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Leveling Up on Chat Reference

Our library recently joined AskMN, the Minnesota cooperative of OCLC’s global QuestionPoint service. On the one hand, this is extremely exciting. We get to donate a few hours per week to the “global queue,” answering questions that people at other academic institutions ask but whose own librarians are either busy or gone for the day. In return, we get 24/7 chat reference service for our patrons provided by the cooperative. Pretty sweet deal!

On the other hand, the experience of providing chat reference services to people I can’t see at institutions I don’t know has been a nerve-wracking and humbling one for me so far. The institutions in the cooperative leave us a cheat sheet of sorts, so we know their link resolver information, their loan rules, etc, so we’re not totally flying blind, but some schools provide more information than others, and some schools have very few resources available in the first place. So every time I hear that “ding” that tells me there’s a new patron waiting in the queue my heart races a little bit, my hands get a bit sweaty, and I’m thrown right back to my very first days staffing reference desks where every approaching patron was simultaneously a thrill and a terror. Will I be able to figure this out with the patron? Will they lose all respect for me if I take a wrong step along the way? The chances of failure seem so very high. Each success is its own day-making victory. And no matter how many successes I have in a week, they all seem to get categorized in my brain as the exception to the rule that I’ll probably fail the next person.

I’ve tried various strategies during my shifts. “I’ll pick up questions that I pretty much know I’ll be able to answer without trouble” didn’t last long. There aren’t many of those, and I don’t want to be a bad colleague and leave everyone else to answer all the questions while I sit on the side being scared. Also, if you take too much time to read and think about the answer before picking up the question, another librarian will swoop in and get it. Or rather, they’ll pick up the ones you wish you could have picked up while the super convoluted questions sit there and sit there, taunting you, explaining your guilt and fear to you in minute detail.

“I’ll pick up any question, without even looking to see what the question is first” also didn’t last long. Basically, I couldn’t make myself do it more than a couple of times because frankly, I’m not a terrific data librarian and that happened to be the subject of one of the first questions I got under this new resolution. Luckily “refer to patron’s institution” exists in QuestionPoint!

Today as I took what I know about databases in general and how they interact with EndNote and slowly, slowly walked a patron in Connecticut through importing references from a database I don’t have and can’t see into an EndNote installation I also can’t see (we did it! Victory!), I realized three things:

  1. The bedrock basics of reference work is the same — even though I feel more like I’m working alone than I do when I’m at our physical reference desk, and therefore more pressure to get the question answered thoroughly all in one shot, I’m actually still conducting the same pattern of work: “Let me get you started, at least, and then set you up with an expert afterwards if needed.” I need to remember that.
  2. Just like in face-to-face reference, a lot of customer service has to do with being good natured and generally cheerful, even if you have NO idea what’s going on (and it turns out that the patron has been secretly clicking on something you didn’t realize he would click on, especially since you said to click on something else, and THAT’S why he keeps saying he doesn’t see what you’re seeing). I always say my job is about 90% bluff (“SURE I can help you find that thing I’ve never heard of…”). The same is true online. I need to remember that.
  3. I really love face-to-face reference in a library I know well. But I can do it other ways too. I need to remember that.
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  1. I’ll bet you’ll soon see questions from my students here at Baruch some time soon. We keep the cooperative on its toes with all of our business research questions. But we’ve gotten our payback with questions about engineering, medicine, etc. I remember once being asked by an engineering student to translate into German the names of different kinds of I-beams (who knew there was more than one kind? so that he could search for info about them on a German website. I’ve learned over the years not to try to be too heroic in my efforts to solve the problem or answer the question fully; referrals back to the patron’s library are not only a source of relief to me but also a check on my hubris (or my desire to be more helpful than I’m really capable of being).

    One thing that I really love about cooperative chat reference is being forced to use the websites of other libraries The experience has given me a lot of perspective on the design choices we’ve made at MPOW. As someone who is involved in the design of our library site, having to navigate different library sties has made me much more empathetic to our users, as I’m forced to confront a library website (and its attendant array of services and resources being advertised) in a less-than-expert manner.

  2. Oh man, Business reference is one of those things I know almost nothing about. How’s this, you pick up business questions and leave the lit crit questions for me? Deal? ;-)

  3. Actually, as an English major, I’d be happy to take a crack at more lit crit questions. If you get stuck with business questions, our research guides are pretty good:

    What would really trip me up is legal reference. That’s my weak spot.

  4. megan b megan b

    The other thing to always have in your back pocket re EndNote: their tech support over the phone is hands-down the BEST tech support I have had the pleasure of using. They are just so so good.

  5. Maura Smyth Maura Smyth

    You’ve beautifully captured the experience of an AskMN novice. The one thing I’d add is the etiquette difference between chat and face-to-face interactions. Some chatters just go away without a word once you’ve answered their question – or, at least, you THINK you’ve answered it. It’s like being hung up on, which feels weird/rude. Imagine if they did that at the reference desk – just stood up and walked away without a word when they had what they needed. :)

  6. Stephen, we won’t even mention legal reference. I prefer to pretend it doesn’t even exist.

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