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On the Spot: Why I value chat reference services

February 19, 2018

The first rule of reference? Be visible and approachable (see RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers).

On a reference desk, this is somewhat easy to do. Desks are typically located in a visible, (hopefully) high-traffic area. The staff member at the desk then tries his or her best to be “approachable” – your mileage may vary; bright yellow PLEASE INTERRUPT ME buttons are still common conference giveaways. But the desk is there, in sight for anyone who would come to your library to visit it.

So the desk is visible, but is it always approachable? You may say, yes, as long as a student is on campus, they can approach us. But what if their campus isn’t physical? At Penn State, we serve more than 18,000 online students through World Campus. They deserve equitable access to library resources that their on-campus counterparts receive (see ACRL Standards for Distance Learning Library Services). In my experience, World Campus students make up a large component of those I assist through chat reference, though I do also assist students from all of our campuses.

Chat reference is stressful. You don’t always know the answer, and it may be hard to quickly find someone who has the right answer or expertise to help with a highly specific research question. You may be bombarded with question after question. And yet, I volunteer for shift after shift, along with a large number of my colleagues. I often think of the students, especially those at a distance, who may be equally frustrated that they cannot physically walk into their campus library and request help. It is crucial that they have the opportunity to seek and receive research help, making chat reference a vital library service.

Think pieces and social media comments often bemoan the anonymity of the internet. People can be more awful to each other because it is easy to forget that there is a real person behind a screen name. Though sometimes I will receive spam chats, they are not very common. I think that the anonymity of chat reference can be freeing for students, who may be afraid they are asking a “stupid” question, or may feel overwhelmed by their assignment.

Consider a very visible reference desk. It may be approachable in terms of location – but if a student can easily see you, then it means that everyone else can easily see them when they ask for help. That visibility may be a struggle for some. Perhaps speaking is difficult for them.

But in a chat reference situation, there is no one behind a big desk to intimidate. There’s a chat box for you take your time and type out your question. If you’re nowhere near a campus, help is still available. If you’re on campus, but can’t (for whatever reason) visit a desk, help is a click away.

More than half of my reference transactions take place via chat reference – though I spend about equal amounts of time per week on chat reference and a traditional reference desk. I am always working to improve my chat references interactions, and encourage my fellow librarians to become more involved with our chat reference services. It can be a lot of work sometimes, but there are immediate outcomes, especially for students who have pressing information needs. And if you like being in the hot seat, there are always plenty of questions for you!

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