Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
This paper describes chat widgets, chunks of code that can be embedded on a web site to appear as an instant messaging system, and how they can be used on a science library web site to better serve library users. Interviews were conducted concerning experiences at science and humanities libraries and more similarities than differences were discovered. High user satisfaction and subject-specific questions were noted by librarians using widgets on their subject research guide web pages. Increased use of these services resulted from embedding widgets on existing web pages rather than linking to separate chat pages.
This has opened up a world of possibilities, but also of decisions. How can libraries best use chat widgets on their web pages? Can current chat service models be extended or changed to include widgets? Which chat service is the best for a particular library? Of particular interest for science and technology libraries, should services or strategies be different for our users and web sites?
Meebo Rooms can also be used to have multiple librarians each using individual chat accounts to staff a single widget (Jastram 2007). This provides many benefits including bringing a subject specialist into a reference question rather than requiring the user to leave the chat session. Also, transitions between librarians staffing adjacent virtual reference desk shifts are smooth since they do not have to use the same account. A few of the inherent drawbacks are that the chat room is public, so anyone visiting the web site can see the current conversation and even view the chat history. Also this type of widget does not indicate that the librarians are "away" when they are not staffing the room.
Since the innovations of Meebo, many of the other instant messaging services have implemented widgets as a feature (Meier 2008, sidebar). AOL introduced WIMZI and Google provided a widget for its Talk service along with the new services Plugoo and Digsby. Even traditional virtual reference services have entered the game, such as Questionpoint's Qwidget.
There are some simple decisions to be made when customizing a chat widget such as the appearance, where to place the chat window, and a number of other issues (DeVoe 2008). With a wide array of choices in products and how to use them, librarians can make an informed choice (Meier 2008) in selecting the service that works best for them rather than having to drastically change work flow for a specific software product.
In general chat reference evaluation has been fraught with pitfalls (Pomerantz et al. 2008). Since the majority of chat widgets are not part of a virtual reference system, tracking statistics and capturing transcripts for later analysis and evaluation is not easy. The inherent anonymity and potential speed of interaction are also double-edged swords. Chat widgets do not require users to log in to any system or even identify themselves and their demographics as in many virtual reference systems. They can use the assigned guest user name or change it to a nickname of their choice, which makes widget users appear as normal instant messaging service users. This often protects their privacy, depending on the nickname they choose, but it makes follow-up after a chat session almost impossible and the chat logs created are associated with the guest user names. The speed of each reference transaction is convenient and valued by the user, but it leaves little time to ask evaluative questions or introduce assessment instruments.
Significantly one librarian responded from a science library (Smith 2008) and another librarian from the humanities library (Novotny 2008). Both librarians' comments related primarily to their experiences receiving chat reference questions from widgets placed on their subject guides. The University Libraries has many research guides by subject, which can be reached either from a list on the home page or from lists on subject library pages, such as the Life Sciences Library. At the time of the interviews, the subject guides were located "within" a subject library (i.e., they had the same look and template). Subject library home pages are considered the virtual start pages for students, faculty, and staff looking for subject-specific library help and information.
Both librarians estimated that they received about 1-2 questions a week and that traffic would increase during a week when specific assignments were due. The questions were from undergraduate and graduate students, and also some faculty members in the departments associated with the subject guides in each case -- history and agricultural sciences. Also, a recent chat widget deployed on the math subject guide generated an immediate assignment-based question in the subject of mathematics. Both librarians even expressed the same main concern over the service: it is difficult for a single librarian to staff many hours leading to frequent offline status messages on the widgets. Users appreciated the instant help and quality of service provided by both of the librarians through their chat widgets.
Chat widgets can also be a great avenue for liaison outreach to academic departments and faculty. One faculty user reported, "btw, i love the chat with eric feature on the history/library web site. i've used it as a recruiting tool, telling prospective faculty and students what great library support we have!!" (Novotny 2008).
The greater generality on the library home page could be due to the fact that libraries home page is a way-point rather than a destination. Way-points like the library home page have little content or information, but many links to content such as services or information. Destinations such as subject guides or a help page are the final page toward which users would navigate if they were seeking information or service. This also shows that users were already successfully navigating to the most appropriate library web page for subject specialist knowledge. They were at the "right place on the web already" (Smith 2008) and with a chat widget they now "get the right person."
The lower usage on the library home page could be that the chat widget was not embedded in the web page, requiring users to navigate to a separate page to ask their questions. Recently the Life Sciences Library moved their widget from a separate page to embedding in all pages. "This spurred a dramatic increase in traffic, though questions could still be characterized as more basic or general" (Smith 2008).
Beyond reference, the ability to consult with coworkers increases productivity by quickly addressing questions that halt a project or simple task. Also, collaboration on projects can be enhanced by chat communication, since it can be active simultaneously with other computer applications either shared such as a wiki or Google Docs or simpler software. This extends beyond the workplace to the global profession: a chat "buddy" list becomes in practice a network of professional colleagues available for assistance or collaboration.
While there are sufficient explanations of how to use chat widgets and the variety of products and features available in the market, some areas of study deserve further study. One area that should be explored is finding a way to assess chat reference service despite the lack of built-in evaluative and statistical functions, which have benefited the study of virtual reference to date. This would allow the observations made through interviews and anecdotal experience to be confirmed by quantitative and qualitative data. Another important area that requires scrutiny is the staffing models used for chat reference, both informal and formal. This is justifiably an area of concern for librarians, who see their work responsibilities increase with each new service the library offers.
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Novotny, E. 2008. Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Personal communication, Various dates.
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Smith, Helen. 2008. Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Personal communication, Various dates.