As the amount and variety of electronically available information grows and people increasingly access these resources from outside the library, reference librarians are concerned about researchers getting the help and instruction they need. Many faculty know that some students have turned to Ask Jeeves for help with their research assignments and others simply rely on the top results brought back by their favorite web search engine.
For online, real-time assistance in accessing quality, scholarly information, University Libraries launched “Chat with a Librarian” in May of 2000. This service uses web-based customer service software that enables librarians to chat with and send web pages to researchers over the Internet. Users do not need special software or plug-ins on their computers; and, with a simple click of the Ask-A-Librarian button found throughout the University Libraries’ web site, they can access a librarian immediately, no matter where they may be located throughout the world.
The results were positive, and expensive! Students and faculty loved the service, with more than 92% saying they would use it again in the future. However, the software was expensive to license and the service required intensive staff resources. Collaborating with other libraries through our consortia, OhioLINK seemed like a natural for a project that would serve all of our patrons, yet pool our dollars and staff energy.
A committee of librarians from eight different Ohio academic libraries, including BGSU, was formed to investigate the possibilities. After approximately one year of grant writing, planning, piloting, and training, we launched the statewide service in August 2002. Students, faculty and staff from any of the 82 OhioLINK member institutions (nearly 500,000 people) can log onto the Internet and ask a librarian for research assistance. Librarians from more than 40 OhioLINK member libraries participate in staffing the service, which is available 73 hours per week during fall and spring semesters.
By participating in the statewide project, BGSU librarians have gone from singularly staffing our local service for 73 hours per week, to sharing the staffing with other librarians across the state. Now we are required to staff the service only 6 hours per week. Grant dollars secured by the statewide committee now cover hardware and software purchases and licensing costs. OhioLINK staff provide technological support. Additionally, because OhioLINK controls many of the research database displays on the Web, a help to link to the service has been embedded within the database web pages, which allows researchers access to a librarian at their immediate point of need.
Perhaps even more important than the low cost and cooperative sharing of the workload, is the service’s popularity and success with library users. More than 3,000 research queries (more than 200 from BGSU users) have been answered on the service in the first three months of spring semester 2003 alone. Response from researchers across the state has been outstanding. Read just a few of the positive comments that we have received:
- “Wonderfully helpful! Many thanks!”
- “This is a wonderful and very helpful service. I’d be lost in my research without it!”
- “Awesome service…the librarian was at U of Akron and was able to serve me at Kent State Stark. Holy cow…this is great!”
- “I REALLY liked this service! I think all students should know about it and know its (sic) available!”
- “This system works perfectly. It’s like having the whole library at your computer. It’s good being able to have assistance when you need it.”
- “What a fabulous service! Thank you for making this available!”
- “ . . . this has to be ONE of the best ideas EVER!”
- “I could not have finished my project without this help.”
- “Excellent service. A+++”
- “I love this service THANK YOUU SOOOOO MUCH!!!”
Now that the statewide service is in full swing and its value is widely recognized, librarians at the University Libraries are investigating ways to make sure that BGSU researchers get the most efficient and effective service possible. When researchers from distant universities log into the service, they are routed to a librarian from their local institution, if one is available. This spring, librarians from University Libraries have brought their expertise back home by offering “Chat” service specifically to BGSU users during peak weekday times beyond the statewide service requirements. We continue to investigate ways to streamline all of our reference mediums: in-person, telephone, email, and chat so that we are offering the highest quality service at the lowest possible cost.
For more information about the Ask-A-Librarian service, visit our web site at http://www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/infosrv/ref/ask.html or contact Kelly Broughton, Reference Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Kelly Broughton, Reference Coordinator