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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > October 2022

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Vol. 42 No. 8 — October 2022

The Pop-Up Floating Chat Box: How a Small Change Made a Big Difference
by Julie Harding, Ryan Shepard, and Colleen Quinn

University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) is a primarily online, open-enrollment public university that serves up to 60,000 students worldwide per semester. UMGC’s library has a staff of 17 and typically answers around 20,000 reference questions a year through Springshare’s LibAnswers platform. The majority of these questions are received via instant message. Reference traffic had grown steadily since the introduction of a static chat widget to the library site in 2013 (see Figure 1), but the volume of questions began to drop in spring 2020 due to a decrease in enrollments caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This was followed by a more significant drop in June 2021 when a menu in UMGC’s learning management system was renamed and reordered, making a traditional path to the library website more difficult to find. This led to an immediate and sizable decrease in the use of our reference service, with the total number of questions falling by 25% in the first month of the summer 2021 semester compared to the previous year. With external factors beyond our control having a significant impact on statistics, we began exploring changes that could be made to library pages to recapture some of the lost engagement.


We had been aware of the potential of a pop-up, proactive chat widget to increase our reference traffic since LibAnswers first introduced one in 2017. We were initially reluctant to implement it for fear of annoying our users and out of concern that we might be overwhelmed by the number of chats received. We only had a single librarian covering instant messaging at the time, often helping multiple users simultaneously. Had we done a literature review during the intervening years, these fears could have been allayed or at least usefully challenged. However, faced with rapidly falling engagement, we decided it was worth taking these risks.

We initially debated simply replacing the static chat box with a pop-up one, but accessibility testing showed that when using a screen reader, there was a marked lag in the LibAnswers proactive widget loading. That might have left our visually impaired researchers with the impression that the chat option had been removed. It was also impossible for a patron to close the pop-up widget without closing the entire browser tab. As a result, we kept the embedded widget, adding the pop-up as a second option. The proactive chat box went live on our pages in late August 2021, a few weeks before the fall semester began (see Figure 2). Due to apprehension regarding staffing limitations, the widget was not added to our LibGuides until that September and was not added to any of the database search pages until the spring 2022 semester. We initially set the delay in the widget’s appearance at 10 seconds—something we would revisit multiple times in our attempts to balance reference traffic and staffing and which we discuss in more detail later.

Once the proactive widget was active, we saw an immediate increase in question volume. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and we went from slow to busy. In the fall 2021 semester, we answered 7,890 questions, up from 4,317 in fall 2020—an 83% increase. In spring 2022, librarians fielded 10,422 questions—a 124% increase over the previous year (see Figure 3). Even though overall visits to our site remained down, a significantly higher percentage of visitors were interacting with our chat widget now that it was harder to ignore or overlook.

Examining the mode of query data available through LibAnswers, it was clear that the floating pop-up widget was responsible for the increase in the number of transactions. Seventy-eight percent of questions were now being received through it (see Figure 4). Heavy instant-message volume acted to drive down the use of other service points. For example, in spring 2022, instant messaging accounted for 81.3% of questions, with email dropping to 16.1%, a decrease of more than half compared to the previous year. Phone calls dropped to less than 1% of our total questions in the same time period.


The volume of questions coming in was now, as we predicted, too much for one librarian to handle effectively. In fall 2021, after a review of LibChat statistics, a backup shift was added to busier times of the day. However, it quickly became clear that two librarians would need to be covering instant messaging during most of our operating time. For the spring 2022 semester, two librarians would cover all shifts except those happening early in the morning, during late afternoons, and on Wednesday nights. As many UMGC classes have assignments due on Tuesday nights, Wednesday is traditionally the slowest day, with traffic heaviest Sunday through Tuesday. The highest number of questions are received on Tuesdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., so three librarians are needed for several weeks mid-semester during this time.

Due to the nature of UMGC’s 8-week semesters, there is a period of time mid-semester in which more than two sessions are running concurrently. The busiest time is during sessions one and two, when there is overlap. Our quietest time, besides semester breaks, is after session two ends, and only session three is running. In order to accommodate more shifts, our paraprofessionals were given shifts, and librarians’ other duties were deprioritized to allow more time for backups. In order to create more time and reach more students, our library instruction program was also reconfigured and streamlined. For example, longer and heavily attended webinars have taken the place of embedded and one-shot instruction sessions. Enhanced help pages and videos are available to help students navigate the library and perform research.

Figure 1: Embedded chat widget
Figure 2: Floating chat widget / Figure 3: Impact on number of questions
Figure 4: Mode of query / Figure 5: Referring widget

Other Challenges

Handling Multiple Chats

Besides doubling and tripling coverage on shifts, there are several other ways to cope when traffic becomes overwhelming. During business hours, if librarians are on by themselves or if they have backup and are still overwhelmed, they can email all reference team members asking for additional help. In most cases, one to two other librarians will be free to log on and assist with incoming chats. On weekends, using LibChat’s “away” or “internal” settings is the next best option. When set to “away,” new chats are received, but patrons get a message that the librarian is busy, and they then have the option to leave an email message. Setting to “internal” stops new chats from being received, and users are given a message that the librarian is busy or offline, with the opportunity to email their question.

A final option is for librarians to let a chat go unanswered; after 30 seconds, the patron will receive the busy message previously noted, and it will become a “missed chat.” If a student enters an email address when initiating the chat, a ticket is automatically created by LibAnswers so that a librarian can follow up when they are free. LibChat’s helpful “canned messages” feature also allows librarians to save time by being able to automatically insert commonly used phrases, questions, and answers into the chat from a preset list. Based on anecdotal reports from patrons, when a librarian sends a canned message letting a user know he or she is juggling multiple chats and will help them as soon as they can, the majority do not appear to mind waiting.

Proactive Timing

Even with these measures and the staffing changes implemented, librarians have had difficulty keeping up with the increased demand for help. As previously noted, transaction statistics continue to climb into the spring semester, ultimately increasing by 124% over the previous year. We do not have enough staffers to add more coverage or, at present, the ability to hire more librarians or paraprofessionals. As a result, the library experimented with lengthening the delay before the floating chat box appears. The time was first increased to 25 seconds, then reduced to 20 seconds and finally 15 seconds. At 25 seconds, the number of questions decreased by 37%. At 20 seconds, traffic decreased by 33%. At 15 seconds, there was not a noticeable decrease from 10 seconds. This led to speculation that many users visiting the homepage were quickly using the EBSCO Discovery Service  ( EDS ) search box and leaving before noticing the instant-message widget at the longer delay times. As a result, the proactive widget was added to all of the EBSCO databases as a way to balance overall traffic, recapture some of what was lost from site pages, and meet the many users transitioning quickly to EDS.

A 45-second delay was implemented on the EBSCO pages to give researchers a chance to review their search results before being prompted to chat with a librarian. Near the end of the spring 2022 semester, the widget was also added to ProQuest database pages. As of May 2022, when writing this article, a sustainable balance has been achieved, taking into account the current number of librarians available for staffing. For the spring 2022 semester, 43.02% of chats were originating from the library website floating box, 38.72% from ProQuest or EBSCO database pages, and 17.81% from the library website’s embedded widget (see Figure 5).

Future Implications

In the near future, the library plans to add the floating widget to other high-use database pages. It will continue looking at customized timing of different instances of the widget to maximize their local utility to users and manage the further increase in question volume this will likely bring. Initially, there was a slight decrease in patron ratings of their instant-messaging experiences as volume increased, but this appears to have been alleviated through librarians becoming more comfortable at managing multiple chats. This is an issue we will continue to track as availability of the widget expands. Accessibility remains an ongoing concern; hopefully, the issues with the pop-up widget can be addressed so that the static widget can be eliminated, freeing up space on the page for other uses. Overall, the use of proactive instant messaging is highly recommended as a way to improve the visibility of reference services to users and to quickly and substantially increase patron engagement and use of library services.


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Costello, L. and Kimura, A. (2021). “Right-Sizing Proactive Chat Reference Service Using Trigger Time.” Reference Librarian, 62(3–4), 193–206.

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Warner, A., Hurley, D.A., Wheeler, J., and Quinn, T. (2020). “Proactive Chat in Research Databases: Inviting New and Different Questions.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, 46(2). .102134

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Julie Harding ( is the assistant director for public services at University of Maryland Global Campus. Her research areas of interest include open educational resources, virtual reference services, and ethnographic studies on searching behaviors.

Ryan Shepard ( is a reference and instruction librarian at University of Maryland Global Campus. His research interests include user experience design for libraries, social networks as a tool for public history research and advocacy, and the digital afterlives of analog media

Colleen Quinn ( is a reference and instruction librarian at University of Maryland Global Campus. Her research areas of interest include virtual reference services, information literacy, and online education.