation. These facilitators included:

  • Sam Stormont from Temple University
  • Susan Wolf Neilson of North Carolina State University
  • Susan Ware of Pennsylvania State University
  • Pat Flannagan from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Lisa Horowitz from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and VRDG chair)
  • Jody Fagan of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
  • Peggy Cadigan of Ocean County Library, New Jersey
  • Matthew Marstellar of Carnegie Mellon
  • Kathleen Kern of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Leanne VandeCreek of Northern Illinois University Libraries, DeKalb
  • Arlie Sims of DePaul University, Chicago
  • Pam Cenzer from the University of Florida

Each facilitator was given a list of seed questions to provoke thought and stimulate conversation should it lag. These questions were:

  1. What model of staffing are you using in your virtual reference service? How well does it work? What other models have you tried? What other models have you considered but have not tried?
  2. What is the most difficult staffing issue for you to solve? Why? What options have you tried? Does anyone here have a solution for that particular problem?
  3. What hours is your service open? Do you have enough staffing commitment to offer the hours that you would like to offer? What alternatives might there be to the way you currently staff so that you could offer the hours you would like to offer?
  4. Does anyone have a creative solution that worked or did not work, or is even still just a model, to a staffing problem?
  5. Has anyone incorporated paraprofessionals into their staffing model? Does it work? Why or why not? Have others rejected that option? If so, why?
After approximately 40 minutes of spirited conversations at the individual tables, the group reconvened into one forum and shared their insights with the discussion group as a whole. These insights were as follows.

Recruiting Staff
One difficult staffing issue to resolve is that of recruiting staff. While some staff may be stimulated with the challenge of learning a new software program or way to work with users, others may be intimidated. They may fear the technology. Other librarians may feel they lack the speed to work effectively with users, or may wish to avoid a new situation that makes them feel foolish. Strategies for overcoming such reluctance include holding workshops and making opportunities for staff to experience chat, as well as giving staff ample training time to practice newly learned skills before debuting online with users.

Models of Staffing
There are a variety of staffing models being employed in libraries to provide chat reference to users. Institutions are taking a variety of approaches, from working chat reference into duties at the reference desk, to creating separate centers for librarians to work when online with users. Many librarians work from their offices when on duty for their chat service. A few institutions facilitate working from home, providing laptops and an Internet connection for librarians to use. Reference librarians are the most common personnel, though some libraries are including staff from other areas such as circulation or technical services. One group debated the advantages and disadvantages of staffing a service with non-reference staff or graduate students in library schools. Another group talked about the difficulties of managing a service based upon volunteerism, as opposed to requiring participation of reference staff.

Work Overload
One theme that emerged from the discussion from several groups was a concern over workload. Many librarians are concerned about the quality of overall reference service as libraries strive to absorb chat without the addition of new personnel. To cope with this issue, some libraries limit the hours assistance is offered via chat, or by participate in consortia, to spread the demands of the new service across multiple library branches or institutions. Others rely upon vender’s reference centers or their chat consortia as “back-up services” to cover more hours and to handle overflow of questions during spikes in user activity.

Another topic of discussion was that of referrals. Librarians shared problems in the area of referring users to other reference services during down hours, while others found making referrals to subject specialists problematic. There is a tendency for librarians to feel pressured to give an immediate answer to users when chatting, even when their best interests would be served by asking them to contact another librarian more conversant in the subject matter.

Training and Evaluation

One challenging area relating to staffing a virtual reference service is evaluating staff. The importance of reviewing session transcripts was emphasized as a tool to evaluate staff, and to identify training needs. Ongoing training is necessary.

Interesting Developments
Some libraries are doing interesting things with chat, such as offering more support for international programs. Foreign speakers of English often can communication better with the written word. Such users may find it easier to converse with librarians using text-based messaging online. Others are finding that students of distance education programs flock to virtual reference. One library even triages the questions for the entire university campus. This is the library of the University of Kent.

Participants' evaluations of discussion forum

Last revised 4/7/03