We have just had a session on virtual reference which was presented by Kathleen Kern of the central reference desk at U of I Library. She gave an overview of the history of reference services in the USA, outlining very briefly the main characteristic of different types of reference services in the various sectors:-
Academic -- there is a strong commitment to information literacy; each reference encounter could be an opportunity to teach research skills;
Public: -- there tends to be some instruction, but is more concentrated on the delivery of information
Corporate:- Delivery of information only
U of I Library offers a live chat reference service which is fairly new (since 2001). They started looking at instant messaging type of software to provide a reference service - partly because there was a realisation that the students were using instant messaging for communication etc -- it was a technology that they were familiar with. Also the reference statistics had shown a dramatic drop in volume as a result of increased availability of e-resources. There was also the acceptance that there were few factual questions that could not be answered doing an internet search -- people were not using the library because of the ease of use of internet.
Currently 10 - 12 % of the reference queries are on chat.
The software they use is Docutek which allows co-browsing and enables transcripts of the reference encounter for review and quality control. They did use Instant Messaging to start off with, but the problem was that the students needed to register for Instant Messaging, but there was also no way that they could obtain statistics, get transcripts etc. (Think about the different generations in the library, particularly our users who are Millenials, so this may be just up their street. Kathleen reported that chat ref struck a chord with their student population as it could be regarded as an alternative to Google)
The ALA Guidelines for behavioral performance for reference professionals is used for training of staff as well as the guide for setting up a virtual reference service.
When they first started providing the service, there was a very low volume until they put links to the service on various places on the libraries' webpage. (Marketing again!)
So how does it work? Live Chat services are staffed from the reference desks in the various libraries during regular desk hours. Because U of I Library is a large decentralised library, there is more than one desk staffing the chat line. The software allows for the transfer of questions so should there be a specialised subject reference question, it can be referred to the appropriate library. Reference desks are manned by LIS Graduate Assistants... so there are staff resources.
Types of questions -- request for research assistance (29% of ref question), request for catalogue assistance (20%), navigation of web site (8%) and questions about ILL (5%)
One needs to determine whether LiveChat Ref is appropriate for one's library -- you need to look at aspects like the user needs as well as affordability (budget, staffing, software)
A conversation we need to start at UCT Libraries??? I can see the possibilities for Live chat ref, not only for our own users, but (radical thought coming up!) as a service to the wider community as our libraries' contribution to society. But first steps first....