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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > April 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 4 — April 2003
Feature
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 available.

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 week—essentially 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 24/7."

• 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 page.

• We demonstrated the service to school librarians.

• We announced the new service through MHL-Mail, our e-mail alert newsletter.

• 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 newsletters.

• 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 station.

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 trepidation."

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 Massachusetts—two 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 us—we guarantee you'll enjoy the ride!

 

Reference

1. Coffman, Steve and Susan McGlamery. "The Librarian and Mr. Jeeves." American Libraries, May 2000, pp. 66­69.

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 gschaake@mhl.org. 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 esathan@mhl.org. Together they co-manage Memorial Hall's virtual reference project and train for MassAnswers.
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