One Library's Experience with Live, Virtual Reference

Article excerpt


The McGoogan Library of Medicine offered a live, virtual reference service to the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) community and to the general public from July 2002 to February 2004. This communication is a brief account of our library's experience with this service and the reasons for discontinuing it.


During the early years of the twenty-first century, we, like most librarians, noticed the dramatic increase in the number of library-based, virtual reference services offered across the United States and the world. We decided to try using virtual reference technology to reach our distance faculty and students. We obtained funding for this service through the UNMC Educational Technology Small Grant Program.

We chose the Virtual Reference ToolKit software from Library Systems & Services (LSSI) . Like all other synchronous virtual reference products, the LSSI software would allow us to provide real-time, Internet chat service. The LSSI product also provided a combined chat and co-browsing feature that would allow the librarian to escort the user to the appropriate electronic resources. In addition, LSSI's product included a virtual classroom feature that would make it possible to provide synchronous instruction to multiple remote users, regardless of their location.

We named our virtual reference service AskMac. To promote the new service: (1) we placed an announcement in UNMC's all-campus newsletter; (2) we distributed AskMac promotional and informational items during the student orientation for fall 2002; (3) we gave AskMac demonstrations in library classes held both on and off campus for students, faculty, public librarians, and residents of Nebraska; and (4) we placed an AskMac button, linked to the AskMac service entry page, on every page of the library's Website.

Initially, we offered AskMac service twenty-two hours per week with two-hour shifts rotated among six librarians. In May 2003, we expanded the service to thirty-five hours per week. Commitment from those directly involved and their belief in the service was a major factor in the expansion of the service. No additional staff members were used to expand the service hours.

In June 2003, we noticed a marked increase in technical problems. These problems occurred concurrently with the purchase of the Reference Division of LSSI (including Virtual Reference ToolKit) by [1]. The librarians who staffed AskMac were frequently dropped from the Virtual Reference ToolKit server and forced to spend half an hour or more trying to log back in. During these times, the service was unavailable to users. To make matters worse, the co-browsing feature of the software did not work consistently, and librarians were frequently forced to rely on the "chat" function of the software alone. By September 2003, the vendor appeared to have resolved these issues.

In July 2003, we attempted to conduct a library training class using the software. Unfortunately, the bibliographic databases and presentation slides needed to teach the class did not work with the software at class time. Perhaps most significantly, the invited users were not able to enter the "classroom." The failure of this virtual classroom experiment was a real disappointment. One of our primary reasons for exploring a virtual reference service had been our desire to provide synchronous instruction in the many homes of our distance students.

Much of our displeasure with the LSSI product stemmed from unexpected difficulties like the never-improved, extreme slowness of the product's chat function. However, some of our irritation was generated by known shortcomings of the product. For example, we learned that the software was incompatible with pop-up boxes when we were trained on the software. Initially, this inconvenience was not major. Then, we implemented two pop-up heavy improvements in our library's electronic services. …