A Sign of the Times -- Reference Assistance Now Provided Online by "Instant Librarians"

Requests received from as far away as China, as close as across the room

Release Date: November 21, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. - University at Buffalo librarians are offering real-time, online reference assistance to students, some as far away as China, using AOL Instant Messenger software (AIM) in the popular chat room format.

The UB program, "Instant Librarian," is available online 59 hours a week, and provides reference services for UB's Lockwood Memorial Library, Science and Engineering Library, Architecture and Planning Library, and Undergraduate Library.

The UB program is similar to others initiated at a short list of elite U.S. universities, including MIT, Cornell, Michigan, North Carolina State and the University of Pennsylvania.

Users seeking help can log on to the UB Libraries' Web site at http://ublib.buffalo.edu/ and click on the "Instant Librarian" button, or go directly to the Instant Librarian page at http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/help/refchat.html. Once they choose a user name and password, they can log on and send their reference questions to the AIM librarian on duty, who answers them in real-time.

The service is available Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Even when it is not in operation, however, students can log in or and send questions via email that will be answered within 24 hours Monday through Friday.

"Instant Librarian" is headed by librarian Jill Hackenberg, who says the response from users has been overwhelmingly positive and, in fact, there have been no complaints from users.

The program currently employs 12 librarians, four public services graduate assistants and three graduate students from the Department of Library and Information Studies in the School of Informatics. They respond to queries from an average of 32 students a day and AIM hours have been extended to accommodate the increasing number of users.

Questions directed to the "instant librarians" are not unlike those presented in person to the reference desk, says Hackenberg, who cites questions ranging from where to find information about seahorses to how to locate videos on Aphrodite.

"We initiated the service," she says, "because students today expect everything to be available online -- or at least on CD-ROMs -- from journals and magazines to monographs and books.

"Everything isn't online, of course, and often material is available only in the library itself. But we are online," she says, "and can direct students to reference material in our many purchased electronic databases and advise them where to find additional material on reliable Internet sites or from other UB librarians who specialize in specific fields of knowledge."

Hackenberg points out that the Pew Internet and American Life Project last year issued a report noting that 89 percent of American teens who go online daily use instant messaging. UB decided on the AIM program because it is so familiar to students, available free even to those not signed up with AOL and uses a chat room format, which most students like very much.

She says the service saves driving time for students living off-campus, and is of particular service to those taking UB courses online, some from as far away as Asia, who save considerable money on long-distance calls to the reference desk.

It also gets heavy use from students working elsewhere on campus, however, and most surprising, from students working in the libraries' popular computer areas, who frequently sit within sight of a reference desk. They've told librarians they don't want to relinquish their seats while seeking assistance.

"AIM is easy to use," says Hackenberg, "If students have only one phone line that needs to be kept open, which is often the case, librarians can refer them to appropriate sites by pasting URLs into their response so the students needn't be online longer than necessary."

Another advantage to the service accrues to the librarians themselves, she says, who can be "on duty" at a home computer.

Hackenberg says AIM librarians often receive several questions at once, which can get their adrenaline running, but that hasn't been a problem.

"Students are patient while waiting for responses in part because they're used to chatting with their friends in several windows even while they're working on something else," she says, "so 'answers' to their messages may not be read immediately."

A 24-member library team headed by librarian Gemma DeVinney piloted the program from September 2000 to September 2001. Hackenberg, a member of the original team, says that during that time, reference librarians were required to participate.

"We learned that some librarians prefer to offer face-to-face reference services. Others, who received only a few calls while on duty, said it prevented them from completing other work.

"In its new incarnation," she says, "those performing reference services are volunteers who serve online during their regular working hours. They tend to be people who are very comfortable with the use of digital technology for this purpose and don't mind learning a new software package. They also tend to think that the service they're offering is important."

The rest of the library staff is becoming more comfortable with the program. Hackenberg says several reference librarians who expressed reservations during the pilot project have since elected to back-up the service and fill in when the regular staff isn't available.

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