by Rima Thompson
Imagine, sitting in your room and stressing over those 7 to 10 page papers. It’s 2 a.m., two pages and two sources away from the line separating an “A” and a “C.” The coffee pot is empty; the library opens at 6 a.m., but the paper is due at 8 a.m. Imagine again, a librarian available to you at the click of a mouse.
Recently, the University of La Verne Wilson Library premiered “Chat with a Librarian,” an interactive service that enables students as well as faculty the ability to connect with a live librarian via the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The service is run through a program called 24/7 Reference. It was first started in 1999 for Los Angeles County public libraries, and is now a nationwide program. The program was developed as a resource to help students and the community get answers to their questions, instead of leaving them to flounder the Internet on their own, said Susan McGlamery, 24/7 Reference director.
Through online chat sessions, librarians who are a part of the virtual reference cooperative and are familiar with how to structure a successful search will answer a variety of questions ranging from how to understand a reference to directing students to sources for a paper.
“The goal is that within three minutes, someone is connected to you and helping,” said Donna Bentley, ULV librarian.
The program is also a way for librarians to connect with experts in several fields, said McGlamery.
“For example, it connects together law, medical and business librarians. If someone called with a law question and the librarian on duty is not a law expert, they can e-mail a law librarian and get the answer to the caller,” she said. “They can reach a greater amount of people to offer their services beyond their local library.”
Along with other colleges and Universities that are a part of the service, Bentley and Elisabeth Anghel, circulation-reference librarian, are responsible for a four-hour shift. They split the hours between the two of them at different times during the week. In August, they did one-day training at the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System, the creators of 24/7 Reference, in Los Angeles.
“The training was less for how to answer a question,” Bentley said. “It was how to use the software. The software allows us to guide you through a Web site.”
When the user is ready to chat with a librarian, she can click on the computer icon in the top left corner of the introduction page.
After clicking, the “Welcome to Live Online Reference” page opens and lists specific computer specifications that will enhance a person’s experience with the service.
“From the standpoint of the student, you need to follow the instructions for how you connect,” Bentley said. “I think that some of the students that we are working with don’t understand that this is an interactive session. They are used to probably putting in a question and then getting e-mailed back.”
To the right of the reference page is the form to fill out questions to ask the librarian. For privacy concerns, the only information an individual is required to supply is the name of her school and the question she to be answered.
Privacy for its users is an important issue for the creators of 24/7 Reference.
“Privacy is important because of the Patriot Act,” McGlamery said. “All transcripts are recorded for quality control purposes only, and the student has the right to remain anonymous where they do not have to give their email address or anything else. The system is set up to strip the name after 30 days.”
For the most part, after connecting to the service, the wait is roughly two to three minutes.
However, there are times when the wait extends over five minutes. When this happens, the Librarian responds with:
“We answer questions in the order that we receive them, and we need to finish helping the people who logged in before you. If you will continue holding, we will help you as soon as we can. If you would like us to e-mail you with a response, please type this information: 1) Your e-mail address, 2) Your deadline, and 3) Anything else that will help us in our search.”
Additionally, a person also needs to allow time for the librarian to come up with some resources, Bentley said.
Also, there is an option for the user to leave their phone number if they prefer talking to the librarian.
If an e-mail address was given, a transcript of the session is then e-mailed to the user. At the end of the session, a survey displays in a separate window asking questions about the quality of help provided through the service.
For more information on the 24/7 Reference “Chat with a Librarian” service, visit www.ulv.edu/library and www.247ref.org or contact Bentley at ext. 4312.