At the IFLA conference in Glasgow last year, the project was presented by chief librarian Ivar Haug from the Vestfold County Library. The response indicated that this is the right way to go. Starting out on a smaller scale gives one the chance to supervise the service more closely. As the librarians all knew each other, trying out a new way of reference was within safe borders. It was easy to get the group together and to discuss the new challenges. The experience gained was very valuable when expanding the service and going national with the project.
Experience from the pilot project The program used in the project is LivePerson Pro. There was only one license in the beginning, but we now operate with three. In the event of heavy traffic resulting in queues, other librarians can be called in to answer questions. The program has proven very reliable, but now that the librarians are beginning to feel at home with this new method of reference work, we are also looking into other programs. Experience from the pilot project indicated that the library should be of a certain size and not too small. Small public libraries in Norway are very often managed and run by one librarian. With limited opening hours and staff, smaller libraries are very vulnerable to unexpected events. To those wishing to join the main project we emphasised the importance of each library being able to cover its own shift, which includes having librarians who could step in and take over when needed. This means that a shift for bibliotekvakten. no must be worked into the weekly schedule and must be covered despite meetings, illness, holidays and the like.
Collaboration and management
Bibliotekvakten.no is managed by the Vestfold County Library and supported by the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority. The service is free and requires no form of membership, password or downloading of any special software programs. It is open to anyone with access to the Web, independent of municipality or county.
Bibliotekvakten.no is a voluntary cooperation on a national basis between medium-sized and large public libraries. There are 14 libraries altogether, consisting of 2 county libraries and 12 public libraries, among them the three largest public libraries in Norway. There is close co-operation with the Oslo Public Library. Starting at the homepage of bibliotekvakten.no, one can choose chat or e-mail. All the emails sent to bibliotekvakten.no go directly to the Oslo Public Library and its well-established e-mail service ‘Spør biblioteket’ (Ask the Library).
It is important to co-operate on these kinds of services. What happens behind the scenes at a library is hidden from public notice and in general they only consider that aspect of the service when something is missing. It is the same with virtual reference services. The public are not interested in where the librarian works; they are only interested in getting the right answers. Working closely together with other libraries can also be an eye-opener. We can learn from each other, get new ideas and be more aware of how we do the job. The libraries are not being paid for joining the project. Each library has added another task to the timetable within the daily schedules. What the library gets in return for participating is an acquisition of expertise and the experience of meeting the users on the Web.
Another important aspect is the fact that this is a national service. It is not restricted to certain areas.We have had very positive feedback from people living in small municipalities and remote areas. They can now contact a librarian even if their local library is closed for the day. Norway is characterised by its many small municipalities separated by great distances and with small libraries. In such areas there may well be limited opening hours.
Bibliotekvakten.no is open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 4 pm and is therefore a service in addition to the local library. It is essential to collaborate in order to give the same service to all, regardless of where they live. Everyone in the country should have the same, easy access to information.
It is not an alternative but a supplement to the library as we know it. People will always need the library building in order to browse through the shelves and obtain face-to-face help from the local librarian. Primarily, the virtual reference service is for those people who cannot make it to a library and who have no time to wait for an answer by e-mail. We have an ongoing user survey and the response to the virtual reference project has been overwhelmingly positive. The response confirms our belief that the service is both needed and much appreciated.
Many people spend hours in front of a computer. The screen is their window to the world and we connect today by communication on the World Wide Web. The library has to rethink how it meets its users.We cannot expect people to come to the library, when what they want is information that exists on the Internet.We have to be willing to meet our users at the virtual reference desk.
A new day begins when the librarian logs on to the Internet and connects with the chat program. It has been stressed that the PC should have loudspeakers, since it can be a strain on the eyes, if one has to look closely at the screen all the time.
We have to shelter librarians when chatting. They must be placed out of reach of the visitors to the library, both those coming to the library and those who contact the library by telephone. Their first priority is chatting. It is the same as when you are on duty in the library. You can take other jobs with you to the desk, but your attention is always directed towards the users.
Hi, what can I do for you?
People who use the chat service are anonymous. The librarian has no idea what the person on the other side is like, whether man or woman, old or young. This means that you have to be active in using the reference interview. When working in the library one meets the user face to face and it is easy to assess what the person is like.We can all make judgements according to gender and age. This is part of the challenge when chatting. One has to ask and make sure one understands the question. By asking the right questions you should be able to come to a conclusion as to what the user actually wants. Chatting is very good for narrowing down the question and coming to the core of the enquiry.
We cannot judge by body language and the way things are being said.We have to focus on the question. Chatting is a verbal-written kind of conversation. It is closer to talking than writing, but has not acquired the abbreviations one finds in SMS-language. Users expect instant, appropriate and efficient answers. It may be strange in the beginning to provide the reference through chat, but once one feels comfortable with the method of communication, the core of the service comes down to good old reference work. One of the challenges is keeping the conversation going while searching for the right answer.
It is a new way of meeting the user and it can feel somewhat like a real live reference interaction.We must not forget that some people communicate better online. It is communication in realtime and one can easily feel the pressure if finding the right answer takes a long time. The main difference between e-mails and chat is the speed. You have to respond quickly to the user and send messages back and describe what you are doing. If a chat goes ‘dead’, the chances are that you will lose the user. It is therefore important to keep the conversation going.
We have canned sentences in the program. This means that the librarian need not write out each sentence. There are certain phrases that are often used and which are easily added to the chat-conversation.We recommend that librarians use these canned sentences because we want to be able to provide a service using a similarly structured form. It is important to write short and accurate sentences. The good thing about chat is that it is possible to read the question and thereby not go wandering off to find something irrelevant to the enquiry.
One moment please. I’m still searching
There are as many different questions in the chat reference as in the real library. To quote a line from the film Forrest Gump: “…[It’s] like a box of chocolates….you never know what you gonna get.” As expected, many questions refer to literature and practical enquires connected with various libraries, like opening hours or the loss of a password. The chat reference is a good way of advertising the different library services. Over and over we have to tell the user to go to their local library for literature on a certain topic.We have a chance to reach out to the people who either have never used a library at all or who have stopped going there.
Bibliotekvakten.no often finds the answer on the Web, but it is important to remember the written resources available at the library. Certain information can only be found in books. It is unnecessary to type out answers when one can easily send over webpages with the same information. Finding the right answer is the never-ending story of any librarian’s job. Working with the chat service forces the librarian to go online and acquire an extended knowledge of the invisible Web.
As in all reference work, chatting takes a lot of concentration.Working on the virtual reference desk means the librarian being fully attentive to the person at the other end. While searching for the answer one has to remember that the enquirer is waiting for your response. The user may be unaware that the librarian is working hard, searching the Web and judging and evaluating the quality of the Web sites. Part of the job lies in teaching users how to do it for themselves. Unlike commercial reference services we happily share our knowledge free of charge.
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As in the ‘real’ library it is important to ask the user if the information given out is useful. This is vital in the chat conversation. As we cannot see how the users react to what they are given, we have to ask.
Not everything can be answered within a chat session. If satisfactory answers cannot be given during the chat, the user will be offered answers by e-mail. These e-mail responses are sent by the librarian who was involved in the chat. We guarantee users that they will get an answer by e-mail within the next working day. Apart from those enquiries demanding a complex search, our responses in bibliotekvakten.no are entirely through chat.
At the end of the day – off-line
A chat shift normally lasts 90 minutes. Since this is a national service, the next librarian on duty can well be at the other end of the country.Working with bibliotekvakten.no gives the librarian core competence in digital reference. There is of course a difference between the real library and the virtual reference desk, but chat is just a new way of communicating with the user.
Modern libraries must keep abreast of technology and integrate it into our service. Technology offers a new way of communication, but what we communicate remains the same. Reference work is still the core of librarianship and chat is just a new way of communication – it is becoming as everyday as the telephone and e-mails.