Posts filed under ‘Virtual reference’

Officially Weighing in on QandANJ

Posted by: Janie Hermann

Tomorrow afternoon at 1 pm the Reference Section of NJLA will hold a meeting at Princeton Public Library so that the library community can have a dialogue on QandANJ.org and on the state of virtual reference in New Jersey.

I personally hope that the room will be packed to standing room only so that we can get as many opinions and ideas as possible. My fear is that attendance will be much smaller than it should be. I know that some will not be able to attend due to other work commitments, desk schedules, or travel distance (NJ is a pretty big state). If you are in that category, please take the time to share your thoughts with Michael Maziekien, the chair of the NJLA Reference Section, or leave comments in this post.

If you are still hesitating about attending for other reasons — such as apathy or not wanting to “rock the boat”, so to speak — then I encourage you to reconsider and take the time to come tomorrow. The key issue with this entire kerfuffle is not the decision to end funding for QandANJ, but the manner in which it was done. A decision about a statewide initiative that is staffed by librarians from over 50 libraries was made without any input from the stakeholders. This our chance to rectify the situation and have our say.

Until today my involvement with this issue since it surfaced about 5 weeks ago on April 4th has been to make several (some quite lengthy) comments based upon posts by Andy Woodworth and Pete Bromberg and to speak with other in our library community who are feeling the same sense of betrayal and shock over this decision. Pete and Andy have done an excellent job of framing the entire situation so I will not repeat what have they have said, but I did want to go officially on record as supporting their efforts to get the conversation started and not let the closure of a long-standing and beloved service be done without giving it a full and considered examination.

Tomorrow is not a “Save QandANJ” rally. It is a chance for open dialogue in which we can take steps to decide the future of virtual reference service in our state. It may very well be that the time has come to sunset QandANJ and even those of us who have been most vocal about this issue recognize this reality. Or it may simply be time to retoool the service, find new a funding model and/or scale down the service to recognize that many libraries have their own VR service and no longer need to be a member of the project.

The point is that we need to examine figures and facts, collect opinions from all sides both pro and con and then come to a consensus. This process won’t happen in one day or one meeting and I am very relieved that QandANJ has been given a reprieve to allow us time to figure this out.

I am also grateful to the NJLA Reference Section for taking the initiative to get the conversation started by calling this meeting and to Pat Tumulty and the NJLA Executive Board for issuing a statement that began with this sentence:

NJLA believes the library community must have a voice in determining the programs and services provided by state and federal dollars to the residents of New Jersey.

I have long been an advocate of the NJ State Library and have served on several committees for them over the years, including the Blue Ribbon Panel on the Future of Libraries. I continue to be proud of the innovation that is sparked in the NJ library community with the leadership of our state library. The NJ State Library has led many successful marketing initiatives that have raised the profiles of libraries and shown our value to our stakeholders. My disagreeing about the manner in which this one decision was made does not mean that I am no longer an advocate for their work or any less proud of the innovative services they provide. It simply means that we do not see eye to eye on one issue.

Some in the library community feel that those who are being vocal in their opinions are “betraying” the NJSL to openly call for a reversal of this decision and to request a meeting to discuss the future of the service. I do not see it as a “betrayal”. I see it as a way for all of us in NJ to grow as a professional community and am hopeful that the outcome will be a new way of doing business, one that is transparent and open and important decisions are given due consideration.

This has been a divisive few weeks for many, of that there is no doubt and it was evident at the NJLA conference last week. I know it has been very upsetting for many people for a variety of reasons. Let’s put that all behind before 1 pm tomorrow and work together towards a solution. If you have yet to feel free to speak up about your feelings on this issue, please find your voice and give us your feedback. Your ideas count and can impact the future of service for all New Jersey residents.

May 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm 1 comment

Virtual Reference Bibliography Website – Now Live

I write today from Harrisburg, PA, site of the REFolution Conference: Reference Service in a Constantly Changing World sponsored by Lyrasis (formed by the recent merger of PALINET/SOLINET). I just love the name and spirit of this conference, and was honored to deliver the keynote speech on the future of reference this afternoon to an audience of about 200 reference enthusiasts.

I am delighted to announce (as a Library Garden scoop, I might add) that a team of faculty and students at Rutgers have just launched the long awaited, highly anticipated Virtual Reference Bibliography designed to be used by librarians, students, scholars, and others who are interested in publications dealing with all aspects of virtual reference.

Hosted by Rutgers University’s SCILS, this site is a continuation of the digital reference services bibliography maintained from 2000 to 2004 by Bernie Sloan. It now contains 700+ entries from Bernie’s original bibliography, plus 200+ new items published from 2004 to the present. The redesigned site and new search interface was created by Ben Bakelaar of Rutgers as part of a final project for Information Design class, taught by Jacek Gwizdka, Ph.D.

I’d like to thank Ben, Jacek, and Bernie for their creative input and design expertise. I would also like to thank SCILS alums Andrea Simzak and Gillian Newton, and current student Jeff Teichmann for their competent and enthusiastic assistance in hours of verification and data input. I am also indebted to Andy Mudrak, IT Systems Administrator and Assistant Dean Jon Oliver for technical support.

This resource is designed to be an ongoing work in progress. We welcome your input to keep it current and accurate. Please leave a comment at the VR Bibliography website if you want to add a citation, to correct a mistake, or wish to make a suggestion.

Do take a look and let us know how you like it!

April 6, 2009 at 4:22 pm 1 comment

Happy Birthday Maryland AskUsNow! Statewide Virtual Reference Service

On Wednesday March 19th I traveled south to the newly built and beautiful Anne Arundel Public Library for the gala 5th birthday celebration of Maryland AskUsNow! This festivity brought together an impressive turnout of librarians, state government representatives, and dignitaries such as the Maryland Assistant State Superintendent for Libraries, Irene M. Padilla, and Nancy S. Grasmick, State Superintendent of Schools. Everyone came together to recognize the accomplishments of this highly successful and widely admired statewide live chat and e-mail reference consortium. I happily braved the traffic of the spring break holiday getaway mob heading south on highway 95 to give the keynote address, to facilitate a workshop on chat reference service excellence, and to share in this wonderful and historic event.

I first met Joe Thompson (click here and scroll down this page for a picture of the energetic and forward-looking Project Coordinator of Maryland AskUsNow!) at the Virtual Reference Desk conference in 2003 (btw, the forerunner of our highly anticipated Reference Renaissance conference) when I was just getting started in researching interpersonal communication in live chat reference. During my VRD presentation, I made a plea to the audience for some transcripts to analyze. Afterwards Joe approached me, introduced himself, and said “I have 10,000 transcripts, when do you want them?” A bit stunned, I replied, “Well, I don’t need all 10,000. How about pulling me a random sample of about 250-300 transcripts?” Thus began an incredibly cordial and productive collaboration which has resulted in shared conference presentations and panels, the publication of two journal articles on virtual reference (VR) in JASIST and Scan, with more to come, I’m sure.

Joe and his statewide VR team of librarians at Maryland AskUsNow! have worked incredibly hard to forge the service’s success with a total of over 200,000 reference questions answered and counting. They continually reach for the highest quality standards in VR, which I strongly admire and find inspirational. Joe’s willingness to allow an outsider (like me) to have access to transcripts (suitably made anonymous, of course, to protect user privacy) and to the AskUsNow! user population (assisting me in recruiting participants for focus groups, online surveys, and phone interviews) demonstrates his keen interest in research into user behaviors, and commitment to discovering how to make live chat a better experience for both users and librarians. He is ever open to new ideas and continual improvement. I was also very impressed by the number of AskUsNow! librarians who attended my afternoon workshop as well as by their positive attitude toward customer service.

I must also add that I am proud of the amazing Julie Strange, Maryland AskUsNow! Operations Supervisor, who was my student and research assistant at Rutgers, SCILS on our “Seeking Synchronicity” grant project. Tech savvy Julie also shares an incredibly strong and steadfast commitment to high quality service and a fearless Millennial approach to learning novel social software applications, embracing new ways of reaching library users, and especially to connecting with younger chat and IM aficionados.

So here’s to Maryland AskUsNow! 5 years on and looking forward to many many returns of the day!

March 24, 2008 at 9:59 pm 2 comments

"I Was Kind of Confused b4" – Audio of Radford on Chat Reference at Oregon VR Summit ’07


On June 7, 2007 I blogged about a keynote talk I gave on June 1, 2007 at the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit 2007 organized by Caleb Tucker-Raymond, Oregon Statewide Digital Reference Services Coordinator for the L-net: Oregon Libraries Network consortium. The talk just became available as an audio file on the open web. (Thanks Caleb!) I promised to post to the blog when this happened, so am now able to make good on my promise.

If you’d like to listen to this presentation, click here: “I Was Kind of Confused b4” Interpersonal Communication Research in Virtual Reference.”

The talk focuses on the information-seeking and communication behaviors of the youngest Millennials – the Screenagers. I discuss their predilections and characteristics (multi-tasking, impatience, practicality, convenience, etc.) as well as their perceptions of librarians (“I don’t trust librarians, I trust Google”) and fear of cyber-predators in chat rooms that extends to chat librarians (“I don’t like to chat with strangers.”)

In addition, I comment on some recommendations for improving chat reference encounters with teens . These recommendations were derived from focus groups with screenagers and from in-depth chat reference transcript analysis as part of the IMLS grant project Seeking Synchronicity.

The keynote was about 50 minutes, followed by Q and A, so be forewarned that it is long. Hey, feel free (of course!) to check your e-mail while listening, or to multi-task with other activities ;)

I begin by talking about my background and how I got interested in studying chat reference, so if you want to get to the research results, fast forward through the first 15 mins. or so.

October 27, 2007 at 8:25 am

‘Predatory Reference’ an Interview with Bill Pardue about ‘Slam the Boards.’ Second Slam Coming Up on October 10, 2007!

Bill Pardue is the Virtual Services Librarian at the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library. He worked previously at the Illinois Institute of Technology and received his MSLIS from the University of Illinois in 1992. Bill is also involved with the AskAway Illinois Advisory Committee and manages the website for the statewide VR service.

Bill initiated “Slam the Boards” by inviting librarians “to be bold and invade online answer sites such as Yahoo! Answers, Amazon’s Askville, and the Wikipedia Reference Desk” and to market libraries by “making it clear that this question was answered by a librarian/library professional/etc.”

Here’s my recent interview with Bill.

Marie: Bill, thanks so much for visiting Library Garden today. To get us started, tell me about “Slam the Boards” and especially how the idea occurred to you.

Bill: It was a very social process. I started playing around with Yahoo! Answers on my own and realized that it might be an opportunity for librarians to interact with users who don’t even realize that libraries have reference services. Paula Moore, our Coordinator for Public Services at Arlington Heights, commented that we ought to encourage lots of librarians to do the same. At the Collaborative Virtual Reference Symposium in Denver this past July, I mentioned it to Caleb Tucker-Raymond of the Multnomah County Library. He immediately said that instead of having some vague effort to get librarians more involved, a single day should be picked and promoted, in order to provide a real focal point. It was exactly the thought I needed to take action. Within a week I’d set up a Slam the Boards wiki and started putting the word out on listservs and anywhere else I could leave a comment. Then the viral part took over. In just over a month we had participants listed from the US, Europe, even New Zealand. It just seemed like the right idea at the right time…I just set up the wiki!

Marie: Caleb has such great ideas, I visited him on June 1st at the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit.

What were you hoping to achieve with “Slam the Boards”?

Bill: Mostly awareness on both sides of the question/answer transaction. Awareness among librarians that there’s a large potential patron base that we’re missing and need to promote to, as well as an arena in which we can showcase our excellence. On the asker/patron side, I’d just like a few answer board users to be pleasantly surprised that librarians don’t only provide people with books and videos, but also provide reference service. What I certainly didn’t hope to achieve was a cessation of people using answer boards. It just won’t happen, and people get some very good answers there. But I want librarians to realize that answer boards aren’t “the enemy.”

Marie: I know that one interest you have is in evaluation of the event, and, as a researcher, I’m especially interested in looking at reference quality issues, but would you deem it to have been a success? Why?

Bill: At this point, I’m gaging success in terms of engagement. Of course, it’s great to have a reply chosen as “best answer” now and then, too! The main point, though, is that we were out there, we saw what kinds of questions people ask and we hopefully provided useful, sourced answers. Some folks have started archiving answer board responses in a special QuestionPoint account that will allow for analysis by anyone who’d care to look at them. Currently it’s at about 75 questions (too many of them mine!), but I’m hoping that number increases. Quality’s an interesting issue. In a voting environment like Yahoo! Answers, I ended up feeling extra pressure to give a really good, sourced answer. It even stung a little when someone else’s off-the-cuff reply (which may have said the exact same thing) was voted best. I’d be interested to see how a more thorough study of quality on answer boards is conducted and what kind of results come out of it. You’ve got your work cut out for you!

Marie: So, did Slam the Boards achieve what you had imagined?

Bill: I think it did, partly because it had such a simple goal…get librarians involved, get them to think beyond their library confines and get engaged in some “predatory reference.” We’re still just a drop in the bucket in terms of the total traffic on a site like Yahoo! Answers, so I have no illusions about having a measurable impact on library reference numbers or VR service statistics.

Marie: I’ve heard you talk about “predatory reference” before, and like this radical concept! Would you mind defining it for us at Library Garden?

Bill: I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a somewhat over-dramatic coinage for a fairly straightforward concept. Librarians need to start actively finding reference questions, rather than just waiting for them to come in. Don’t limit your presence to just the reference desk or the library’s IM or VR service. Instead, find out where the where the questions are and start providing answers unsolicited. Being a “virtual services librarian” I tend to think first of online options: looking for points of fact in local discussion forums, blogs, etc. Out of such activity at Arlington Heights, we’ve even worked out partnerships with two local discussion board that take questions from the community. One is the “What’s the Fact” column of the Daily Herald’s Beep Central site. The other is the “Ask an Arlington Heights Librarian” forum.

There are less virtual ways, to do this, too. One local library (and I apologize that I can’t remember which) has been having reference librarians participate as judges for a local bar’s weekly trivia night. The Arlington Heights Memorial Library regularly sends our librarians out to community events (festivals, senior center events, etc.) with a wireless connection that allows us to provide many of the same services that we would at the reference desk. The point is to start being a little…dare I say…pushy about showing off our skills, so that potential users will realize that libraries equal more than just books! I’m sure we could think of other ways to get involved. Show up at village council meetings and if a tough topic comes up, volunteer the library’s reference service to help find some background. When you’re with a group of people, listen for points at which you can mention/promote reference services. If you overhear a local business person talking about doing mailing lists, let them know that the library has tools like ReferenceUSA that can be of use (and that someone on your staff is willing to demonstrate it to them). The opportunities are out there, we just have to be looking for them.

Marie: Do you have any idea about the number of librarians who participated and/or number of questions answered, even if it is a rough guess?

Bill: Ultimately, it’s a tough call. My intuition is in the hundreds of librarians, with maybe a thousand questions…but I have absolutely no way of knowing. Some of the more enthusiastic participants put their names on the wiki.

I counted 98 names there on 10/5/07. If you figure that 2-3 times that many actually participated, and the average “load” was 5 questions (I picked up 25 myself, and I know several others had matched that number), I’d say that 1000 questions isn’t unrealistic.

Marie: This question is from Beth Cackowski of QandANJ “Were the majority of questions answered by librarians, research questions? In other words, were they questions that library customers might expect a librarian to answer, or were they questions that the general public might be surprised to see answered by a librarian, for example: automotive, sports, pop culture, medical, legal?”

Bill: The unfortunate part is that most users don’t have any expectation of what kind of questions a librarian might answer (beyond “do you have a book on…”). To keep things mixed up for myself, I bounced around from category to category, picking up homework help questions, business, arts & humanities, cooking & recipes, geography, etc. I expect others did the same. If you check the list of participants above, you can see that many have added links to their Yahoo! Answer lists, so you can check out how they moved through the categories.

Marie: I definitely agree that many people don’t have a clue as to what types of questions a librarian could answer. Our abilities are usually underestimated.

Here’s a question from Julie Strange of Maryland AskUsNow! “Do you have a sense of how librarians went to find questions? Did they sort through the subjects and go for ones they specialized in? Or did they take new questions as they came in?”

Bill: Cherry-picking is essential on the boards because so many questions aren’t really informational. “What’s your favorite shampoo?” “I really like this girl, but I’m afraid to ask her out. What should I do?” etc. So, after a little digging around, you see that certain categories in any board have a higher ratio of informational vs. social questions and you start to “hang out” there. It’s kind of like “working the room” until you find someone you want to talk to at a party! As far as specializing in a subject, I think that’s very much up to the individual librarian. I consciously tried to be a generalist, but I also picked up a couple of questions in the Science/Astronomy category because that’s my hobby.

Marie: That’s really interesting, I like your “working the room” comparison. Have you gotten any feedback from librarians about their experiences?

Bill: Most of the feedback has been very positive. A lot of librarians were a little taken by the social nature of a lot of the questions, but ultimately were able to find at least a few to answer. Finding out if you received a “best answer” can take several days, so there were numerous messages from librarians when they got word of their “wins.” I got some negative feedback beforehand from some folks who couldn’t see the point of it, but nothing from anyone who actually participated. Of course, there could be all kinds of biases that account for this!

Marie: Did the librarians get much feedback from the users of these services?

Bill: The user feedback is pretty much determined by the mechanisms in place by the answer board. After one question was chosen “best answer,” there was a “nice answer” comment from the user. I’ve received a few like that now. If you give a particularly good answer, you can get “star” ratings, up to five stars. Of course, there’s the voting, too. It can be done by the asker or other readers. It’s nice to see your count of “thumbs up,” but you get a “thumbs down” every now and then. You’ve got to have a thick skin! An interesting anecdote is that I actually had a fairly extensive post-question correspondence with a user who had a tough corporate question. I actually ended up making several phone calls, just as I would have done for my own library’s patron.

Marie: Sounds like you could have parlayed that corporate interplay into some consulting business if you wanted to be more entrepreneurial ;)

Finally, I see that you are encouraging librarians to repeat “Slam the Boards” for October 10th, tell me about your vision to keep it going.

Bill: I’m really hoping this takes on a life of its own. The success of something like this is that it ultimately shouldn’t need a specific set of individuals to keep it going. I’d like to know that there’s a spike in answer board activity each month on the 10th, as well as a baseline through the rest of the month. I’d like to see discussion of this initiative on the existing listservs (it’s a bit too insular to just have its own listserv, I think) and informal discussion groups at conferences. I’d love to hear about a dine-around at Internet Librarian this year! Unfortunately, I can’t make it myself, but that’s all the more reason for others to do this. The best thing is that this is a way to promote library reference service that costs very little money and has the potential over the long run to enhance our image with a user base that almost never thinks about us.

Marie: Nicely put Bill. Thanks so much for your candid answers! Good luck with this month’s “Slam the Boards” on October 10th. I’ll be away at the Library Research Seminar IV in London, Ontario, from Oct. 9-11th, but will see if I can find a wifi hotspot and join in some predatory reference!

October 7, 2007 at 2:23 pm 11 comments

Are We Getting Warmer? Query Clarification in Virtual Reference (ALA Redux Part 2)

At the Library Research Round Table at ALA in Washington, DC, on June 23, 2007, Lynn Silipigni Connaway of OCLC and I presented our latest findings on Query Clarification in VR (aka question negotiation or the reference interview).

We examined 600 chat transcripts randomly selected from QuestionPoint bank of almost 500,000 transcripts. Here are some of our findings (and an invitation below to the Seeking Synchronicity web site to see the PowerPoint slides and handouts from this presentation).

Do librarians clarify?
75% (in 434 of 581 usable transcripts) librarians did ask clarifying questions.

Did they ask the highly recommended follow-up question? (some version of “Does this completely answer your question?”)
50% (217) of the 434 librarians who clarified did ask the follow up question.

What types of questions were asked?
66% (554 of 838 questions asked by the librarians) were closed questions.
34% (282 of 838) were open.

What did librarians ask about?
Librarians asked users questions about: topic, background, search history, type of resource needed, extent/depth of information needed, if the user wanted a referral and more.

How about the virtual reference users?
Users offered information about: topic, background, extent/depth, and to correct the librarian’s misunderstanding.

Surprising finding! 2 different patterns of clarification!
Librarians clarified more often in the beginning of the interaction
Users clarified in the middle more often.

Most important finding! How to improve accuracy in chat reference?
For the 180 ready reference questions in our sample, we looked at accuracy (see my blog posting of July 10, 2007 for more on ready reference in chat).
Clarifying the query and asking the recommended follow-up question both boosted accuracy.

Bottom Line
Always ask clarifying questions, even if you think you understand the question (one user asked for diving instructions, but had made a typo and wanted driving instructions, early clarification would have saved the librarian much searching time!)

Always ask a version of the recommended follow-up question: “Does this completely answer your question?”

Interested in more detail on the above findings? Please click on the above links to see the PowerPoint slides and handouts.

This research is funded by IMLS, Rutgers University, and OCLC.
Special thanks to Susanna Sabolcsi-Boros of Rutgers, SCILS, and Patrick Confer of OCLC, for their help with this part of the project.

July 13, 2007 at 7:52 am

News from Oregon Virtual Reference Summit 2007 – QandA and Ready Reference from Texting Google Mobile SMS (Beta)

I just recently returned from giving a keynote address on June 1, at the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit 2007. Caleb Tucker-Raymond, Oregon Statewide Digital Reference Services Coordinator, organized this wonderful conference that drew participants from Oregon, Washington, and California, but was mainly designed to bring together librarians who participate in L-net: Oregon Libraries Network. My plenary was called “I Was Kind of Confused b4” Interpersonal Communication Research in Virtual Reference” and I gave a workshop on “Exploring Encounters with Chat Users: Analyzing VR Transcripts.” I am willing to share ppt and handouts to LG readers if you send me an e-mail request. The plenary was videotaped and may be on the open web at some point, I will blog about it if/when this happens.

While at the conference, I attended a fascinating panel on: “What Students Need, What Schools Need.” This program brought together the viewpoints of middle and high school librarians, public librarians, and a delightful young junior high student who spoke about VR from the student perspective. After the panel, I congratulated her on her presentation, poise, and enthusiasm for VR. She mentioned that she had heard me speak in the plenary, but at first had not know what the word “plenary” meant, so she had sent a text to Google. I said: “You did WHAT???” She said: “I sent a text to Google (466453) and I put in define plenary and it gave me the definition.” I had her show me and saw that it also returns the URL where the answer was found on the web.

Some of you may already know about (or use!) this service (which is in Beta testing), but it was news to me! (It was also news to my 16 yr. old daughter, the text maven in our house, which helped me to decide to blog about this). Later one of the helpful L-net participants printed out the Google Mobile info page and I found out that not only are word definitions possible, but also you get info on weather, flight updates, movies, translations, currency conversions, driving directions, QandA and more. Google’s example for using their QandA is: abraham lincoln birthday. If any of you have tried this service out please leave a comment telling me what you asked and how it went!

Here we see Google testing the waters, as some libraries are doing, with text reference services. The latest start up I have heard of SMS for libraries was in Australia as reported on the dig_ref listserv this week by Colin J. Bain, Library Services Manager of Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Their SMS service just started this past Monday (June 4th) and Colin told me that they have only had 2 queries so far about library opening hours. Since they haven’t done any publicity yet, traffic will surely pick up.

Hmmm, now I am definitely going to have to spring for unlimited text messaging on my cell phone.

June 7, 2007 at 3:02 pm 4 comments

The Thrill of the Chase in Cyberspace: A Report of Focus Groups with Live Chat Librarians

Happy New Year to all the LG faithful! At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I am writing because I am very excited at my 1st publication in an electronic journal. Lynn Silipigni Connaway of OCLC and I were invited to do a Guest Forum for the Informed Librarian Online, which we have called “The Thrill of the Chase in Cyberspace: A Report of Focus Groups with Live Chat Librarians. ” It is a brief account of the results of our focus group interviews with chat librarians from our IMLS grant Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives. The results of these focus groups have been used to design an online survey which we are in the process of conducting with 200 chat librarians. I am very interested in your reactions to our findings and welcome your comments!

January 3, 2007 at 9:41 pm

Is virtual reference successful? Part III (Hint: yes it is)

In parts one and two I raised a series of objections to Pascal Lupien’s article in Online, Virtual Reference in the Age of Pop-Up Blockers, Firewalls, and Service Pack 2

In part three I’d like to address the end of the article where Lupien makes a case for using IM instead of standard VR software to do virtual reference. In fact, I agree with all of Lupien’s main points:

  • IM is generally free.
  • It is easy to use, from the patron’s perspective as well as on the library side
  • Unlike VR software, IM works with most computers, operating systems, and connection speeds.
  • It does not require the patron to download software or configure a browser.
  • [IM is] faster, as patrons who already use an IM system can simply add the library service to their list of “buddies” and message a librarian when they require assistance.

Not only do I find IM to be a perfectly good tool for reference work, I think it is quickly becoming (has become?) a standard mode of communication that every library should consider offering as a point of contact for their customers. Libraries, get an AIM Screenname, get a yahoo ID, sign up for Meebo, (maybe add the MeeboMe widget to your webpage) and start chatting with your customers!

But why limit IM to reference? We don’t limit the phone to reference, do we? IM is just another way for our customers to contact us. Larger libraries can give each department their own IM identities, (i.e. “extensions”) and let the customer choose which department to connect with. If a session needs to be ‘tranfered’ to another department, library staff can invite the customer and someone from the correct department into a new chat room, and viola! the session has been tranfered. So many of our customers are on their computers all day (and night) it just makes good sense to give them a quick, convenient option for contacting us.

But back to the article. Although I agree with everything Lupien wrote about the benefits of using IM to do virtual reference, he doesn’t address the key reasons many VR services don’t use it. These reasons were brought up in a great discussion about “The Future of IM” that took place on the digref listserv last month. (follow the link, then scroll down to the ‘future of IM’ thread to read the whole megillah.)

Caleb Tucker-Raymond, who expertly manages Oregon’s VR service, started the thread and summed up some of the key points in this post, excerpted below:

  • Sarah Houghton mentioned multiple librarians need to be able to monitor a single screen name.
  • Jean Ferguson said that she that her campus enterprise IM software (Jabber) doesn’t talk to commercial IM networks (like AOL).
  • Jean also mentioned the need for a solution for the patron without an account (such as, come in anonymously over the web)

All true, all true. But Sharon Morris, until recently the VR Coordinator for AskColorado (congrats on the new job Sharon!) hit the collaborative VR software nail squarely on its pointed little head when she wrote:

24/7 availability is essential to making libraries accessible anywhere, anytime on the Internet. IM at this point does not offer the extra staffing/cooperation model that makes VR such an amazing step forward for library services on the Internet. (emphasis is mine.)

VR software gives us the power to collaborate. That gives us the power to offer 24/7 service and THAT makes customers (and the press) sit up and take notice. It also gives regional and statewide VR collaboratives the ability to market a single, powerful, expectation-busting, W-O-W, library service. We don’t get opportunities like that every day. Bottom line: Beyond the fact that VR software gives us the power to offer convenient, relevant, 24/7 service, it gives us the power to change peoples’ perceptions about libraries. I would argue that we have done just that. In my book that far outweighs any of the downsides that Lupien raised about the bugginess and technical limitations of VR software. Perhaps I should say, far outweighs for now…

One final, more personal point before wrapping this up. I’m unhappy with the snarky tone I took in responding to Lupien’s article in part one, and I realize it was not productive to take such a tone. It came partly from writing much to late, while far too tired, and partly from my own deep wish for librarians to stay focused on the bigger picture of customer experience, and my perception that the article lacked that focus (whether it did or didn’t, dear reader, you may decide.) I am not trying to make excuses for my snarkiness, just offering a little self-reflection from a nascent blogger, tinged with a bit of regret. I will try to do better.

I am convinced that Pascal Lupien cares deeply about the vitality and relevance of libraries and the importance of customer experience. I recently found a copy of his presentation, (along with Lorna Rourke) Adding a Personal Touch to a Virtual World, presented at Computers in Libraries, 2006. This presentation gave me a fuller picture of Pascal Lupien’s attitudes, concerns, and values and I found myself nodding in almost constant appreciation and agreement with his work.

OK, that’s all I’ll be posting about VR for now. Back to customer service!

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August 16, 2006 at 9:44 pm 3 comments

Is virtual reference successful? Part II (Hint: yes it is)

In Part II I’d like to respond specifically to two comments. The first is from Morgan Fielman. The second from Pascal Lupien, author the article I’m discussing.

RESPONDING TO FIELMAN

Commenter Morgan Fielman wrote, “The original poster seems to have missed the point of this article, which is primarily about software.”

No, I get that the point of the article is primarily about the software and not the customer experience. But the article is so broadly written and lacking in detail that it ends up saying nothing more specific than “VR software has problems.”

My questions, unanswered by the article are, What software? What problems? Two of the products Lupien writes about (Tutor.com’s and QuestionPoints’) recently underwent complete overhauls, in effect becoming completely new products. It is unclear from Lupien’s article which versions he’s writing about but my sense is he’s writing about the older versions. If that’s correct then most of the article is, at best, moot.

Granted, the larger issue of whether or not the software is effective is a valid issue that warrants exploration and discussion. Fielman goes on to ask, “but how can customers be satisfied when the software we use is so poor?” I say that’s the wrong question. The question is “Are customers satisfied?” The answer in our customers’ experience is yes, they are satisfied. We didn’t find this out by polling 20 libraries. We found this out by asking the customers. Another good question might be, “Do the problems with VR software affect the quality of the customer experience, and if so how and to what extent.” There are many people at collaborative VR services looking at a lot of data to answer that question. Lupien’s article suggests that problems with software affect the customer experience but offers no actual data to back it up. He mentions problems with popup windows, problems with Windows service pack 2, and problems with serving customers who use Macs, but he is not specific about which software products exhibit which problems and to what extent. And again, Lupien is not clear which version of Tutor and QuestionPoint he’s talking about. The newer versions of both products are compatible with Mac users, and have no problems with service pack 2 issues that I’m aware of.


Fielman concludes his comment by saying “original VR supporters have realized that this service just isn’t cutting it.” The fact is our service has been cutting it for almost 5 years, and we have the hard data and glowing customer comments to prove it. If your VR service isn’t cutting it, you need to ask why. Are your staff trained on the software? Are they enthusiastic? What are you customer service standards? Do your librarians give kick-ass customer service in f2f encounters? What quality control mechanisms do you have in place? Do you examine your transcripts for quality? Do you have regular and convenient service hours? Are you available 24/7? (going 24/7 made a huge difference in our usage, even though usage mostly grew during hours we were already open — go figure…) And finally, but certainly not last, do you consistently and effectively market your service to your customers? Do they know you exist???

If your service ain’t cutting it maybe you need to answer these questions first before blaming the software, which is an easy way out. Consider that here in New Jersey using standard VR software (currently QP, formerly Tutor/LSSI’s eGain-based software) we’re cutting it and then some. Other statewide collaboratives are doing quite well too. And we’re all working very diligently with our respective vendors to ensure that our VR platforms are stable and highly functional. While the current glitch here and there can be a real and undeniable pain in the ass, it hasn’t prevented us from delivering a high quality and slightly mind-blowing experience to our customers.


RESPONDING TO LUPIEN

First, I’d like to thank Pascal Lupien for taking the time to offer an extremely well-written and thoughtful comment in response to my first post. I’d like to assure him that contrary to his assertion, I’ve read his article through thoroughly a few times. I have no problem with bad news about VR. I just want accurate and somewhat substantiated news. I’m offering up the reality of my experience at QandANJ to counter the broad statements that Lupien makes. Now to some of his specific comments.

He writes, Perhaps these results aren’t what proponents of VR would prefer to hear, but they do represent a problem that needs to be discussed, for the sake of our users.

I do not consider myself a proponent of VR, I consider myself of proponent of libraries. It is my desire that libraries remain relevant to our customers by offering a suite of high quality services. Collaborative VR is one such service, offering our customers 24/7 access where and when they want it. I want to see libraries changing their customers’ perceptions about what libraries can offer them. I want libraries to blow customer expectations out of the water. I want libraries to be around in 50 years. It is not that I don’t want to hear bad news about VR software. I’m perfectly open to hearing about the problems with the current stable of VR software offerings. It’s just that I want to hear facts, not conjecture. And I want those facts to be couched in some meaningful context and always tied back, to whatever extent possible, to the impact on our customers. I didn’t get this from Lupien’s article.

Lupien writes, To respond to the person who claimed that software is the last thing that matters about VR, I say tell that to the user who is unable to log in because she uses a Mac, or because her computer has pop-up blockers. Tell that to the user who is “kicked off” in the middle of a session because the VR software does not function properly with the library’s licensed databases. These things happen regularly, and this article makes an attempt to discuss them.

I’m pleased to see Lupien talking directly about the impact on customers. Clearly we agree that it would be optimal if VR software worked across all platforms, had no problems with pop-up blockers, and worked 100% of the time so no user was ever “kicked off.” I am not suggesting that these problems don’t exist, I am asking to what extent do they exist, and to what extent do they impact the customer’s experience and satisfaction with VR service. Because Lupien fails to identify what versions of the various VR products he tested, and is repeatedly non-specific regarding his data, the article fails to answer these questions.

Lupien grants that, “many regular VR users appreciate the service,” and that he wasn’t contesting that fact. Our experience suggests that it is not “many” but most.

Lupien writes, “Shouldn’t we be thinking about these potential users as well, rather than focusing on those who already use and appreciate the service? Shouldn’t we be trying to determine if one software product could help us to improve the experience for all users, not merely the satisfied ones? Perhaps some would fear doing this, as it would reveal that their VR service isn’t as successful and user-friendly as they like to claim?

Yes, we should absolutely be thinking about our potential users, and we should always be shooting for a platform that will provide high quality service to everyone. Again, it’s a matter of facts and context. Lupien’s article disappoints me on both counts.

Lupien writes, “The point of this article is to focus on users who are unable to log in to begin with, who encounter technical problems during a transaction, or who choose not to use the service because they would be required to disable pop-up blockers or use a particular browser, etc. We’ll never know how these users feel about VR, because they don’t get far enough into a VR transaction to make…comments.

Actually, we have some way of knowing. We ask. Yes sir, right there on the front page of QandANJ we say, “Click here to give us feedback on how our new software is working for you.” Here’s a sample of what we find: Since May 1st (79 days), we have received 23 comments. 16 of them were specifically technical (some were positive, some were of the nature, “it wasn’t fast enough”.) One comment came from a Mac user, 3 came from customers accessing us through the AOL interface and browser. So Mr. Lupien, we do make an effort to compile and monitor such information, looking for problematic trends with an eye on improving the service.

Finally, Lupien suggests that I have not been keeping up with the VR literature and if I had “taken the time to consider some of the issues discussed in this article before jumping on that user-centric high horse” I would have “come away with a better understanding of what is happening beyond QandANJ.”

I can assure Mr. Lupien that I keep up quite well with VR literature thank you, and I’m familiar with Coffman and Arret’s article, which you can read here (right at the bottom of the page, after Brenda Bailey-Hainer’s reasoned response.) And if speaking from a place of fact and experience instead of conjecture and generality puts me on a high horse then what can I say? Giddyup.

In Part III (much shorter, I promise) I’ll address the VR software versus IM question.

Epilogue: Customer comment from today: “I am exceedingly impressed. First time in ages I felt like I was getting something positive for my tax dollars.” (Our funders sure hate to see this… Ha Ha )

July 18, 2006 at 9:58 pm 2 comments

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