A recent addition to the many resources and services we offer at the Funk ACES Library is that our graduate assistants now provide instant message chat reference! I know what you’re thinking: wave of the future, right?
Ok, so chat reference is not really that ground-breaking for a lot of academic libraries who have been doing it for years. But all jokes aside, IM chat reference is something I’ve always wanted to try, so I’m thrilled that as one of the hub libraries at the University of Illinois we get to participate.
To me, chat reference is a great way of meeting patrons at the point of access, which is oftentimes where they need the most help. Long gone are the days when patrons had to actually walk through the library doors to access anything we offer. Many of our books, journals, subject guides, government documents, and a host of other resources are now accessible online. However, this does not serve to make librarians obsolete (as many a cocktail-party-goer jokingly suggests; we get it, you think you’re being clever, now SHHH); rather, librarians must work to make themselves and their expertise available at the point of access, that is, online.
Chat reference is one of the ways we do that here at Illinois. In some libraries (the main reference hub, and the undergraduate library) there are entire graduate assistant workstations that are back away from the front desk and devoted primarily to chat reference for the better part of every day. This ensures that each chat query will receive a timely response. Over here at the Funk we only have one graduate assistant working at a time. As the representatives for a specialist library, we act in a more supportive role; we take overflow questions when traffic is heavy, but are mostly logged on in case there is a chat reference question in our area of expertise (agriculture, biology, etc.) that one of the other chat librarians wants to forward to us.
So far it’s been a moderately steep learning curve, but a very positive experience. Much like email reference, you lose a lot when you’re not face to face. It requires more questions on our part to clarify the user’s needs. It also requires a fair bit of patience and juggling skills. I’ve found that, much like with in-person interactions, patrons on chat reference typically want answers very quickly, even when their questions are complex.
Overall, I’m very glad that the Funk finally hopped on the IM chat bandwagon. I think our added expertise will enrich the chat reference librarian pool of knowledge. And I think it will be another interesting way for us to interact with and assist patrons. So if you’re on any University of Illinois Library webpage and you have a burning desire to chat with a librarian, fill up that chat box with everything ya’ got. I (and a number of other eager librarians) will be waiting!