Reference for a Digital World

This was an interesting session by Joe Murphy (Yale) and Jan Dawson (Knowledge Ontario). They discussed some different methods for digital reference. Dawson used the example of her service trying VoIP for virtual reference and Murphy gave us some things to consider as we move toward a more robust digital reference service.

Jan Dawson worked on a pilot project with Ask Ontario to add VoIP technologies to it’s virtual reference offerings. Ask Ontario seems like a really neat service so check out the link. Why move to VoIP? It is a step toward face to face virtual ref – not just chat. The possibilities for virtual reference are really exciting and this is a great way to help people meet their information needs.

They used Skype as their platform for virtual reference because it works in more places and is free for them and the public to install and use. They didn’t use the video option. When people went to Ask Ontario they were given the option to use Skype or simple chat. For a variety of reasons not a lot of people used Skype. The biggest reason being people didn’t have Skype installed and didn’t want to install it. It was also a little tricky because they use one platform for their chat feature and had to get people to switch to Skype in order to use the new service. It wasn’t a smashing success but it was a learning experience and something she and her colleagues can build on.

While listening to her presentation I kept thinking that this sounds a lot like plain old phone reference until I realized the difference is that the people are contacting the library via their computer. By contacting them this way they were opening themselves up to a new method of reference service and taking advantage of Ask Ontario’s unique collaboration among public and academic libraries. It is different than just picking up the phone and calling the local library. The Ask Ontario libraries have a created another channel to help their public and I assume the public’s response is positive.

Something she mentioned that struck me as was that the older librarians were more comfortable with Skype reference than the younger ones. The reason is because they had more experience with traditional phone reference. Phone reference really is a skill that you have to do to get better.

Joe Murphy was next. I’ve been following him on twitter for a while and was looking forward to hearing him speak. He has posted his presentation so I’ve linked to it. He has been a strong proponent of text messaging reference service for a long time so he discussed text reference. A point he made strongly is that text messaging is not a novel technology for some people. It is the dominant technology for communication. I have to agree with that point. I use text messaging a lot and some days it is my primary means of communication with my wife and my mother.

Why should libraries use text messaging?
Some people prefer texting for communication. He has even said that “libraries that don’t offer texting are basically invisible to me.” Libraries will lose people like him who do a lot of their work via their phone.

The technologies and tech considerations:

  • Cost – first time cost and support costs. Time (as always) is a huge cost.
  • Staff impact – comfort and willingness to adopt
  • Ability to meet patron expectations – we should learn to use the technology personally so we will know how it works from a patron viewpoint
  • Flexibility – interoperability with future platforms and developments

Tech options

Policies and people

  • Changes to our spaces – may have to change the cell phone policy at the library
  • Affect on people – we need to work toward a change in attitude toward mobile technology and the philosophy of avoidance some of us have when it comes to new technology
  • Create an exit strategy – it’s ok to have sussessful failures but try not to get stuck with a three year contract
  • Learn skills and mobile literacy – we need to encourage our staff to learn mobile skills and experiment with new devices

A final statement he left us with is that we need to foster and encourage ongoing learning to match ongoing change.

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