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David Lee King

Ask-a-Librarian Services Need a Reboot



Hippie discriminationWhat would you say if I told you that some libraries discriminate against a certain type of customer? That some customers, because of the way they asked a question, were purposefully pushed to the back of the line, told to wait 2-3 days for an answer, and that they couldn’t get an answer to some of their burning questions … because they’re “that kind” of customer?

You’d be furious, right?

Well … believe it or not, many libraries are doing that RIGHT NOW – today, in fact. Take a peek at these email and chat reference policies for a sec, then come back and let’s talk:

  • Note – not picking on any particular library – there are MANY MORE examples out there…
  • New York Public Library: “We will make every effort to respond to your question within two working days
  • San Francisco Public Library: “In depth questions will be forwarded in e-mail format to subject specialists, who will try to get back to you within 2 days.” Their IM service – “The IM reference service works best for answering brief, factual questions.”
  • Hennepin County Library: “We can provide brief answers to questions or suggest locations and sources to answer your question. We will respond within 48 hours.”
  • San Diego Public Library: “If you are in a Library building, we highly recommend working with Library staff before using these online services” … “Library staff is able to provide short, factual answers.”
  • County of Los Angeles Public Library: “Send us an email or fill out the form below. Reference staff will respond to your question within 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays).
  • Houston Public Library: “You should get a response to your e-mail within 48-72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays … If you are working against a deadline, you may get a faster response by visiting or calling your local library …”
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: “Every reasonable attempt will be made by library staff to respond to reference questions within 48 hours.” … E-mail Reference Questions should be limited to those that have concise, factual answers … Individuals are limited to three Electronic Mail Reference Questions each week.” (check out this update)
  • Kansas City Public Library: “Questions sent to the Library by using this form will be answered by e-mail within 48 hours excluding holidays and weekends.” Their chat service – “AskNow! is a live, online reference service for questions that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources.”

Ouch! Now, let me ask you this. If I walked into any of these libraries and asked the same question in person:

  • Would I have to wait 48-72 hours for a response? No.
  • Could I ask the same question on a weekend? Most likely, assuming the library was open.
  • Would they limit my questions to THREE A WEEK??? I sure hope not!
  • Would I be limited to asking ONLY questions “that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources” as KCPL mentions? No.

Is this REALLY how you want to treat your customers? Especially that growing group of customers who are already using your digital branch and are taking advantage of your digital services? Please don’t tell me that you can somehow only serve those customers who actually walk into the library and up to your physical reference desk, but can’t get to the customers who call or email or IM or txt you in a timely fashion. I’m not buying that.

The problem isn’t the volume or the format of the question, but the way your reference services are arranged. Rearrange it. Now. Please.

In essence, you ARE discriminating. Discriminating against a growing, younger, web-savvy customer base. Customers who *almost* have all the tools in place to simply ignore you and your grad-degreed, professional information-retrieval services. Especially if they are treated like second class customers when they ask a question using their preferred, and handy, means of communication.

Does this make sense? Do you really want to be “that guy?” I think not. The libraries I mention above all want to do a great job, I’m sure, as do you. So let’s work on improving our online services … like now already!

******

To be fair, I checked out my library’s ask page too (and crossed my fingers, and said a little prayer before I clicked :-). We did great! Here’s what we do:

  • We mention how good we are (“provide quick, accurate answers”)
  • We mention that the phone is the fastest way to get a response, rather than forcing customers to visit in-person (“If you want to talk with someone immediately about a question you can call us…”)
  • Instead of giving some outlandish timeframe for a response (i.e., 24-48-72 hours), we say “We will help you as quickly as we can.”

And my personal favorite – for more complex questions, we direct customers … not to the physical desk, but to email! We don’t even mention the desk or having to visit the library in person on our Ask Us page.

Why? Because those customers are already in the library, using our Digital Branch. They need to get the same treatment as any other customer with any other question.

photo by Neubie

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • madlibrarian

    Richard,

    Hold up a minute there who said anything about “Whatever the cause of your anger or resentment, I don’t think it needs to be directed at the blog owner”. I’m not angry or resenting anything.

    As a person who has been working in virtual reference since 2001, I think I have an expert opinion. I have conducted many survey’s of the types of quesitions and what I said is very true.

    Please don’t speak for me, I not angry at anyone and I accept your apology for thinking so.

  • davidleeking

    Madlibrarian – “Have you ever worked as a virtual reference librarian answering guestions?”

    Yes, I have.

    “You can not answer the in depth research question that patrons want to ask on line.”

    Why not? If they ask a question, do you not just simply reply and answer, or ask for clarification?

  • davidleeking

    Madlibrarian – “Have you ever worked as a virtual reference librarian answering guestions?”

    Yes, I have.

    “You can not answer the in depth research question that patrons want to ask on line.”

    Why not? If they ask a question, do you not just simply reply and answer, or ask for clarification?

  • Patricia

    As a refenece librarian that does lots of virtual reference. I have to agree with the post by Madlibrarian. We should define the scope of our 24/7 reference services, they should not be designed to do research. No you should not handled long indepth research questions on line, just like you don’t at the reference desk.

    Librarians are not there to just answer questions. The job of a reference librarian is to show patrons how to do research that does not mean do it for them.

    I also which people would stop using the term customer service when it comes to librarians. If you want to be a customer service rep go get a job as one.

  • Patricia

    As a refenece librarian that does lots of virtual reference. I have to agree with the post by Madlibrarian. We should define the scope of our 24/7 reference services, they should not be designed to do research. No you should not handled long indepth research questions on line, just like you don’t at the reference desk.

    Librarians are not there to just answer questions. The job of a reference librarian is to show patrons how to do research that does not mean do it for them.

    I also which people would stop using the term customer service when it comes to librarians. If you want to be a customer service rep go get a job as one.

  • davidleeking

    Patricia – I agree – each library needs to define what they do locally, and they need to do that both in-person and digitally.

  • davidleeking

    Patricia – I agree – each library needs to define what they do locally, and they need to do that both in-person and digitally.

  • http://www.carnegielibrary.org/locations/reference/ Richard

    Patricia,

    That’s all valid. The question seems to me (David being the one who brought it up way back when…) why do we feel it necessary to condition one set or type of service when we don’t do it with others (the more traditional desk and phone services?) We wouldn’t post a sign at the desk telling users beforehand what we might or might not be able to help them with and how.

    We have no problem informing a VR, e-mail or telephone user that we’ve reached the limits of what we can do for them in this medium, and that they’re next best alternative is … Just as we inform people at the desk of the resources they can use to fulfill their needs. Those who like or require hand-holding, do so regardless of the medium or location they’re using. As long as we know how to say “when” and do so equally, relative to the place and time, then I don’t see a real service difference.

  • http://www.carnegielibrary.org/locations/reference/ Richard

    Patricia,

    That’s all valid. The question seems to me (David being the one who brought it up way back when…) why do we feel it necessary to condition one set or type of service when we don’t do it with others (the more traditional desk and phone services?) We wouldn’t post a sign at the desk telling users beforehand what we might or might not be able to help them with and how.

    We have no problem informing a VR, e-mail or telephone user that we’ve reached the limits of what we can do for them in this medium, and that they’re next best alternative is … Just as we inform people at the desk of the resources they can use to fulfill their needs. Those who like or require hand-holding, do so regardless of the medium or location they’re using. As long as we know how to say “when” and do so equally, relative to the place and time, then I don’t see a real service difference.

  • Patricia

    Richard to answer your question, when a patron comes into a physical library they can see what what resources a library has available but that cannot be done with virtual reference. Also patrons can tell lots by actually looking at a librarian from their body language. Let me give you an example I have had patrons in virtual reference ask questions that they dare not ask me in a faced to face reference situation. The look that I would give them would stop them dead in their tracks. Virtual reference sometimes provides a barrier that patrons sometimes feel they can hide behind.

    I truely feel that this 24-48 hour thing really involves what some librarians think answering a reference question is. My rule is rememer the word “refer”.

  • Patricia

    Richard to answer your question, when a patron comes into a physical library they can see what what resources a library has available but that cannot be done with virtual reference. Also patrons can tell lots by actually looking at a librarian from their body language. Let me give you an example I have had patrons in virtual reference ask questions that they dare not ask me in a faced to face reference situation. The look that I would give them would stop them dead in their tracks. Virtual reference sometimes provides a barrier that patrons sometimes feel they can hide behind.

    I truely feel that this 24-48 hour thing really involves what some librarians think answering a reference question is. My rule is rememer the word “refer”.

  • davidleeking

    Patricia – sounds more like simple inappropriateness to me. In those situations, either at the desk or at the virtual desk, you simply tell the patron to stop, that what they just said was inappropriate… and then do whatever your policy is on that type of behavior.

    People are inappropriate in both settings. That is not a reason to favor one type of reference transaction over another.

  • davidleeking

    Patricia – sounds more like simple inappropriateness to me. In those situations, either at the desk or at the virtual desk, you simply tell the patron to stop, that what they just said was inappropriate… and then do whatever your policy is on that type of behavior.

    People are inappropriate in both settings. That is not a reason to favor one type of reference transaction over another.

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  • Patricia

    Well David, I disagree with you.Thats okay it does not make you wrong nor does it make me right. We are two individuals with different ways of doing things. There is nothing wrong with that.

    I just say libraries should define the scope of their virtual reference services and should not be afraid to do so. If you don’t agree with that, thats okay.

  • Patricia

    Well David, I disagree with you.Thats okay it does not make you wrong nor does it make me right. We are two individuals with different ways of doing things. There is nothing wrong with that.

    I just say libraries should define the scope of their virtual reference services and should not be afraid to do so. If you don’t agree with that, thats okay.

  • davidleeking

    Patricia – I think we both agree that libraries should define the scope of their virtual reference services. The disagreement is in HOW those services are defined.

    Remember – I’m a branch manager (a “virtual” branch manager, but a branch manager nonetheless). When customers enter my digital branch to ask a question, their question needs to be treated the same as if I walked into the physical library and asked a question. That’s how my library handles it, anyway.

  • davidleeking

    Patricia – I think we both agree that libraries should define the scope of their virtual reference services. The disagreement is in HOW those services are defined.

    Remember – I’m a branch manager (a “virtual” branch manager, but a branch manager nonetheless). When customers enter my digital branch to ask a question, their question needs to be treated the same as if I walked into the physical library and asked a question. That’s how my library handles it, anyway.

  • John

    This is completely unfair. Most of the quoted material comes from libraries’ e-mail reference services, which are used primarily for detailed reference questions that cannot be answered quickly and require time-intensive research even if in person. Almost all of these libraries have a chat reference link on the same page where customers can go for instant answers–many 24/7.

    Further, in almost all cases, the e-mail reference section is listed on these pages as another option only after the 24/7 instant service options is listed. It is about offering customers options, which is good customer service. If they need instant answers, almost all of these libraries have a service that provides that, which is of course not mentioned because it does not support the thesis.

    I agree that language could be modified but feel the examples used are carefully selected to create the impression that these libraries through up elays and barriers to virtual users, which just isn’t true. In fact, the majority of these libraries chat services make library services more accessible to online customers than anyone else rather than placing barriers to that service.

  • John

    This is completely unfair. Most of the quoted material comes from libraries’ e-mail reference services, which are used primarily for detailed reference questions that cannot be answered quickly and require time-intensive research even if in person. Almost all of these libraries have a chat reference link on the same page where customers can go for instant answers–many 24/7.

    Further, in almost all cases, the e-mail reference section is listed on these pages as another option only after the 24/7 instant service options is listed. It is about offering customers options, which is good customer service. If they need instant answers, almost all of these libraries have a service that provides that, which is of course not mentioned because it does not support the thesis.

    I agree that language could be modified but feel the examples used are carefully selected to create the impression that these libraries through up elays and barriers to virtual users, which just isn’t true. In fact, the majority of these libraries chat services make library services more accessible to online customers than anyone else rather than placing barriers to that service.

  • davidleeking

    John –

    “Most of the quoted material comes from libraries’ e-mail reference services” – right. That’s part of many library ask-us services.

    “used primarily for detailed reference questions” – Many of the examples above actually state the opposite – that even their email ref service is only for quick, factual types of questions. Hennepin and San Diego are two examples of that (just with a quick, cursory glance at the pages I provided links to).

    “Further, in almost all cases, the e-mail reference section is listed on these pages as another option only after the 24/7 instant service options is listed.” Most of them offer one or both services, but NONE of these libraries state that there’s some sort of tiered approach like you are suggesting.

    “feel the examples used are carefully selected” – for what it’s worth, the choices were rather random. I did a Google search on “public library”, picked the first 20 of those, then picked a few others off the top of my head. Then I cut the list down a lot because I had WAY TOO MANY examples.

  • davidleeking

    John –

    “Most of the quoted material comes from libraries’ e-mail reference services” – right. That’s part of many library ask-us services.

    “used primarily for detailed reference questions” – Many of the examples above actually state the opposite – that even their email ref service is only for quick, factual types of questions. Hennepin and San Diego are two examples of that (just with a quick, cursory glance at the pages I provided links to).

    “Further, in almost all cases, the e-mail reference section is listed on these pages as another option only after the 24/7 instant service options is listed.” Most of them offer one or both services, but NONE of these libraries state that there’s some sort of tiered approach like you are suggesting.

    “feel the examples used are carefully selected” – for what it’s worth, the choices were rather random. I did a Google search on “public library”, picked the first 20 of those, then picked a few others off the top of my head. Then I cut the list down a lot because I had WAY TOO MANY examples.

  • Frank

    I work at a small academic library. We have our own IM service and are also part of a province-wide program. We also do face-to-face reference and e-mail reference. Our turn-around time is quite good during the week between 8 am and 10 pm when we have a librarian working. Weekends when we have reduced hours, response time is somewhat slower.

    We don’t discriminate in how quickly we answer questions from various sources — it’s all first come, first served. However, IM tends to be less suitable than other forms of contact for in-depth questions. Part of that is because of the attitude of those who use IM. they take the “instant” part of it very seriously and even if you tell them it may take a few minutes to find an answer, in a significant number of cases, they disappear before the answer arrives. Presumably, we’re expected to deliver the answer in the same .12 seconds that it took Google to get 2.4 million hits.

    While on the province-wide IM service, I’ve had a student from another institution e-mail her whole thesis proposal and want me to discuss, in-depth, the types of resources her library has for her topic. Clearly, this type of question should be taken up face-to-face with the liaison at her home institution. But that’s one of the things about virtual reference that’s exciting — you never know what kind of question you’ll get.

  • Frank

    I work at a small academic library. We have our own IM service and are also part of a province-wide program. We also do face-to-face reference and e-mail reference. Our turn-around time is quite good during the week between 8 am and 10 pm when we have a librarian working. Weekends when we have reduced hours, response time is somewhat slower.

    We don’t discriminate in how quickly we answer questions from various sources — it’s all first come, first served. However, IM tends to be less suitable than other forms of contact for in-depth questions. Part of that is because of the attitude of those who use IM. they take the “instant” part of it very seriously and even if you tell them it may take a few minutes to find an answer, in a significant number of cases, they disappear before the answer arrives. Presumably, we’re expected to deliver the answer in the same .12 seconds that it took Google to get 2.4 million hits.

    While on the province-wide IM service, I’ve had a student from another institution e-mail her whole thesis proposal and want me to discuss, in-depth, the types of resources her library has for her topic. Clearly, this type of question should be taken up face-to-face with the liaison at her home institution. But that’s one of the things about virtual reference that’s exciting — you never know what kind of question you’ll get.

  • http://www.melanieslibraryshop.com/ Melanie C. Duncan

    Has anyone considered copyright when considering IM or e-mail reference? It makes sense to answer short, factual questions via these methods since facts considered in the public domain are not copyrighted. Detailed questions require the customer to make the decision about what information is specifically wanted after they read over the materials, and librarians cannot cut and paste detailed information without potentially violating copyright. Yes, in some cases, databases allow librarians to use an e-mail link to send information to customers, and I have done so. But this is not always the case with some electronic resources, and I will not violate copyright; the customer then has to visit the library so I can show him the information.

  • http://www.melanieslibraryshop.com Melanie C. Duncan

    Has anyone considered copyright when considering IM or e-mail reference? It makes sense to answer short, factual questions via these methods since facts considered in the public domain are not copyrighted. Detailed questions require the customer to make the decision about what information is specifically wanted after they read over the materials, and librarians cannot cut and paste detailed information without potentially violating copyright. Yes, in some cases, databases allow librarians to use an e-mail link to send information to customers, and I have done so. But this is not always the case with some electronic resources, and I will not violate copyright; the customer then has to visit the library so I can show him the information.

  • Kirby

    Melanie,

    Me thinks you’re hiding behind an otherwise altruistic and irrelevant strawman. You won’t violate copyright but will facilitate it at your desk. By its nature VR services aren’t violating copyright, we’re not giving them someone else’s page, we’re showing them the page. At worst we’re guilty of the same stretching of the Fair Use doctrine we are when we give someone a World Book section to photocopy.

    We’ve been doing this in various forms for close to 10 years, 5 of them with VR service. Other than the medium and maybe an exagerrated expectation of service turnaround with some users, it’s no different than “traditional” reference. Someone else here commented that they get more VR and e-mail inquiries in a given hour than telephone inquiries. To us that’s all that needs to be said. We’ll think it’s a serious issue when the Copright Police or the Copyright holder comes to the door.

  • Kirby

    Melanie,

    Me thinks you’re hiding behind an otherwise altruistic and irrelevant strawman. You won’t violate copyright but will facilitate it at your desk. By its nature VR services aren’t violating copyright, we’re not giving them someone else’s page, we’re showing them the page. At worst we’re guilty of the same stretching of the Fair Use doctrine we are when we give someone a World Book section to photocopy.

    We’ve been doing this in various forms for close to 10 years, 5 of them with VR service. Other than the medium and maybe an exagerrated expectation of service turnaround with some users, it’s no different than “traditional” reference. Someone else here commented that they get more VR and e-mail inquiries in a given hour than telephone inquiries. To us that’s all that needs to be said. We’ll think it’s a serious issue when the Copright Police or the Copyright holder comes to the door.

  • davidleeking

    Good answer, Kirby – I was about to say much the same thing. Helping customers definitely falls under Fair Use. NOT helping customers because of the way the question was asked is definitely “UNfair Use.”

  • davidleeking

    Good answer, Kirby – I was about to say much the same thing. Helping customers definitely falls under Fair Use. NOT helping customers because of the way the question was asked is definitely “UNfair Use.”

  • http://www.melanieslibraryshop.com/ Melanie C. Duncan

    You’ve given me some points to ponder since you’ve been dealing with VR service for a longer period of time than I have. I maybe was not clear enough in that I have no problems providing a customer with a link to information, and do so. I still have concerns about copyright with regards to cut & paste information from a source, but you’ve given me a different perspective to investigate. Thanks for the feedback.

  • http://www.melanieslibraryshop.com Melanie C. Duncan

    You’ve given me some points to ponder since you’ve been dealing with VR service for a longer period of time than I have. I maybe was not clear enough in that I have no problems providing a customer with a link to information, and do so. I still have concerns about copyright with regards to cut & paste information from a source, but you’ve given me a different perspective to investigate. Thanks for the feedback.

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  • Faeriel

    At my library, a lot of folks still prefer in-person, or on-the-phone assistance…when staff-cuts and frozen positions are the norm, you still focus on the majority of your clientele’s needs. People who contact email reference may have an understanding it will take a little longer for an answer-they will call if they want immediate assistance. Chat reference is conducted during business hours, as the query comes in.

    With that defense written, I see your point, especially in cities where people have the money and know-how to embrace new technologies almost immediately. In other areas of our country, this change takes place much slower. We still check out fairly regularly our VHS tapes, a nd audiobooks on tape.

  • Faeriel

    At my library, a lot of folks still prefer in-person, or on-the-phone assistance…when staff-cuts and frozen positions are the norm, you still focus on the majority of your clientele’s needs. People who contact email reference may have an understanding it will take a little longer for an answer-they will call if they want immediate assistance. Chat reference is conducted during business hours, as the query comes in.

    With that defense written, I see your point, especially in cities where people have the money and know-how to embrace new technologies almost immediately. In other areas of our country, this change takes place much slower. We still check out fairly regularly our VHS tapes, a nd audiobooks on tape.

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  • Evelyn Brownwood

    Yes, somebody who gets out of his pajamas and comes into the library should get quicker service, than some IM person in his pajamas.

  • Evelyn Brownwood

    Yes, somebody who gets out of his pajamas and comes into the library should get quicker service, than some IM person in his pajamas.

  • davidleeking

    Evelyn – why? the IM person has also just visited the library – your digital branch.

    There’s no difference. Well, other than the pajamas.

  • davidleeking

    Evelyn – why? the IM person has also just visited the library – your digital branch.

    There’s no difference. Well, other than the pajamas.

  • http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net/ Brian Herzog

    @Evelyn: David’s right, we can’t base priority on something like that. When two patrons come into the library and one has showered and one hasn’t, they’re still treated the same.

    We don’t chose our patrons, the patrons choose us (and their method of contacting us). All we can do is serve them as well as possible – even (and this goes back to the original post) if the best we can do is responding to their emails in 1-2 days because of staff shortages. Online patrons should always be treated the same as in-person patrons, but managing the expectations of both is also important.

  • http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net Brian Herzog

    @Evelyn: David’s right, we can’t base priority on something like that. When two patrons come into the library and one has showered and one hasn’t, they’re still treated the same.

    We don’t chose our patrons, the patrons choose us (and their method of contacting us). All we can do is serve them as well as possible – even (and this goes back to the original post) if the best we can do is responding to their emails in 1-2 days because of staff shortages. Online patrons should always be treated the same as in-person patrons, but managing the expectations of both is also important.

  • Chester Mealer

    David,

    I just came across this post and I was wondering if I could reproduce your post in our in house newsletter (complete with URL back to your site) ?

  • Chester Mealer

    David,

    I just came across this post and I was wondering if I could reproduce your post in our in house newsletter (complete with URL back to your site) ?

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  • Alison Hunt

    Re Evelyn’s point about the person who gets out of pajamas…there is at least one difference between the dressed patron in the library and the eager IM’er in PJs. While it is true that both patrons are visiting a library, the dressed patron has paid a higher price in transaction costs for reference help.

    As someone who was a stay at home mom for years, operating in a noncash economy of traded labor for carpools, babysitting and–yes–taking people’s kids to activities at the library, time is truly money!

    Given all that has been said, I know this is not a compelling argument for discriminating between patrons. But when a solo parent wends his or her way to our library on a school night with a 7-year-old in tow, I am very sensitive to the fact that the patron pays a price for every minute in the library–dinner delayed, the kid’s routine disrupted, unfolded laundry still piled. The IM patron can be multitasking or supervising at home. The solo parent paid at least 20 minutes of travel time just to talk to a reference librarian in person. This patron is very invested in getting help.

    I know the analysis can be finessed but I’m thinking of the basics here. The larger issue, as many already said, is new technology which lowers the transaction cost of information so dramatically that libraries are pricing themselves out!

    In the case of a walk-in and phone-in patron with simultaneous requests, the person with the tightest time constraint is the person I’d start with first. And I’m not picking on parents in particular…this is just a kind of situation we encounter often on school nights.