Virtual Reference

It seems all aspects of the library have been affected by technology, and reference look-ups are no exception.  You don’t even have to go to the library – or pick up the phone to call them – in order to get a reference question answered now.  Many libraries – both public and academic – have an “Ask a Librarian” feature where you can actually ‘click here’ to actually ask a librarian a question in real time.  Partly due to curiosity, I had to check this out, so I found a public library within the state and another library that offered the service to both public and academic users – and 24/7/365 to boot!  I was pleasantly surprised with how fast I got a response once I clicked the little button.

In talking to the librarian at the library who offered the 24/7/365 service, I found out that they are part of a statewide consortium, and if there is no one available immediately, the question winds up in an email and will get a response as soon as possible. While I went into this thinking along the lines of a “virtual reference” as in a user looking for information on a subject more than just a directional or basic information question, I was surprised to find out that the majority of the questions that get asked (at least at the Seattle Public Library) are related to ebooks or to users’ accounts.  All told, they answer roughly 3300 questions a month via chat and/or email.  That’s impressive, in my opinion. He was even able to open up another window that I could see which was the site for the consortium they belonged too.

I did a little more “traditional” reference question with the librarian at the Monroe County Public Library: I asked if they had any information on Arctic wolves.  The librarian on the other end was quick to respond with, “is this for a child, an adult, personal interest, or (yes, I was asked this) pet tips?”  to which I answered: “I can give you a “pet tip” – they DON’T make good pets!”  (For a minute, I thought I had actually gotten my instructor in the librarian role, since he knew I had wolfdogs.)  I did get a ‘hahaha’ in response.  He did offer the title of a book, but then realized that it was more of a juvenile book than an adult one.  Since answering virtual reference questions is part of his duties at the circulation desk, the face to face customers are going to take precedence over the “virtual” ones …. and after a few minutes, I was starting to feel bad for taking up time that he could be using for actual users rather than a student who was just trying to complete an assignment.  I thanked him for his help, and let him get on about his day, after he assured me that they did have books about wolves and arctics were probably in there and there were books about Alaskan wildlife too.

Overall, I found the “Ask a Librarian” feature that is offered by more and more libraries today to be easy to use.  The response time was fairly good, and the questions that I had were answered in a timely manner as well.  Even though our public library doesn’t have this feature per-say, there is the option to email the respective person in each library area to ask a question.  The Ivy Tech campuses all have the “Ask a Librarian” feature – maybe someday, I’ll give them a try as well.



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