Do Away with the Long Forms — Keep it Simple!
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 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.