How “real” is your virtual reference?

Like many other libraries, the library where I work has provided reference services via instant messaging chat for several years now. We started out with Meebo (clean, easy, FREE), and then had to move on to other tools when Meebo went the way of the dodo (thanks, Google!).

Currently, we’re using LibraryH3lp (and it looks like we’ve been using them since mid-2012!). Still clean, easy, not free (but not outrageously expensive, either). We have a chat widget embedded in our website, and anybody who can access the internet can start a chat session with us (during our regular reference hours).

I haven’t run the stats, but I’m guessing our numbers of chat reference interactions have gone up steadily since we started doing it. Since our hybrid program started in January, though, our chat reference has really taken off. Nearly half of our reference interactions in the past two months are classified as “virtual” (in our library, virtual includes telephone, email, and chat, but of these three, chat is by far the most heavily used).

As anybody who has answered reference questions via instant messaging knows, sometimes not having the patron there in person creates complications. It’s difficult to show a person how to find a specific database on Westlaw or Lexis. It’s hard to show a student how to check his or her grades on the school LMS. It’s not easy to explain through chat how the Bluebook’s Rule 18 interacts with all the other rules. Some things are just easier to communicate via spoken word.

This term, we’ve added another weapon to our arsenal of reference tools — video chat. We have two primary options open to us here: we can use Collaborate, which is a web conferencing tool embedded in our learning management system (thus all students have access to it) and Lync, which is Microsoft’s video chat tool (to which our school provides students with free access through Microsoft’s Student Advantage Program).

When we’re IM chatting with a student and realize that the reference interaction could benefit from more robust capabilities, we can ask the student to meet us in our Collaborate room, or, if the student prefers (and has downloaded the software), we can start a Lync session. Both of these tools allow us to have a video and audio chat with our student (assuming the student has a video cam — but even if the student does not, he or she can still see us), along with or instead of text chatting. This allows us to personalize our reference interactions more than a simple text-based chat does, which helps to increase the feeling of community, especially with our hybrid students.

Additionally, both tools allow us to share our screens with the student (or vice versa). This is incredibly handy for instruction on how to use legal research databases. On text-based chat, we might, for example, try to tell a student to “Go to WestlawNext, click on the “State Materials” tab in the ‘Browse’ section of the page, then click on Minnesota…,” but if we can show how to do these actions on a screen while describing it them, it’s easier both to explain and to understand.

Lync session screen shot

A Lync session where the reference librarian is text and video chatting while sharing her screen.

So far it seems to be working fairly well. Students appreciate it, and, while it’s more complicated than simple IM chat, it hasn’t been overly onerous for us or our students.

What are you doing to make your virtual reference services more “real”?

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About jkbeitz

Academic law librarian. Amateur photographer and beaded jewelry-maker. Mom to a kiddo. Loves a good timesuck.
This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Library Statistics, Reference Services, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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