Today I went to a really interesting session about using chat for enquiry work in libraries, at the Judge Business School. The session was run by Meg Westbury (JBS) and Libby Tilley (English). It was a fascinating session that confirmed a lot of what I already knew about chat and presented interesting ways of coping with the impact of chat on the workplace.
I just wrote an assignment on the reference interview in the Information Age (I might post extracts on here when it has been graded) and chat came up as a factor. Many of the papers that I read discussed how essential it was to keep the good library practice used in the typical face-to-face reference interview when using chat. This was confirmed by a lot of what Meg and Libby said in their talk.
One criticism of chat, from the papers I looked at, was that chats were cut off too quickly and users didn’t feel that their enquiry had been dealt with in a satisfactory way. While chat is very quick and instant, it is so critical that it is seen as just the same as a telephone conversation or a face-to-face meeting. Don’t say in chat what you wouldn’t say in person and don’t be abrupt in signing off. Leave the door open for that user to chat to you again, or even come in to see you in person once they have made that initial contact.
Initial contact via chat is so important. Rather than create barriers by not being able to see the person you’re talking to, the anonymity of chat actually allows users to feel more comfortable in approaching and information professional with their queries. No-one likes to feel stupid or to ask an embarassing question in person, and the online option is certainly a preferable one. Again, this approach was supported in the session, with an emphasis being placed on mentioning your name and encouraging students to contact you again, or to even come in and chat in person if the research need requires that level of involvement.
My main concern which chat is one that most people can understand and will probably face themselves: staffing. With instant responses expected in this communication medium, how can small teams of librarians manage to staff the chat “enquiry point” as well as the physical enquiry desk and other points of contact? Well, as Libby said, with good management. It is possible to run a good chat service but you have to have the right amount of people available and to be able to post useful messages to users if you are unable to be at your desk for a certain period of time.
The limited opening hours of most libraries limits the 24/7 nature of the chat enquiry service, however I feel strongly that it is still a worthwhile venture. For example, trying to get a straight answer out of a lengthy email chain could be greatly improved by the quick t0-and-fro of the chat conversation.If you have the staff and can see a practical way in which the chat enquiry service option can be integrated into your existing service provision, then go for it! From the experience that we heard today, it can be tough and there will be need for rapid change but if you manage to pull it off, it could provide another excellent way for users to get in touch. The online visibility of your library could be improved through this new measure, and if the technology catches up, the chat service could go mobile through apps. The possibilities are excellent but the work has to be put in.
I would like to introduce a chat service at my library at SPRI, but with our big migration project looming and a reworking of the entire library space, I think it’ll have to wait a few years until we’re in a good position to try it out.