Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A Class Assignment Requiring Chat-Based Reference

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A Class Assignment Requiring Chat-Based Reference

Article excerpt

An instructor in a scholarly writing course assigned her students to use the library chat-based reference service. Interacting with these students required a different set of skills and strategies on the part of the librarians than those used in self- generated chat sessions, largely because the assignment included a significant instruction component involving the selection of a paper topic. Differences between self-generated and assignment-required chat patrons, observations, and data from chat sessions involving significant instruction activity, and long-term implications for service when class assignments require use of the service are examined. Recommendations for enhancing staff training, for managing future assignments, and for areas of further research are suggested.


Since the advent of chat-based reference, librarians have been observing and measuring the patterns of use of this new service. Patrons use real-time services for a variety of applications, ranging from inquiries about library hours and services to in-depth reference questions, and in some cases are encouraged to restrict usage to these manageable queries. (1) Librarians have discussed the merits of translating instruction to the chat format. (2) The Florida Distance Learning Reference and Referral Center (RRC) has used chat-based services for delivery of group instruction to an online-only course. (3) To date, libraries have not reported the experiences of handling a class assignment involving required use of a chat-based reference service, especially not one that includes a significant one-to-one instruction component such as the selection of a paper topic. This case study offers observations from one library's experience with an unexpected assignment requiring students to use the chat-based reference service, and a list of issues to enable other libraries to prepare for a similar experience. The terms used throughout this study are defined in table 1.

Current reference research literature identifies two varieties of queries: self-generated, in which the real user interacts directly with librarians; and imposed, in which the person interacting with librarians is seeking information on behalf of or under the direction of another individual. Class assignments fall into the category of imposed queries, in which the instructor formulates the assignment and leaves the student to contribute to the process of obtaining information. (4)

The frequency with which self-generated use of a chat-based reference service is intended to complete a self-generated or an imposed query is beyond the scope of this case study. The authors do not assume that frequency would vary substantially from those choosing face-to-face, telephone, or e-mail methods of seeking assistance. The authors' analysis of transcripts and assignment texts arose from the assumption that patrons who were required to use a chat-based service ("class-assigned sessions") would differ from those who choose to use the chat-based reference service voluntarily ("self-generated sessions"), whether in response to a self-generated or an imposed query.


What follows are the results of a retrospective case study. The course instructor controlled the assignment parameters, such as the setting and timing of the assignment, the sharing of the submitted assignment responses, and changes made in subsequent semesters. The lack of comprehensive data and the ex post facto decision to examine the existing data limited the reach of the analysis to a case study. Many of the findings are anecdotal, but the experience of handling a required assignment through chat was unique and offers insights into both patron and staff behavior.

A summary of the experience and the case study method:

1. The instructor experienced a satisfactory reference chat session for her personal work. She assigned her large class to "chat" as the format for receiving instruction, rather than assigning face-to-face transactions or inviting a librarian to speak to her class. …

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