We Jumped on the Live Reference Bandwagon
and We Love the Ride!
by Glenda Schaake & Eleanor Sathan
Our reference numbers were declining,
and we wanted to offer live help online. But as a medium-sized library with limited
resources, we knew we couldn't go it alone. That's when the 24/7 Reference bandwagon
rolled into town.
Patrons were arriving in droves to use our Internet stations.
Web page statistics were skyrocketing. Remote accesses to databases were escalating.
We were busier than ever. But our reference questions were steadily decreasing.
We began to wonder how we, a medium-sized public library with a limited staff,
could provide a librarian's expertise to our online community members whenever
they needed information? We discovered that a real-time reference collaborative
would require small commitments of staff time and money, and decided to become
players on the live reference bandwagon.
All About Our Home Territory
Memorial Hall Library is the public library of Andover, Mass., a small, affluent
New England town of 30,000 that has always provided strong financial support
to its library. It was built in 1873 with funds that had been raised to create
a memorial to Andover Civil War veterans. The building serves as a meeting
place for town boards and community organizations, making it a central gathering
place on Main Street. With the reorganization of the Massachusetts library
system in 1993, Memorial Hall was awarded the contract for the Northeast Massachusetts
Regional Library System Research and Reference Center.
We have a history of offering innovative services, including a netLibrary
collection, Gemstar e-books, audiobooks on MP3 players, and an e-mail newsletter.
Memorial Hall is open 68.5 hours a week, has a reference staff of 10, and answers
an average of 60,000 reference questions a year. However, like other libraries,
we saw our reference statistics slowly decreasing as the number of people using
our public Internet computers increased. We eventually askedourselves, "How
can we reach these patrons who feel they can find anything they need online
without our help?"
We did see our patrons using our online services. We provided new services
over the home page and upgraded the public computers, and our patrons continually
asked for more: "When can we request books online?" "When can we renew titles
online?" "Can we access the magazine databases from home?" As we waited for
our network to choose a new automated library system that could provide more
remote access, we were always on the lookout for additional services that would
make our library more essential to the life of the community.
Starting to Play with Live Reference
In May 2000, our director, James Sutton, read "The Librarian and Mr. Jeeves" by
Steve Coffman and Susan McGlamery.1 The article
described a real-time live reference service available 24 hours a day, 7 days
a week. The authors envisioned a collaborative effort from libraries in all
the time zones of the world. Would a real-time, live reference service appeal
to our patrons and fulfill our mission, as the Northeast Massachusetts Regional
Library System Research and Reference Center, to explore new technologies?
Glenda Schaake, coordinator of reference services, and Eleanor Sathan, reference
librarian, were assigned the task of investigating what live reference "wagons" were
We looked at LivePerson and HumanClick. Both required the individual library
to load and maintain the software on its own server, as well as to monitor
all hours of service. This is a complicated, time-consuming, and very expensive
undertaking for a library of our size. We thought about the LSSI program, but
the software was too costly for us. And we certainly didn't have the staff
to man a live reference service 168 hours a weekessentially to be available
whenever a question popped into an Andover resident's head. The collaborative
effort proposed by Coffman and McGlamery seemed to solve the problems that
we saw with other vendors. The 24/7 Reference collaborative service maintained
the software and the server, the members shared monitoring the hours of service,
and the monthly fee fell within the library system's budget. In July of 2000,
Eleanor met Susan McGlamery at the ALA conference. Susan had become the director
of 24/7 Reference, a project of the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System,
supported by federal LSTA funding and administered by the California State
Library.Eleanor was impressed with Susan's enthusiasm and vision for this new
area of library technology and reference services. Susan agreed to send us
a test version of the Cisco/Webline software that the 24/7 Reference project
was using. We were eager to test the software. Unfortunately, it proved to
be difficult to use.
In September 2000, the project software changed to eGain. With it, we began
to experiment using computers that were side-by-side within the library, alternating
the roles of the librarian and the patron, making up questions as we went along.
It was essential to evaluate the software from both the patron's and the librarian's
point of view. Initially, we had Internet problems that caused broken connections
between the two. The experiment became very frustrating and we put the project
aside for a while. Eventually, our IT department suggested that the software
might work better if the patron was at a remote location. Eleanor used her
home computer and chatted with Glenda at the library, which gave a more realistic
feel to the live reference. Indeed, there were fewer broken connections. The
software met our needs of pushing Web pages and co-browsing with the patron.
The collaborative required our librarians to monitor only 10 hours per week
in return for 24/7 live reference coverage. So we decided to jump on the 24/7
bandwagon. The next step was to train our librarians.
Drumming Up Local Support
Susan McGlamery e-mailed us a series of exercises that demonstrated the elements
of the eGain software. Also, the exercises addressed the adaptations necessary
to modify the traditional reference interview for the live reference format.
The software included canned scripts that could be sent to the patron, allowing
the chat interaction to flow smoothly and quickly. This gives the librarian
time to search for answers, while keeping the patron engaged. After working
through and adapting the exercises, we trained five other librarians, one to
cover each weekday morning shift and two alternates. Those whom we asked to
do "live" reference were eager, but not without trepidation.Susan came to Andover
in August 2001 to meet our staff and to offer additional training. This gave
our staff a great boost.With her encouragement and training we pulled our librarians
up onto the wagon with us.
Susan asked us to cover 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. EST, Monday through Friday. We
were not able to hire additional staff but asked staff to come in a half-hour
early, at 8 a.m., on their assigned days. All were glad to do this, as they
were enthusiastic about the service and loved leaving at 4:30 p.m. instead
of 5 p.m. We are fortunate that the staff has been flexible in trading
days to cover meetings and vacations. In all this time, we have never missed
a day, even for snow.
On Sept. 17, 2001, we began to offer 24/7 reference service. In typical librarian
fashion, we were afraid that we weren't ready to handle a deluge of questions
from the public. After all, Ask Jeeves receives millions of questions a day.
But when the deluge did not materialize, we decided that we needed a marketing
campaign. We didn't have funds to hire a professional marketing consultant,
so we devised our own plan to reach our patrons.
The local paper ran the headline story "Library to Answer Questions
We gave the 24/7 logo a prominent place on our home page.
Staff added the logo to pages throughout our Web site.
The town of Andover added links to 24/7 Reference on its Web
We demonstrated the service to school librarians.
We announced the new service through MHL-Mail, our e-mail alert
We added a signature file on our e-mail responses: "Try asking
your reference question live on 24/7 chat at www.mhl.org."
Editors added articles to the Friends' newsletter and regional
Employees distributed brochures and signs throughout the library.
Periodically, reminders of 24/7 are included in the library
column of the local newspaper.
A PowerPoint slide show advertises 24/7 on our local cable
With these steps, we saw our statistics climb from fewer than 40 to over
100 questions a month.
The community loved the service. Feedback included comments like "This is
ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!! This is what the Internet should be all about! Rock on
Memorial Hall!" "I loved the program, it was just like Instant Message except
it got me an answer I really needed. Without it I would have a check minus
in English." Students are avid users, logging on between classes for answers,
and disappearing as quickly as they came, hurrying back to class.
The Wagon Crosses into Eastern Standard Time
When we joined 24/7 Reference, we were the only member library outside of
California. This represented the first step in Susan's vision for a worldwide
collaboration. 24/7 requested that we cover the early morning hours, 5 a.m.
to 7 a.m. PST, when their staff was answering questions from their homes. This
allowed the California staff to work on archived questions, while our staff
handled the live questions. This also fit nicely into our schedule, as it took
only 1 hour a day from our reference desk schedule. As the West Coast slowly
awoke, the East Coast was already awake and ready to have questions answered.
A sentiment often heard from librarians is, "How can a librarian from miles
away answer questions for my patrons?" With our coming on board, the collaborative
now had a test case to see if librarians could handle local questions. The
24/7 software includes an online page of manuals for each library, which include
circulation rules, hours, links to their online catalog, electronic databases,
and the home page. This is a tremendous help in answering local library questions.
In addition, we use instant messaging to give the Memorial Hall librarian a
contact in California for local information and 24/7 procedures. We are able
to work as online teams to discuss our search strategies and to troubleshoot
technical problems. We all have faceless friends on the West Coast who keep
us informed of the balmy California conditions in January.
The Internet Public Library developed an e-mail management software program
named QRC, which the 24/7 Reference collaborative has adapted to transfer questions
to different categories or follow-up folders. Each day we check the local folder
for questions that have come in through our home page. If we can add further
information from our local materials, we e-mail the patron. Examples of local
questions that we have answered are: "Does the winter parking ban extend to
all streets in Andover?" "Who owned the Andover Spa in the 1960s?" and "Do
you have a list of local nursery schools?" Many patrons are amazed at the additional
information that we provide, and they take the time to e-mail their thanks.
When other libraries outside of California are considering joining the collaborative,
Susan refers them to Memorial Hall. We are happy to share our experience and
assure them that their patrons will be well served.
Collaborative Reference: A Service to Beat the Band
We are able to add 24-hour, 7-day-a-week "live reference" to our menu of
reference services. As Joe Janes says, "... the synchronous/asynchronous thing
isn't an either/or proposition. It's a when/how/for whom proposition."2 In
addition to walk-in, telephone, and e-mail, we have added yet another way for
our patrons to reach a librarian. We can answer their questions by pushing
them Web pages. We can also use co-browsing to show patrons how to use our
catalog, electronic databases, andthe Web. The community is impressed with
the cutting-edge technology that our library offers.
After the patron clicks on the "Talk to a Librarian" icon, he or she has
the choice of contacting a librarian by telephone, e-mail, or live.
Because many patrons now choose to e-mail us, the number of e-mail questions
has more than doubled. Before 24/7 we averaged 20 a month; now we receive 50
to 60 a month. Our patrons love the e-mail exchanges, and the staff gets great
positive feedback for its efforts.
Our 24/7 reference staff members continue to develop their skills in searching
the Internet, a variety of online catalogs, and electronic databases. They
are able to juggle multiple windows and multiple patrons. Staffers who do not
monitor the service have also benefited from being part of the reference desk
team. This is most evident in the negotiation of e-mail questions. They have
adapted the skills from the virtual reference interviews and now might use
several e-mail exchanges to clarify a question. Staff is more confident in
making referrals when necessary.
"Those whom we asked to do 'live' reference were eager, but not without
Best of all, live reference has made being a librarian more exciting! We
are reaching out to our patrons in a new way. We are receiving national attention
and joining with colleagues to share ideas and to improve our skills. Glenda
and Eleanor have relished the opportunity to speak at the Massachusetts Library
Association Convention, American Library Association's RUSA/MARS Pre-conference
in Atlanta, and the Virtual Reference Desk Conference in Chicago. We truly
feel part of a global library community.
The Journey Continues
News of our successful journey on the 24/7 Reference circuit has reached
other librarians in Massachusettstwo more, Boston Public Library and
Reading Public Library, have joined the collaborative. Libraries across the
state became interested in providing live reference service for their patrons.
In response to this interest, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners
funded a project called MassAnswers, which has put a 24/7 Reference seat in
each of the Regional Reference Centers in the state. Live reference assistance
is available to every state resident any time of the day or night, any day
of the week. Our experience influenced the decision of the MassAnswers committee
to join this collaborative ride.
We hope that our experience encourages you to investigate live reference
service for your patrons. More than 2 years have passed since our journey began,
and our librarians are as enthusiastic now as when we started. We are proud
to be involved in this new, cutting-edge technology.
So jump on the bandwagon with uswe guarantee you'll enjoy the ride!
1. Coffman, Steve and Susan McGlamery. "The
Librarian and Mr. Jeeves." American Libraries, May 2000, pp.
2. Janes, Joe. "Live Reference: Too Much,
Too Fast?" netconnect, Fall 2002, pp. 1214.
Glenda Schaake is the coordinator of reference services at
Memorial Hall Library in Andover, Mass. She holds an M.L.S. from Simmons College
in Boston. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Eleanor
Sathan is the regional reference librarian at Memorial Hall Library.
She holds an M.L.S. from Simmons College in Boston. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Together they co-manage Memorial Hall's virtual reference project and train for