VALA 2008 Conference – Day 3 – Concurrent Session 13 – Virtual Reference

Kate Davis – Gold Coast City Council
“Be my buddy: IM and the future of virtual reference”

IM trial was run in tandem with the Ask Now chat service. Trial has now concluded.

2 types of IM – client based (ie. MSN Messenger, Google Talk) and website integrated (embedded – Meebo).  Embeds a flash based box in your webpage – used by many bloggers – eg. Topeka Shawnee County.

Impetus: technical issues with proprietary chat reference products – software issues, login requirements etc
desire to meet users in their own space – on their turf, reach audience with their communication model of choice

How did it work – listed IM names on the Asknow homepage – noting that the users should add the appropriate name to their buddy list.  (couldn’t use embedded, too much demand).  Once listed in their buddy list, users know when the service is available. When it is – click on to start a session.

Quick stats – to inform practice going into the future.  Surveyed staff before and after the trial, in a focus groups and a wiki was used for field notes.  Once staff realised how simple it was, they were overwhelmingly supportive of it.  Almost 1200 enquiries in 6 months, 45% of surveyed users aged 15 to 24, 73% of enquiries completed in session, 100% of users would use it again. (all users surveyed at the end of the session)

Lessons:
1. There is a demand for an IM service.  Hours offered did not affect the growth of enquiries and word of mouth was an important promotion tool.
2. Concept of IM reference is viable.  Librarian said they thought it better than chat ref or email – more immediate and synchronous
3. True synchronicity has some meaningful impacts. Librarian said that it met the expectations of users in terms of speed, efficiency and ease of use and enabled the reference interview to be more complete and quicker.
4. Inhabiting the users’ space brings some new challenges (and a pleasant surprise). Informal language – txt speak. Up to each individual librarian as to how they communicate.  Some users just wanted to come and chat (they were bored). However, there was no increase in inappropriate behaviour from the Asknow service. IM resulted in a significant increase in repeat users.
5. IM is not just for kids….. but the kids certainly do like it. Kids were a big audience, but so were 15-24, particularly in the morning and early afternoon.
6. A simple aggregator IM client is insufficient. (can only have one person logged in at a time to offer service) Having more than one operator is crucial – too many clients is scary, exhausting and demanding.

Embedded IM: an opportunity to innovate – three lines of code plugged in to your website gives you an onsite contact point. Place the widget in the places where they most need help (no results page, wrong address etc).

Towards an IM system architecture:
Necessary – multiple librarians to be logged in and monitoring simultaneously (Pidgin client based software now offers this functionality)
– queueing and/or automatic routing of users – preferably both
– automated statistics logging functionality
Desirable – automated workflow for referring enquiries infor follow-up and better transcript archiving functionality (in trial it was far too labour intensive)
– built in scripted message

They developed specifications for IM system architecture with a Jabber IM server (self hosted), Java based routing component (to be written, Web based dashboard for shift management (where they can identify themselves as primary or secondary operator and pick up clients, Browser based anonymous entry point for users which could be embedded in the web page and an admin module (for stats and scripts etc).

What now – Routing component being built by NLA developer – likely to be open source. Looking at opportunities for cooperative arrangements.

Through the crystal ball: the future of virtual reference: centred around website, synchronous chat, will embrace pluggable system models – that can scale and will embrace open source.  Using a triage model, incorporate multiple delivery models (FAQs, subject guides, email, VOIP and IM), will see the nature of enquiries change as we get into their space, be device agnostic – particularly important with the expansion of the mobile web.

Wilma Kurvink – Wesley College
“A new paradigm for reference librarians in the online world: developing relationships around research and learning with library users”

About learning, not about schooling. Their collections have conflicting ideas and perspectives to expose students to a range of ideas and use their morals, critical thinking to make sense of them.

When laptops introduced, they found that student work was not significantly improving in key research assignments, students appeared to want to work independently and were reluctant to seek help.

Research into search behaviour by Rita Bilal: students experienced high rates of failure (1 in 2 searches failed for younger students), students experienced breakdowns.  Better results by older students who use keywords better.  10 year study of UK tertiary students: search engines dominated their information seeking strategy, half began their search in Google, only 10% used the OPAC first and 9% went to Yahoo.

Students prefer search engines, use of academic resources is low, find locating information difficult, may trade quality of results for effort and time spent searching, students use of search engines now influences their perspective of online resources.

Jean McKay and Helen Bronleigh – Murdoch University, Annmaree Brown and Margaret Wright – Macquarie University
“Shibbolising Online Librarian: how two university libraries enhanced their collaborative chat reference service by using a MAMS Mini grant to add authentication and develop an interoperable chat client”

In 2006, the IM service that had been introduced 2 years earlier, was now causing too many headaches.  With only one librarian able to login at any one time, it made management problematic at best.  Service was offer for a limited time of 34 hours per week.  Had started with Net Meeting and VOIP, but users preferred chat, so moved to MSN Messenger and the service took off.

Started project with MAMs in 2006 – to develop and improve a text chat information service, building on the existing online librarian services.
MAMS – Meta Access Management System project – based at Macquarie Uni with DEST funding from the “Backing Australia’s Ability” program.

Allows multiple operator logins and where possible, students will be routed to a librarian from their home institution.  If all operators are busy, they will be redirected to the email service. Client has to go to the webpage, identify their home institution, authenticate and then the chat starts.  Have a link to a feedback form at the end of the session.

Not a lot of feedback, but all received is overwhelmingly positive, easy to use, will use again.  Only 5% reported access problems.  The stats module gives them client affiliation, operator institution, start/end time of call, no of transactions in each session, transfer history, notes regarding who ended or timeouts and gives turnaways by user campus and try time.  If a call is not answered in minute, it is routed to another operator – 1/3 of sessions did this.  50% ended by operator. If it is, the feedback form is offered as is the option to have the transcript emailed to them.

Resulted in the service being offered 87 hours per week, where the physical desks are offering 77 and 65 hours service per week. Librarians are not rostered, but are expected to respond to chat in the same way that they do with email and the telephone.

Both libraries will continue with the service – looking to appear in the portals being developed at both Unis and hope to be able to incorporate a widget.

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