This semester I have been afforded an opportunity to work a few hours a week at my library system’s Virtual Reference Desk. While my normal job entails logging in to the library’s IM chat system (as referenced in my “Chat Reference” post), we at the Funk Library serve as back-up for the IM chat system. We usually only hop in and help when the volume of questions is very high or when we are referred questions about agriculture, biology, etc.
But the Virtual Reference Desk is the main hub for the library’s IM chat service. They receive and answer most of the incoming chats and transfer chats to subject specialists as needed. It has definitely been an interesting experience so far; being on the front line for virtual reference is very akin to working a physical reference desk: no matter the question, you need to figure out at least some way to try to answer it, even if that means referring it to someone who has more/different knowledge.
The Virtual Reference Desk is set up so that two people are always working, side by side. Each team is supposed to have at least one person who has done virtual reference for at least a year. I’ve found this extremely helpful, as I share my shifts with veteran graduate assistants and faculty librarians who I can turn to if I need help with a question.
So far my experience has been challenging, but very positive. The library where I work a reference desk is located near undergraduate dorms, so I’m used to a variety of questions. But working the Virtual Reference Desk has exposed me to all new kinds of questions, including everything from market data for cosmetic companies to digitized historical map access.
The other interesting/challenging part of extensive virtual reference is adapting my reference interview techniques to the IM chat medium, which is an ongoing process. It can be difficult to provide reference and instruction via IM chat because: you don’t know if the patron is successfully following along with your guidance; you cannot read the patron’s facial expressions and body language; you cannot point to specific links/buttons/areas on their screen, but rather have to describe such things and hope the patron finds them effectively. These issues seem trivial, but they definitely affect how you interact with patrons. And while I’ve been doing chat reference in a support/supplementary role at my current job for over a year, it is another animal when working shifts that are entirely devoted to virtual reference.
Overall, I’m extremely glad I have the opportunity to get more virtual reference experience and have relished the new challenges and experiences. While I may not be able to see my patrons in person, it doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’ve done some good and helped them find what they’re looking for.