Brief encounters in cyber space

Do users really care if it is a librarian or someone else who answers their questions? Probably not, if the answer is considered satisfactory.

How and why the Library of the National Institute for Working Life (Arbetslivsbiblioteket) set up an interactive reference chat service called Phibi and some thoughts on what public libraries might do.

In 1999, the Library of the National Institute for Working Life in Sweden started to consider a new way to communicate with its users. Seeing that the users had difficulties in reading and understanding the bibliographic references in the web based catalogue, the need for interactive communication was becoming more and more obvious. How could the library reach its users at the very moment they were sitting in front of their computers looking at a reference of a document in the catalogue or surfing on the library web site?

A project was launched to look into what users of the Internet thought about new technology in services on the net. This study showed that they were in fact very quick to use new technology if it made it easier for them to get what they wanted or was more convenient. Following this, a survey was conducted of how libraries were acting on the Internet in respect of reference work and examples of chat services were studied. All software products on the market and seen on the Internet were American or English, and often in test or in unfinished stages.
The systems at hand had very little to do with how libraries worked as most systems had their foundation in customer support for commercial companies. It was decided that a solution for the library of the National Institute for Working Life would have to be built from scratch. The system developed had to be in Swedish, a library solution, and simple to use for both library users and library staff.
At the beginning of the project, some concerns were voiced, for instance:

The users seemed to be ready to use chat, but would librarians really accept this way of communication with the users? Chat compared with other ways of communication in reference work e.g. e-mail, fax, or telephone was discussed. Eventually it seemed that chat reference would only be a new way to establish contact and that the staff could at any time decide if they wanted to continue the reference dialogue in another medium by suggesting this to the user.

Would this be a more stressful way of meeting the user? The software was installed on all library personnel computers about four months before starting the live service. This allowed the staff to chat with each other, testing the software and learning gradually how to handle the reference process. Before starting, there were only two days of actual training, one day of technical training and one with different user scenarios and case studies. After some testing, it was found that more than two users at the same time would be impossible to handle. (The librarian on duty can easily set the number of concurrent chats in the software). Doing work that needs more concentration is not easy if you at the same time have to be on duty in reference chat, and a schedule with two hours duty shifts in the system has been implemented.

The library was the first Swedish library to offer chat reference on the Internet in October 2000. In addition, it was targeted not to a limited user group but to all Swedes interested in information on working life issues. The potential user group is in other words huge.

A code of practice was discussed before going live and questions about ethics, ambition and quality preliminarily decided. This is still an ongoing process as the service develops. At the beginning the library was unsure of the expectations from the users and the users’ behaviour.

The library has now gained some experience having used the interactive reference chat for about a year and a half. More and more users use this way for contacting the library. They are often users we have had no previous communication with. On average 50 users per week ask questions in Phibi.

Working with reference in a library you really have to expect the unexpected. It puts a higher demand on librarians to learn a lot about using the electronic reference resources on the Internet. Using techniques like pushing pages to the user with suggested answers, quick assessments of the quality of Internet resources must be done. Every subject based-index to Internet resources and especially those based on librarians working together are immensely useful in the reference work.

Time is another important factor in reference chat. Users need to know what librarians are doing at their end of the system and the time users are willing to wait vary, but a system like reference chat has expectations of quick answers. In some instances people new to chatting start off by writing very long messages to explain their question. The librarian must at an appropriate time decide if the question is better handled on the phone or by e-mail and suggest this to the user.

A system like Phibi is not real ly limited to be just a lib rarian – user communication. The same technical set-up can be used as a support function in general or as a way to g ive students and teachers a platform for communication, especially in relation to distance education.

Phibi has proved to be a way for the library to improve the possibilities of communication, of meeting its users at the very moment they ask for service and without a doubt it has stimulated a discussion of how the library should work with reference and user interaction in the future.

Chat and public libraries
Using chat includes questions concerning staffing, training, opening hours, ambition and quality. All of these questions need to be answered but the possibilities offered also have to be considered. Among these are greater availability, new and often interesting meetings with new user groups or people not used to library environments, the interactivity which offers better dialogue possibilities than e-mail and so on.

Forming public library consortia to be able to create more generous service hours and to increase the knowledge base are partly solutions to staffing and quality issues.One problem is that librarians in one town don’t know very much of another town’s local issues, and users would not get any answers in the chat. A combination of both local and factual or subject specialist chats might be the answer instead of a consortia solution. A local public library might contribute with local knowledge and build a chat service from this point of view. Questions of a more general character could be handled by an information specialist sitting anywhere in the country.

Another question to address is how to handle document requests nationally. Can a user get the suggested documents even though the local library doesn’t have them in its collection? And what about delivery delays? Perhaps seeking the answer in the print collection is not the best way to help online. Using the possibility to push Internet pages to the user so a new browser window will show what the librarian is talking about and suggesting, is a more efficient answer on the net. The importance of Internet as a reference resource increases in a chat reference. This often leads to considerations of free access or paid for resources. Clear and precise criteria concerning quality etc.must be a priority issue for a library setting up a chat reference service on the Internet.

Considering the possibilities of a chat system, you could in the future see a web site of a public library having not only the catalogue with self-service options but also the chat with a librarian, locally or nationally depending on the question. The local public library might also offer a special page with links to books and articles, with experts on newly published books by local authors, perhaps an interview as streaming audio or video. How many public libraries have established co-operation with a local radio or TV stations about the possibility of broadcasting on the Internet? The library also offers the ‘meet the author’ chat and interview. A local expert answering users’ questions about history etc. in chat at a weekly specified time advertised on the library web page etc.

Internet is a tool for communication. Are libraries interactively communicating with their use rs on the net? Yes, we are starting to. Are users communicating and helping each other with questions they would be b etter off asking a librarian? Oh yes, be sure they do. Do we as librarians need to answer all questions or can we simply encourage our users to open a dialogue with ea ch other? Chat rooms initiated by libraries with librarians involved? Do users really care if it is a librarian or someone else who answers their questions? Probably not, if the answer is considered satisfactory.

Libraries must create and show off the possibilities of library services in the brief moments when users surf on their web sites and from this encounter be able to build and sustain a lifelong relation with the user. This increases the value of the library as a whole in its local and national role as knowledge centre in a networked society.

Library director, National Institute for Working Life, Sweden.