The Library Visit Study User Experiences at the Virtual Reference

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					The Art of the Reference Interview

  Ontario Library Association Conference
              February 2005

Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Kirsti Nilsen
   Faculty of Information and Media Studies
      The University of Western Ontario
Librarians As a Keystone Species

Anthropologist Bonnie Nardi and librarian Vicki
 O’Day write,
“We believe that the diverse services available in the
 library are still important and useful, and we believe
 that the increase in online information presents more
 opportunities to leverage the skills of professional
 librarians than ever before. Through our fieldwork in
 libraries, we have identified librarians as a keystone
 Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’day. 1999. Information Ecologies.
But is a reference interview really needed?
         The Library Visit Study

To gather data about what happens in reference,
 users did three things:
 * They produced a detailed step-by-step account of exactly
  what happened in the reference transaction

 * They reflected on their experience by summarizing which
 aspects of their experience they had found helpful and which
 aspects they had found unhelpful

 * They filled out a questionnaire evaluating their experience
 as a user of reference service, including “would you be
 willing to return?”
   Would You Be Willing to Return?
             Percent Reporting YES

Face to face visits              Virtual visit
 (Of 261 visits)                 (Of 59 visits)
Total YES             65%    Total YES             61%
Public libs.          61%    Public libs.         70%
Univ. libs.           75%    Univ libs.           56%
       Four Common Problems

“Without speaking, she began to type”
Bypassing the reference interview
Taking a system-based perspective
The unmonitored referral
1.     The “Without-speaking-she-began-to-
       type” Manoeuvre
 Occurred in about one quarter of the library visit
 An example:
 The user asked, “do you have information about about
  optical character recognition?”
 What happened?
 I stood there for several minutes while she searched. I could
  not see the screen and she did not ask me any questions. The
  silence grew a little awkward as I watched her mutter and
  purse her lips as her searches seemed to render negative
  results. Finally she said, “this may be too technical.”
2. Bypassing the Reference Interview
 Reference interviews are conducted only half the time
 An example:
 The user asked “do you have books about Richard
 What happened?
 The user was given call numbers for books about Richard
  Wagner. He returned to say that none of the books on Wagner
  contained the desired information. At this point, the librarian
  discovered belatedly that the user needed a plot synopsis for
  all of the Wagner operas and recommended an opera guide.
  The librarian admonished, “you could have saved a lot of time
  if you had just asked for that initially.”
3. Taking a System-based Perspective

 Even when the library staff member does conduct an
  interview, too many of the librarian’s questions relate to
  the library system, not to the context of the user’s
  information need.

 Some examples:
 “Did you check the catalogue?”
 “Have you used this index before?”
 “What were the indexing elements?”
 “Did you come up with some call numbers?”
 “Have you checked the 282s?”
 “I suppose you’ve checked our circulating collection?”
4. The Unmonitored Referral

The unmonitored referral was reported in
 somewhat more than one third of the time.

An example:
The user asked for information on cellulitis, which is
 a skin infection, and was given a call number for a
 book: “I found the book (not quite in its right place).
 It was called Cellulite: Defeat it through Diet and
            Negative Closure:
      or How to Make Users Go Away

Here are some strategies, apart from providing a
 helpful answer, for getting rid of the user. We call
 these strategies negative closure:
*    The librarian provides an unmonitored referral.
*    The librarian immediately refers the user somewhere else,
      preferably far away.
*    The librarian implies that the user should have done
      something else first before asking for reference help.
*    The librarian tries to get the user to accept more easily
      found information instead of the information actually
      asked for.
Negative Closure...

More ways to get rid of the user:
*    The librarian warns the user to expect defeat because the
      topic is too hard, obscure, large, elusive, or otherwise
*    The librarian signals non-verbally that the transaction is
      over by tone of voice, by turning away, or by starting
      another activity.
*    The librarian claims that the information is not in the
      library; is unavailable; or else doesn’t exist at all.
*    The librarian tells the user he’s going away to track down
      a document but then never returns.
Moving to Virtual Reference

Do things change when we move from the
 physical reference desk to the virtual reference
A Definition of Virtual Reference...

 Virtual reference is reference service initiated electronically,
  often in real-time, where users employ computers or other
  internet technology to communicate with librarians, without
  being physically present.

 Communication channels used frequently in virtual reference
  include chat, videoconferencing, voice over Internet protocol,
  e-mail, and instant messaging.
                                            (ALA, RUSA, 2004)
  The Library Visit Study: Phase 3
Comparing face-to-face and virtual reference
* We use the same method to gather data, but now
     the questions are asked at a virtual reference desk
     at a Canadian university or public library that
     offers such a service via an “ask a librarian” or
     similar link.
* Service can be email or chat.
Advantage: copies of emails or transaction records of
 chat sessions provide more data for analysis.
   Remember the Measure of Success?
        Willingness to Return.

Face to face visits         Virtual visit
 (Of 261 visits)             (Of 59 visits)
 Total YES        65%    Total YES        61%
 Public libraries 61%    Public libraries 70%
 Univ. Libraries 75%     Univ libraries 56%
Would You Return to Chat? To Email?
         % Reporting YES

Chat services           Email services
    (Of 17 visits)          (Of 42 visits)

 Total YES        71%    Total YES           57%
 Public libraries 75%    Public libraries     67%
 University libs. 67%    University libs.     50%
     What Behaviours Lead to User

Bypassing the reference interview
Unmonitored referrals
Failure to ask follow-up questions
How Often Do These Behaviours Occur?

                          Face-to-face      virtual
                            (261 visits)    (57 visits*)

No reference interview        51%           83%
Unmonitored referral          37%           30%
No follow-up                  64%           68%

*2 virtual visits had no response at all
The Unmonitored Referral… a Patron Comments
After Receiving a List of Unhelpful URLs:

 “By simply giving me some URLs of various sites, ... the
  librarian assumed that I would be able to effectively navigate
  these sites. The thought hadn’t occurred to her that I might not
  be able to surf the sites properly.”
Lack of Follow-up

 After asking for biographical information on Albert

 “I was happy with the answer I received in terms of its
  accuracy [but the information I really wanted to know was not
  provided]. I cannot say I was entirely satisfied. I am uncertain
  about sending an additional email message to pursue the
  question further… since a follow-up offer is lacking. I feel I
  am not encouraged to do so.”
           Out of 57 Virtual Visits
    Only 10 (17%) Included an Interview

                     Chat                           Email
                (17 chat visits)           (40 email visits*)

Number                 8                            2

 *2 email visits had no response at all
Reference Interviews in Chat

Only 8 of 17 chat transactions included an

This is 53% with no reference interview,
 similar to the 51% without reference
 interviews in our in-person data.
Email Reference Interviews

Only 2 of 40 email transactions included an
What was different about these 2 transactions?
The email Ask-A-Librarian form
 substituted for the reference interview.
Options for the email reference interview

1. Lots of back and forth emails—BAD IDEA

2. We can provide a good detailed form that
    substitutes for the reference interview.
The Internet Public Library’s Ask-A-Question form
is a good model.

 In addition to Name and email address, and question,
 a good form asks questions that clarify the information
  need, such as:

*   What specifically would you like to find out?
*   Please give us some background that will provide a context
    for your question
*   How do you plan to use this information?
For more information on the art of the
reference interviews, see:

Conducting the Reference Interview, by Catherine
 Sheldrick Ross, Kirsti Nilsen, and Patricia Dewdney
 (New York: Neal Schuman, 2003).