One of the most important aspects of reference work is the development of relationships. Libraries, through the individual actions of librarians, need to form a bond with their patrons. This isn’t terribly difficult to accomplish because people coming to the reference desk have a problem to solve. When a librarian helps them solve a problem, there is the potential for a connection to be made. This should be evident through examples from our daily lives: Aren’t problem solvers useful people? Do you feel loyal to the last institution from which you received good service? Will you return to the institution when a similar need arises?
Virtual Reference, as conceived by many projects, makes it nearly impossible to create this bond. The absence of this possibility isn’t a function of the fact that the transaction is virtual, it is a function of how there’s no steady or repeated connection. To get more coverage, one of the VR projects we’re working for has welcomed libraries from very disparate areas. Joining forces makes sense for this reason, but I don’t think it takes into account that it causes patrons to have seemingly random reference encounters. Throughout the week, there are many, many individuals with whom patrons may come into contact. In essence, these transactions are reference one night stands.
Another thing to note is that the librarians working for this VR project, including us, have made it standard practice to use pseudonyms for our online presence. This is a barrier perhaps not recognized by the patrons, but a barrier nonetheless.
Another problem with VR is that current programs still aren’t meeting patrons in a convenient place. Simply having some presence on the web isn’t good enough. Patrons surfing the web either do or do not presently use a major instant messaging service (AIM, YIM, MSN, etc…); this is a fact. Those that are already chatting would find it more useful if libraries were present in one of these services. As simple as it may be, it is still an extra few steps to navigate to a VR website and enter in a zip code to log in. Those that don’t already chat are perhaps even less likely to consult a VR service. (Thinking to consult a service, navigating to the site, logging in and then chatting can all be big hurdles).
A possible solution to both of these issues would be to simply meet the patrons where some of them are, the major IM services. Librarians would be at the fingertips of their patrons if they would have an IM program running. There would be no navigation for users. We would be integrated into their lives. Patrons would be familiar with whom they were chatting, and they’d chat with the same library, the library that they visit in person, on a regular basis. A relationship would be formed.
Michael Stephens made a serious but somewhat offhand comment advocating the adoption of using a major IM service for VR instead of expensive vendor software. People took note and blogged about just that one comment because it makes common sense. VR software from vendors is bloatware.
Some libraries are indeed using AIM for VR. I’d love to hear how it is going. Does having an IM name out on the web flood librarians with questions from random netizens any more than having a telephone or fax number out there? I’d guess probably not. Even if it did, imagine the possibilities.
I recently registered a new AIM name, one for the library. Soon there will be business cards with this name to be handed out to the young adults in the library. The name will also go on our website. I bet we’ll get more response from this than we have from our current VR project.