Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Do You Want to Chat? Reevaluating Organization of Virtual Reference Service at an Academic Library

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Do You Want to Chat? Reevaluating Organization of Virtual Reference Service at an Academic Library

Article excerpt

Since their inception, virtual reference services have evolved considerably and are now a significant component of library services in many types of library environments. The current paper reports on a study undertaken at a research-intensive academic library that analyzed and evaluated a decade-old virtual reference service. The main goal of the study was to obtain a broad and comprehensive picture of the current service, grounded in the actual day-to-day provision, usage, and organization of the service. The group of librarians involved in the study developed a feasible, efficient, and adaptable methodology for assessing and evaluating a virtual reference service. The developed methodology that combines qualitative and quantitative methods can be used and applied for a similar evaluation of the service in any type of library environment.

SERVICE HISTORY

McGill University is located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the largest francophone city in North America and home to people of many languages and cultures. McGill University is an English-speaking research-intensive university with a student population of 39,500 enrolled in more than three hundred programs of study that include the social sciences, sciences, medicine, law, engineering, religion, and the humanities, with a strong continuing education program offering hundreds of courses in various areas of interest. McGill also has the highest percentage of PhD students of any Canadian research university. (1) McGill University Library offers public services primarily using a liaison librarian model. Designated librarians are responsible for meeting the reference, instructional, and collection needs of one or more departments. All branch libraries are located on the downtown campus, with the exception of one branch library located on the Macdonald Campus on the outskirts of the city. A single service point model is used in all branches with library support staff being responsible for answering questions at front-line service points and librarians being on call for questions requiring professional skills to answer. Statistics are taken during select sampling weeks throughout the year using LibAnalytics. During the most recent sampling week (February 15-21, 2016), there were 1,929 questions asked in person, via email, and by phone at library service points and directly to librarians. Additionally, 129 chat and email questions were asked via the library's virtual reference service during the same week.

Virtual reference service has become an important component of the reference services offered at McGill University Library. It is currently offered by fifty-six public services librarians from all branch libraries providing reference assistance in English and French to students, faculty, staff, and the general public. When the service was first introduced at McGill in 2006, QuestionPoint, an OCLC product, was selected as the virtual reference platform. At the time, QuestionPoint was one of the leading products on the market, thereby ensuring expeditious implementation of the service. The primary goal of virtual reference at McGill was the extension of reference services generally offered by phone or in person at service desks. Virtual reference service offers a highly visible access point to users in real time at their point of need. When the service was implemented, it was believed that users, particularly students, would find chat useful since they were already using this form of technology to communicate among themselves. It was also considered a means of offering "ready reference" rather than in-depth subject-specific assistance. It was decided to channel reference questions received via the central library email through the QuestionPoint platform as well. All public services librarians in branch libraries across the system were involved in answering email and chat questions received through the virtual reference platform. To ensure the quality of service, an initial training program for all public services librarians was organized. …

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