Answering Virtual Reference Questions
I am writing this after reading a post by David Lee King titled “We’ll Answer within Two Business Days.” This and the comments that were received from it got me thinking about the following ways to ask and answer virtual reference questions: email, IM/chat and text messaging.
There were various comments on providing a time frame for answers along with comments about answering. If libraries and librarians are going to offer these services, I think that the following applies:
The method used:
Email – used for a variety of reasons; type of question, need by date, access of patron, etc. Email gives some flexibility to the type of question and answer in terms of length, reply time and how the patron accesses the answer. For this method, I think that it is appropriate to provide a time frame, but not necessarily as a blanket - for when the patron may need the answer and when the librarian may send the answer, based on the question.
IM/Chat – well, IM is fairly easy – it is Instant Messaging. It seems obvious to me that if libraries offer this service and patrons use it, the expectation is to provide a reasonably instant response. (I say reasonably because we need to actually locate the info.) Now, based on the type of question, this may not be possible. So, once this is determined, explaining this to the patron and possibly suggesting an alternate way to get the answer seems appropriate. If this service is offered, it must be clear that the patron is expecting a quicker response time and all methods to facilitate this should be taken.
Text Messaging – again, this is self explanatory. We use text messaging to send and receive messages from where we are at for what we need. We text from our phones, so it is fairly pointless to ask the patron to call for an answer – if they wanted to do that, they would have in the first place.
We shouldn’t be focusing on time, but on content. If we are going to use these services successfully, both patrons and librarians should have some basic guidelines as to the type and extent of questions and answers received using these methods. We definitely should not and cannot limit types of questions, but we can make it a bit clearer on the distinctions of the methods.
What do you think?
An afterthought: It is not THAT we offer these services, but rather how we staff, use and promote them.