Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Transaction Handoffs: Factors Affecting the Transition from Chat to E-Mail

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Transaction Handoffs: Factors Affecting the Transition from Chat to E-Mail

Article excerpt

This article describes a content analysis of virtual reference transcripts taken from the NCknows virtual reference service. The analysis sought to determine why librarians consider some questions to be unanswerable at the time they are submitted by users. Questions were coded by a classification of question causes and by how complete the reference interview was in the transaction. The transcripts were then coded according to the reasons given for ending the chat early. The analysis showed that most reference interviews were incomplete and that the most common explanation for why librarians could not answer questions at the time was that they were already busy assisting other users. The study indicates that more North Carolina librarians should be hired to staff the service and that librarians should make a greater effort to conduct a complete reference interview so that more questions can be answered while users are still online.

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Reference's primary function is to provide users answers when and how they need them. Chat reference services assist users from anywhere with an Internet connection where librarians can send users information immediately. Occasionally librarians cannot answer questions when received because of time constraints, because necessary resources are unavailable, or because questions require referrals. Librarians may then send answers to users' e-mails.

This paper examines why librarians staffing the NCknows chat reference service are sometimes unable to answer questions when received by focusing on three questions: (1) What types of questions are answered later through e-mail?; (2) How complete are the reference interviews?; and (3), Why do transactions end prematurely? Librarians may use the e-mail response option when questions require more time or resources than are available when the question is received. A content analysis was conducted on unfinished reference transactions of questions submitted to the NCknows reference service from January to February 2005. By minimizing situations that make certain questions difficult to answer while users are still online, NCknows will be an effective form of reference that users can rely on for their information needs.

Digital reference services help remote users locate useful information sources. These services draw questions from users who may have never used library reference, as some users are concerned about anonymity, and others cannot visit libraries. Whether it is distance, a handicap, privacy concerns, or scheduling issues that prevent users from accessing libraries, virtual reference services tear down these restrictive walls, assisting users in any location and increasingly at all times of the day.

Librarians can also send users information later. If users disconnect prematurely, librarians can send them e-mails requesting more information. Librarians also have more flexibility to respond if more time is needed to answer questions. Once users log off, they receive a transcript of the chat session that can be consulted later.

But even virtual reference services' proponents concede that there are drawbacks. Bibliographic instruction has always been an important aspect of reference, but chat service technology often hinders librarians' attempts to teach users search skills. Not all services permit co-browsing, while Web sites and proprietary databases often prevent it. When librarians send e-mail responses, the search process becomes solely the librarians' responsibility. For users to learn how answers were found, librarians must type the search strategy

Librarians staffing virtual reference services without co-browsing compensate by typing out searches, which is very time-consuming. Questions requiring only a few minutes of time at the desk may require nearly fifteen minutes for librarians to find an answer and then explain in text. (1) On average, NCknows chat sessions last 13. …

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