Virtual Reference

I’m going to have a go at this. I’ve been poring over this article most of the morning. The guy who wrote it is a very important v-ref guy; he works at LSSI, the people who brought us the most expensive virtual reference software package ever. It can do it all; multiple seats (i.e., multiple librarians on at once), pushing urls, co-browsing (which is a fancy way of saying that the librarian can remotely control the user’s computer), and other fancy things. I will even leave aside my ethical problems with some of these features for the moment.

This article is so negative and missing some key points. The argument is based on faulty logic and a desire to blame the user rather than looking at a) the technology, b) the developers, and c) the people behind the desk answering the questions.

You can’t pick at v-ref without looking at reference services in general. The numbers are going down everywhere. People are less willing than they used to be to ask a librarian a question, whether they’re coming in on foot, picking up the phone or using the v-ref service. Why is that? You can’t blame technology for half of a problem like that.

There are lots of possible reasons for the decline in reference stats. The one I like to harp on most is reputational; why would a member of a community come to a librarian when most people believe that librarianship is a trade? We laugh about the way people think we have no education, that girl who commented that she wasn’t doing so well in school, so maybe she would drop out of undergrad and go to library school. If that’s the level people think we’re at, why would they come to us in the first place? You can’t blame a service for not enticing users if your product is lacklustre. Are we lacklustre? No. But people don’t know who we are, what we are, and what we can do. Before reference services can get a boost, we need to explain ourselves.

In this article, Coffman and Arret claim that “More important, the underlying chat technology that powered many live commercial reference services has also failed to find broad acceptance on the Web.” This is really interesting. Please, tell that to the millions of users of AIM, MSN messenger, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, Trillian, Jabber, and my personal favourite, ichat, are part of such a tiny niche market that they can be overlooked. Coffman and Arret are using the business world as their base of users to inpretret “broad acceptance”. This feels like the arguments around open source software; the fact is that chat services don’t produce income, so businesses find themselves less interested in them. Letting people talk to each other about whatever they want is not something that generates income. In fact, technical support doesn’t generate income either. Just because services aren’t interested in supporting customer questions in the way they probably should be doesn’t seem like a good argument for or against chat services to me.

And in the end, what is a library transaction? Coffman and Arret cliam that “the general public has yet to accept chat as a means of communications for business dealings and other more formal transactions.” Is reference a category of business dealings? Or a more formal transaction? Is it more like casual chat, or more like online banking? As Jennifer says, know what business you’re in. What business are we in? What model are we emulating here?

While Coffman and Arret make the grand claim that the corporate world isn’t into chat, even that’s not true. Every major free chat service provider (AIM, Yahoo, MSN, etc.) have profitable corporate arms that build business chat services solutions for interoffice communications. If chat is so unpopular in general, why do these services make so much money? Perhaps the problem isn’t the technology but its implementation when it comes to customer service. How much buy in do we have? How prepared are we to actually do this right?

V-ref isn’t difficult, but what librarians tend to not understand is that chatting online is not the same as writing an email. Chatting is chatting, and v-ref is more like verbal communication written down than it is like composing a dissertation on a question. Conversation is an easy back and forth, with frequent interjections. Chat communications should take the form of short sentences, not paragraphs. When librarians get trained on v-ref, they learn the software but not the tricks that make it really work. If we treated our phone questions the way we treat v-ref, I’m sure those numbers would go down too. Would we take 10 minutes to consider an answer on the phone, not saying anything, just holding the phone while flipping through a source, waiting come up with the perfect answer before opening our mouths? Probably not. Could this lack of understanding about how to conduct a v-ref interview have an impact on our numbers? I wouldn’t be surprised.

I think the problems are rife in this v-ref business, from attitudes to marketing and even the technology. Too much time has been spent on creating features like the (highly unethical) co-browsing and not enough on integrating the system into the real life of a librarian. If I had my way I’d re-write the whole thing from top to bottom. I would integrate an in-house messenger system with an external one, so that everyone is always on the v-ref software. It’s there when you log on, and if you have a quick question for, say, the music librarian, you can contact her directly that way. You can do that from your desk when you’re doing collecitons work, or you can do it from the reference desk when someone has a quick question. Virtual reference could have the effect of linking service points, opening up our points of contact both to the public and to ourselves. I would then have a point person who lets their IM go “live”, become visible on the internet at large instead of just the intranet, and let that person field the questions, with the ability to easily ask other librarians across the entire system, or transfer a patron to someone else. That way even if the v-ref is totally dead on a given day, the software is still fulfilling a need.

I could go on. And on and on. But this is probably enough for now.