Adventures in Leadership: E-Reference Policies and the Importance of Goals

This semester, I was tasked with developing a written e-reference service policy for implementation within our law library.  As a newer law librarian (less than two years in the profession), I will admit to my limited experience with policy development. Nonetheless, I am an eager beaver, and I am always grateful for new professional growth opportunities. I was excited to do my research and develop a comprehensive and useful e-reference policy suitable for our law library.

When approaching this new task, I began as any stereotypical millennial – I asked Google.

“Electronic Reference Service Policy….”

“Online Reference Service Policy….”

“Virtual Reference Service Policy…”

“Digital Reference Service Policy….”

man with hand on temple looking at laptop

Photo by bruce mars on

I was in luck! Several library association committees developed guidelines and e-reference policy drafts to serve as useful resources to librarians implementing e-reference services in their libraries. The two most useful were the Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Service, developed by the Reference and User Service Association (RUSA) of the American Libraries Association (ALA), and the Digital Reference Service Guidelines, provided by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA’s) Reference Work Section. Both guidelines provide in-depth information on e-reference service policies including goals, staffing, uses, marketing, evaluations, and legalities – a perfect starting point for a novice e-reference policy developer!

After reading through the online drafts for digital service policies in public libraries, I turned inward to my own law library’s already implemented reference policies to see where I could combine the two to form an e-reference policy that works specifically for our law library.

Most sample e-reference policies I reviewed focused on the chat and FAQs aspects of e-reference services. I requested free trials from the two top virtual reference services, LibAnswers and Library H3lp – two of the top virtual library services offering chat and FAQs knowledge bases, and began drafting a policy that utilized these virtual reference services within our law library’s reference services limitations.

However – I would come to find – providing chat services was not the overarching goal of our new e-reference policy. A meeting later on with our Associate Dean of Library Services made this clear – our reference librarians would not offer chat reference services – at all. Instead, our primary goal was to create what we now call “Reference en Route!”

“Reference en Route!” is a librarian on-demand service that invites students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other NSU affiliates to make an online request for a librarian to meet the requester at their designated location anywhere within the law school (No longer are our reference services tethered to the reference desk!). The chat services were suggested solely to be used as a means to request the librarian on-demand services.

woman wearing blazer holding pink and white chat bubble

Photo by on

For most law libraries, e-reference services are guided by the law libraries’ in-person reference service policies, differing only by the means in which the service is provided.  Additionally, most law library chat service policies note that the chat service is limited to “simple” or “short” questions, and questions that require further attention will be directed to set a reference appointment or speak with a librarian with more specialized knowledge. Though some law libraries choose to utilize their chat services for short or quick questions and responses, that option would not be utilized by our law library. Less risk of liability, especially when dealing with written communications.

Developing our specified delivery service was definitely a wrench in the works to all of my pre-drafted policy expectations. In my eager beaver state, I ended up drafting about four completely different e-reference service policies before I felt confident enough to present a rough draft to my supervisors.

My most recent draft now provides for our “Reference en Route!” librarian on-demand service. Our chat service will be used solely as a means to request deliverable reference librarian services within the law school. The policy dictates that once an instant message is received via the chat service by a staffing reference librarian, the staffing librarian will immediately respond with a pre-set message requesting a users name, location within the law school, and a brief description of the users’ reference request.

If the requester is not an NSU affiliate, is not located within the law school, or the librarian determines that the reference request warrants a reference appointment, then the staffing librarian may suggest other e-reference service options to the requester. If the staffing librarian determines the reference request warrants our deliverable reference service, then the staffing librarian will travel to the requester’s designated location, where they will provide in-person reference service. Librarians are not to provide reference responses – quick questions or not – via the chat services.

There are several features offered by LibAnswers and Library H3lp to help administrators monitor librarian responses to user inquiries.  Via each service, administrators can create individual, password-protected user profiles for each librarian. Every chat is recorded, time-stamped, and noted by the librarian’s ID. Administrators are also able to queue desired librarians to respond to specific incoming inquiries, regardless of whether the inquiry is submitted via a chat-box or the FAQ page. Each response to an FAQ inquiry has the option to be answered privately, via responding email to the initial user request, or publicly, to the library’s public facing knowledge base site, and the responding librarian is noted by their user ID. There are also ways in which a school may add a proxy login to their chat-box so that only members of the institution may access their chat services. Monitoring librarian responses and using individual librarian ID’s to maximize accountability can go a long way in minimizing liability risks when using chat services.

Aside from our librarian on-demand service, there are other ways in which we offer e-reference services that are not limited to writings. Other tools include Virtual Meeting Rooms – my personally favorite e-reference tool – online conference rooms that allow voice-chat and screen-sharing for an almost in-person experience accessible anywhere by internet.  Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Skype for Business are great examples of virtual meeting rooms used for those who are unable to receive research and reference services on-campus.  Patrons are also welcome to call the reference desk for more immediate services.

My e-reference policy draft is submitted to my supervisors and is currently pending review.   I recognize that clarifying the goals of my developing e-reference policy was critical to creating a policy to meet my library’s needs. Although this seems obvious (I thought so, too!) this recent faux pas in my own policy creation reminds me that nothing is as obvious as it seems, and clarifying-  instead of assuming –  major project goals will only save time in the long run.

I am proud of the several ways I was able to rework my drafted policies until it fit our library’s specific goals. Our subscriptions with LibAnswers and Library H3lp can be used for chat services; yet, our policy will dictate that it is available for our librarian on-demand services only. I am reminded that library policies are not just in place to protect against liability, but they are also a creative means to designate how tools and services can be utilized in order to meet your library’s specific goals. This reworking from general e-reference policies, into my latest e-reference policy submission, is an experience I know will be helpful in any policy development I approach going forward in my law librarian career, and I am thankful for the opportunity.


This entry was posted in Career, Reference Services, RIPS blog, Training and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Adventures in Leadership: E-Reference Policies and the Importance of Goals

  1. Mari Cheney says:

    I’m fascinated by this use of chat. We used to use Libraryh3lp but have transitioned to Slaask, and our chat numbers show that this is a frequently used method of asking for help, especially by law students at their first summer job. I like the idea of Reference en Route for law school locations, but I definitely see the merit in responding to questions coming in from off campus directly from chat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s