some problems with virtual reference

I came across Virtual Reference: Alive & Well by Brenda Bailey-Hainer the other day. The piece is a response to “To Chat Or Not to Chat—Taking Another Look at Virtual Reference, Part 1” and ”…Part 2” by Coffman and Arret.

The article takes a look at statistics that Coffman and Arret didn’t. It cites encouraging numbers from statewide projects and gives some tips for being successful with VR. I like the article, in particular because “To Chat…” left me with an icky feeling. However, if people are going to be debating that state of Virtual Reference, it might be valuable to examine some inherent problems with the systems. If we do this we can perhaps see these as the cause of issues that arise with VR. Also, importantly, we can think about trying to address the problems.

Virtual Reference is not user-centric. Expecting people to enter into and operate in a little world that vendors have created is a bit naive. VR systems clearly were built with librarian in mind. The benefits awarded librarians vs. patrons illustrate this.

Benefits for Librarians
Authentication scheme
Record keeping (stats, transcripts)

Benefits for Patrons
Transcripts via email
Ability to received pushed pages

These patron benefits are a bit weak. Transcripts of the chat may be useful for patrons, but having pages pushed on them isn’t that valuable when the alternative is simply clicking a link.

Virtual Reference does not connect patrons to their community. Bailey-Hainer is correct about statewide VR (or other large scale collaborative) projects being the only viable solution. Software and staff time costs are generally too high for localized options to be viable. Large scale projects can (somewhat) successfully answer patrons’ general reference questions, but they cannot provide answers to local questions or handle home library specific tasks.

These tasks often have to do with materials, e.g. holds, renewals, and fines. To resolve home library specific tasks, the remote VR Librarian is forced to either simply push a webpage where the patron might be able to solve her problem, give the patron the phone number to his home library, or call the home library themselves. I tried this last option on one occasion and it was awkward. It might be wholly inappropriate for many home library specific questions to be asked by an intermediary VR Librarian. If someone called asking me to peer into my patrons’ records, I would be a bit suspicious. If fact, I hope this would raise red flags for all of the staff at my library. When a telephone must be used in this way to take care of the request, VR (in this form) doesn’t seem to be the right tool for the job.

Although general reference questions (not home library specific), can be answered through VR, they don’t have as much added value for the patrons or librarians as other chat based interactions (such as Instant Messaging) can have. The added value that is missing is community. Many patrons have lists of their trusted peer groups in their IM programs. To use current VR services, they can’t consult their peer group. In a certain sense they must leave their comfort zone when they enter into our VR services. We shouldn’t be asking our patrons to do this. Imagine instead the comonsense proposition of libraries being where our patrons already are. Imagine them adding us into their trusted peer group. Imagine our patrons not having to jump through hoops to chat with us.

To be fair, chat-based Reference via Instant Messaging has received some words of concern. A number of people have raised the issue of chat logs being stored on company servers and the resulting privacy issues. While it is good to be mindful of this, it is only raised because IM is a new (and unfamiliar) technology. My ‘IM as email on steroids’ analogy works here. Many private companies have had the content of our email conversations with patrons on their servers for years. Not many bat an eyelash at this these days. Is there a privacy concern with email and IM stored on servers we don’t control? Perhaps, who can say? But the potential risk isn’t stopping us from emailing our patrons. So it will be with IM in years to come.

One of the most significant concerns of using IM for chat Reference is authentication. Note that this is a significant concern for our well being, not our patrons’. Many libraries are concerned about being exposed on the web, leaving themselves open to answer reference questions from a grandma in Deutschland. I can’t help but think that the same issue was raised when email and telephone reference began years ago. Also, we should all hope that our marketing is superb enough to reach people that aren’t our patrons. If you’ve ever tried to market a library service, you know how difficult it can be to reach your patrons, let alone someone from the next town over. PubLibs shouldn’t have a problem serving someone that wanders into the library that isn’t a resident of their community, and they shouldn’t have a problem answering an electronic question from a nonresident either.

All of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be doing things with standard Virtual Reference. The concept is still very new, and thorough our influence, can evolve into something more appropriate. Right now, though, it is just addressing a symptom – “We need to be answering questions for patrons online.” Perhaps in the future it will be able to address the root problem – “We need to be connecting to our patrons online.”

3 thoughts on “some problems with virtual reference”

  1. Aaron – thanks for the evaluation! I have found a direct correlation between being user-centric, as defined by the marketing methods, communication tools, and policies surrounding the program, and high usage rates in reference programs that involves Tutor.com.

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