ARL Bimonthly Report

ARL Bimonthly Report 219
December 2001

Chat Reference: An Exciting New Facet of Digital Reference Services
by Jana Ronan, Interactive Reference Coordinator, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville

It's 9:55 a.m. and time for me to log on for my 10 a.m. reference chat shift. I click on an icon on my computer's desktop, the chat program opens, and at the prompt I enter my user ID and password. Once connected, I greet the librarian that I am relieving, David, using the chat program's instant messaging feature. Shift transitions on our chat service are much like the transitions at the reference desk. We greet each other and talk about the questions that are being asked that day, to prepare the person coming on for duty. David tells me that he had a question from a student experiencing trouble connecting to FirstSearch. We discuss the intricacies of campus networking for a while, then David excuses himself and logs off the chat service. Now, any incoming questions will be routed to me. I close my office door, settle in my chair and wait for the questions to trickle in.

It's Monday and I have a mountain of e-mail sitting in my inbox, so I decide to browse through them while I wait for users to log on and ask questions. I open my e-mail program and start reading messages, leaving the chat program running, but minimized. After a couple of minutes, a tone sounds and RefeXpress generates a window that opens on top of the e-mail that I am reading. The window tells me that a user named Steve G. has connected. Steve's question is, "I'm trying to find Applied Physics Letters online. Can you help me?" I click on the button labeled "accept" and am assigned Steve's chat session. After greeting Steve with a friendly, "Hello Steve. I'm Jana," I click on the "information" button to see what I can find out about this user. Steve has a university e-mail address and is using Internet Explorer 5.5, but is he a student, a faculty member, or staff? Is he talking to me from a computer on campus or from somewhere else? With digital reference, you never know. "So, Steve," I type in the chat window, "Do you know if Applied Physics Letters is a journal? Can you come into the library if I find that it's not online?" Steve explains that he is a UF graduate student, temporarily located in Tennessee working on a research project and that he really needs online access to Applied Physics Letters. "Okay," I respond. "Let me see what I can find. It might take a couple of minutes for me to find the answer. " After a rapid search of a couple of databases, I find that the journal is available online. "Steve. Good news." I type into the chat. "You can get the journal online." Using the web browser that is built into the chat software, I send (push) the Smathers Libraries' home page to Steve so that he can see it on his computer screen. Confident that we are both looking at the same web page, I show him step-by-step how to find the journal on our website. I talked a user through this same procedure yesterday, on the telephone at the reference desk, but it is so much easier to explain the answer when you can control what the user sees on their computer screen. We spend another couple of minutes discussing how the local authentication works until it becomes clear that Steve has the information he needs. "Have I answered your questions?" I ask. "Yes, thank you," types Steve. "Please come back if you need more help with anything." Steve logs off. Satisfied, I return to reading my e-mail and wait for the next user to log on for help.

We welcome all kind of questions in our chat service, RefeXpress, at the University of Florida. And, as you might suspect, advice on tracking down e-resources is a fairly typical question. But the questions we get cover the gamut of subject areas, just as at the traditional reference desk. What all chat sessions have in common is that they are initiated by users who need help at the moment that they experience the trouble. Chat reference--or "real-time reference," as it is also called--delivers immediate reference assistance via computers and synchronous communication software. This communication is in real time, so that librarians may talk to the user, determine what the user needs, and offer answers while connected with the user. But perhaps another definition would be helpful. The online dictionary Webopedia <> defines chat as, "Real-time communication between two users via [a] computer. Once a chat has been initiated, either user can enter text by typing on the keyboard and the entered text will appear on the other user's monitor."

As late as 1999, only a handful of libraries were experimenting with delivering reference assistance via synchronous, real-time technology. These innovative services included the Internet Public Library's Reference MOO, TalkBack at Temple University (ZBServer software), and an experiment with computer-based videoconferencing at UC-Irvine. For the most part, however, the audience for these early services was limited to astute computer users, as one was required to install and/or to learn specific software to reach librarians. Today there are a variety of web-based software programs or hosted services that are much more user friendly. These programs create an interface where users need only a web browser to connect, thus enlarging the potential audience to anyone with a computer.

It's hard to count the number of academic libraries offering real-time reference services, because libraries are adding chat to their arsenal of outreach methodologies at such a rapid rate. However, an informal survey of library websites revealed that libraries are exploring chat reference at various levels of commitment, depending upon their budgets and visions. The major factors that influence the level of investment an institution can make are software and hardware costs (including laptops for telecommuting librarians), staffing/hours issues, and training. Some libraries are offering experimental services that are open only a couple of hours a day and use inexpensive software, while others are committed to 24/7 service, delivered via sophisticated call center software from the corporate sector. The Alliance Library System in Illinois is an example of a 24/7 academic cooperative.

Would your users benefit from a chat service? As when planning any new public service, it is helpful to conduct a needs assessment to look at the type of Internet connectivity that your users have and when they are using library resources. Does your library serve undergraduate users, a population that uses chat frequently? (In September, the Internet and American Life initiative of the Pew Research Center <> reported that 41% of 12-17 year old students use instant messaging or chat to get help with schoolwork.) What hours do your users access your library website? When are they asking e-mail reference questions? If you see a substantial number of e-mail questions being posted at times when reference service is being offered at in-house service points, for example, you may have a base of remote users that would benefit from chat reference. A strong commitment to distance learning at your institution may be another reason to consider adding chat reference services.

When choosing software, there are a large number of chat software programs and services on the market to choose from. Choices range from inexpensive or free chat programs--such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Chat, or ConferenceRoom--to the sophisticated, feature-rich call center software--e.g., NetAgent, eGain, and Live Person--used to deliver rapid customer and technical service on business websites. Libraries also have the option of installing the software on their own computer networks or having it hosted by a commercial vendor or by a free service such as Yahoo! Chat. Each approach has its associated challenges, including response time, maintenance issues, and control over the user interface (do you really want advertising on your chat reference page?). While expensive call center software may be out of reach for a smaller library's budget, many libraries are banding together in consortia to purchase software and to collaboratively staff virtual reference desks. The Biblioteksvagten consortium of academic and public libraries in Denmark, using Live Person, is one example. Many libraries are purchasing hosted service from companies named LSSI or 24/7 Reference that offer use of NetAgent or eGain software at a reduced price, and even librarians to staff your service, if staffing is an issue. If you are interested in reading more about the types of software that are available, The Teaching Librarian <> offers a very readable exploration of the functionality and features of the various types of software. But let me share some specifics about the chat-based virtual reference service we have developed at the University of Florida.

RefeXpress, the George A. Smathers Libraries' real-time reference service, is powered by an eShare Communications software called NetAgent <>. After evaluating a wide variety of software, we settled on NetAgent because of several advanced features that allow librarians to work more closely with users. In addition to the chat space, some of these features are:

You have seen the librarian's perspective of a chat session, but what does a session look like to the user asking a question? Users can connect to RefeXpress from the logo prominently featured on the UF Libraries' homepage <>, from help links on navigation bars peppered throughout the library website, or directly at this URL: <>. After clicking on the link to RefeXpress, a splash or welcome page displays hours and information about the service and a "Go!" button. Users fill in a name, an e-mail address, and their question, and click on the "submit" button. A small pop-up window announces that the user is connected, followed by an automatic greeting, "Welcome to RefeXpress! A librarian will be with you shortly." Once the librarian reads the question and connects with the user, the next thing the user sees is a split screen that is half active web browser and half chat window. As the librarian helps the user, or sends a page to the user, it is displayed in the top part of the screen, while comments or instructions on what to look at on the page are displayed in the chat window below. At the end of the session, the last page that the user sees is an online chat satisfaction survey.

RefeXpress is a true collaborative effort, developed and staffed by reference librarians across all seven Smathers libraries. While some institutions have created new positions to staff their real-time reference services, the Smathers Libraries has taken the approach of working chat into the responsibilities of their existing reference librarians. Generalists and subject specialists from reference, collection management, and resource services units from the seven libraries work an average of two hours a week monitoring the chat service for the 56 hours a week that the service is open. A coordinator manages the training and day-to-day operations, assisted by the e-mail reference coordinator and the chat planning team.

The service has received very positive feedback from students, faculty, and other users, and usage is growing. We receive a broad variety of questions in the service, ranging from help with connecting to and searching databases to requests for facts and assistance with research projects. These questions are not different from those asked at our reference desks or via e-mail; they only vary in the medium in which they are asked.

There are many challenges in setting up a chat reference service, not the least of which is selecting and installing usable software and marketing the new service to your users. But, in my experience, the real challenges are overcoming staff resistance to a new and unfamiliar service, teaching effective online communication, and training librarians to field questions outside their areas. One of our librarians, an accomplished reference librarian, commented that working in RefeXpress reminded her of her first day working at a reference desk, and the anxieties and fears of not being able to answer questions or work with users. While one way to work around some of these issues is to create new lines and recruit experienced chat librarians to staff the service, you miss tapping into the considerable knowledge and reference skills of your existing librarians if you take that route. All of these challenges can be addressed by training and experience with working on the service. It is important to give staff ample time to practice their skills before going online, and to provide them with a safety net for their first few shifts (coordinators provide the net in our service by being online and accessible during new chat librarians' first shifts). Our librarians work as a team, and it is not uncommon for the chat librarian on duty to call a reference desk or a colleague for assistance in answering a question, in troubleshooting a connectivity issue, or to refer a question. It is also important to realize that not every question that begins in a chat session is best answered via chat. Sometimes it is more effective to e-mail the answer, to ask the user to come to the library, or to refer the question. Chat reference is a convenient and very effective way to extend reference services to users outside the library, and requires the same kind of teamwork that keeps the traditional in-library reference desk operating smoothly.

-- Copyright © 2001 Jana Ronen



In 2002, Jana Ronan, Interactive Reference Coordinator, and Carol Turner, Associate Director for Public Services, of the University of Florida Libraries will conduct an ARL/OLMS SPEC survey and analysis of interactive online reference services being delivered by ARL libraries.

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Ronen, Jana. "Chat Reference: An Exciting New Facet of Digital Reference Services." ARL 219 (December 2001): 4-6. <>

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