Do Away with the Long Forms — Keep it Simple!

April 23, 2006 at 7:59 am 6 comments

When was the last time you really examined and overhauled your library’s email reference service? Perhaps it is time for you to do so now. If your library can’t find the way to provide IM service just yet then at least make sure you have an email reference service that is reflective of the changing expectations of library customers.

It seems to me that many libraries wrote policies and procedures for providing reference by email 5+ years ago and have not revisted them since. I did a quick informal survey of several library web sites and what I found was quite disheartening. I found lots of email policies with rule upon rule right up front that actually seemed to discourage the library customer from using the service. Or I found big long forms that act as a barrier to asking a question quickly. Perhaps back when email was a “new service” for the reference department these rules and forms had a place, but I believe it is time to break down the barriers.

We had a long, clunky form with lots of rules preceding it at my library for many years. Several months ago we had a departmental meeting where we discussed why we were holding on to the rules and form. We could find no good reason. So we did away with the rules and revised the form… and watched our email question statistics rise as a result. Here is our new form, it is quick and easy to use and a step in the right direction.

We still have a page with policies (several of which I do not agree with and would like to see gone and some of which have been added by administration recently), but at least the policy does not clutter up the main page and force the questioner to scroll forever to get to a form or email address.

Take a good look at this one representative example. I could list dozens that are similar to this, but this example is from a public library that won a “National Award for Library Service” (and I have edited out several sentences for the sake of brevity):

E-Mail Reference Service is designed to answer your brief, factual questions. We can also provide suggestions to help you find the answer you need, assist you with search strategies, and help you learn more about the library’s collections and services. Please fill in the form below to request information.

You can ask us to:
*look up dates, names, spellings, definitions, brief biographical or historical information
*locate addresses/phone numbers for businesses, associations and government
*suggest other information sources for your question.

Remember: You can search our Library Catalog, check availability of books and other materials in our collection, renew your checked out items, and place holds. Please note our many Electronic Resources that can be accessed from home by library cardholders.

We will send an e-mail to update you on the status of your request if more than 2 business days are needed to answer your question.

If your question is in-depth, or you need a faster answer, please call us! You can always speak directly to a reference librarian during our open hours by visiting or calling Reference Services Department.

If I came across this as a library customer it is likely I would not ask my questions as it seems like they don’t really want to provide email service. They have put forth so many rules that I would feel uncertain if my questions met the parameters. To make matters worse, this lengthy preamble is followed by an even lengthier form that tries to simulate a reference interview.

Why do so many libraries insist that only “brief factual” questions can be answered via email? To me, it makes more sense to have in-depth questions come in via email so that staff has time to research without the pressure of the person standing in front of them.

The example I gave is doing one thing right, letting patrons know that they will respond in a somewhat timely fashion. I have noticed several libraries that have policies in place that say they will answer in 2-3 working days and not on weekends at all. In our “instant everything” society having a turnaround more than an hour or two is not acceptable. If you are going to provide email reference service, you need to check the inbox continually and reply as soon as possible (even if that reply is just a confirmation that you have received or are working on the question). If a library customer leaves a message on voice mail we never wait 2-3 days to reply to that question. Why do we wait so long to reply to email questions? Do they not deserve the same courtesy as telephone reference questions?

I would like to give props to Thomas Ford Memorial Library and their minimalist form that encourages (not discourages) questions.

I urge everyone to look at their email reference service (I will be challenging my library to do the same) and see how we can turn this Library 1.0 service in to something that is more user-friendly in a 2.0 World.

Edited to Add:

On the drive to work I was thinking about this some more. I don’t want to come across as saying we don’t need policies to govern these services, clearly we do. I just want to examine how much of these policies need to be included on the web site. Do we have our list of what you can and can not ask posted in front of us as a sign at the reference desk? Nope. Why do the same for email.
If someone emails with a question that is out of the boundaries of the service or requires further follow-up, then email them back with an explanation or ask for a phone number so you can call and talk to them. At least let them get the transaction started. Make sense?
Also, if you are feeling a little bit down after looking at your email service then this should make you feel better. What got me really thinking about this topic again was a result of my emailing a question to a U.S. government agency last Monday regarding an issue of some urgency in my personal life. I had been on hold for well over an hour and gotten nowhere so I tried their email service and here is the auto-reply I received:
Your question has been received. Due to a backlog in emails you should expect a response from us within 10 to 15 business days.

I am still waiting for my real reply. I should have used the Pony Express. It would have been faster.
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Tip #2: Do daily walk-throughs Little bits of what?

6 Comments

  • 1. Anonymous  |  April 23, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    I’m almost with you here. The first email form I was ever associated with was so long it was clearly sending the message, “go away!” However, I do think it helps to ask the person’s name (gives you a way to greet him/her) and I don’t see an issue with asking for status (student, staff, off-campus). Also, the Ford library’s form doesn’t give the user any reassurance of when to expect a response. — K.G. Schneider

  • 2. Anonymous  |  April 23, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    I’m almost with you here. The first email form I was ever associated with was so long it was clearly sending the message, “go away!” However, I do think it helps to ask the person’s name (gives you a way to greet him/her) and I don’t see an issue with asking for status (student, staff, off-campus). Also, the Ford library’s form doesn’t give the user any reassurance of when to expect a response. — K.G. Schneider

  • 3. Anonymous  |  April 23, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    I’m almost with you here. The first email form I was ever associated with was so long it was clearly sending the message, “go away!” However, I do think it helps to ask the person’s name (gives you a way to greet him/her) and I don’t see an issue with asking for status (student, staff, off-campus). Also, the Ford library’s form doesn’t give the user any reassurance of when to expect a response. — K.G. Schneider

  • 4. ruth lindemann  |  April 27, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    I love the part of the form that says it’s intended only to answer quick factual questions and then allows them 2 days to reply!

  • 5. ruth lindemann  |  April 27, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    I love the part of the form that says it’s intended only to answer quick factual questions and then allows them 2 days to reply!

  • 6. ruth lindemann  |  April 27, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    I love the part of the form that says it’s intended only to answer quick factual questions and then allows them 2 days to reply!


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