Service is service, online or off

Hoo-boy.  Lots of debate online and off, public and private, about David Lee King’s two posts on IM reference, and the many varied blog replies to them.

Here’s my very short answer to the question “How should IM reference queries be treated?”:  You decide for your library.

Because you know your users.  And your librarians.  And your service policies.  And your user expectations.  And your traffic in reference and instruction interactions.  And a million other things that should frame how you respond to that question.

But personally?  In my own professional definition of information services for academic library users?  I think that there is absolutely no difference between an IM query and a face-to-face query, and they need to be treated with the same respect, attentiveness, and thoroughness of service.  They are both synchronous communication streams in which a user asks for assistance, and they should be treated as such.

I have an experience set that makes this an easy thing to say; I work on a residential academic campus in a library that is experiencing declining use of our reference expertise.  As a result, we have tried to change and revalue the way we offer reference service by expanding and personalizing our interactions.  We set up follow-up stations for patrons to use near the reference desk so that they can work independently but get continuous research assistance.  We expanded and aggressively marketed our one-on-one research appointments.  We implemented and broadened and began marketing our IM reference service.  We joined AskUs 24-7.  All of these are ways to reach a bigger slice of our campus users, where and when and how they need our help, taking into account the teaching and learning environment in which our users live and work.  On our residential campus with a strong traditional undergraduate student body as well as a robust graduate program and growing distance learning opportunities, our users’ learning environment is distributed, online, community-based, and independently focused.  The library is not the center of their learning world, and I don’t expect it ever will be.  But we need to be a part of their world, and having a robust and service-oriented online presence is a key piece of our efforts.

If I, then, say that IM reference is less important than face-to-face reference in my library, I am directly contradicting our attempts to place greater value on reaching our users where they live and work.  Our building use statistics indicate that while we are a vital and busy library, the majority of our students do not live and work in the library.  Who are we trying to serve?  Only the users who come to the building?  No.  We’re trying to serve all of our potential users, and our attempts to broaden our service offerings into the online communication realm are an expression of that.  If I fail to place equal priority on those online users, I am undermining our efforts.

And I think it’s too important to prove the value of information professionals and resources to as many of our students as possible to ever undermine those efforts.

So if I’m answering an IM reference question when a user walks up to the desk, I will do what I have always done: Politely and with a welcoming smile ask, “Can you please wait one moment? I’m helping someone else.”  And I will trust that our students will continue to wait their turn in our virtual and physical line.


  1. I totally agree, though I would take it one step further. I think that it’s a matter of your user community (and the individual transaction that you may or may not choose to interrupt), whether the act of postponing an ongoing IM question constitutes it being considered of lesser importance.


  2. “You decide for your library.” Thank you! I think the thing that set me off most about David’s (& Meredith’s) post is that the tone seemed to be wagging a disappointed finger at all libraries not doing virtual reference services the way HE thinks they should be done. David seems like a nice guy, so I’m sure that wasn’t his intent, but that’s how it came across to me, which immediately put me on the defensive.

    Our reference desk is combined with the circulation desk, so it stays fairly busy most of the time. IM questions making up only 10% of the questions we get there (we keep stats on all transactions), and since we’re mostly a residential campus, it makes more sense to focus on the user standing in front of us if there is a conflict of priorities. That said, I’m not opposed to considering alternative policies if my colleagues agree to them.


  3. Yep, Meg, absolutely. I don’t think, personally, that it’s any different than the patron who comes to the desk, waiting their turn, and in doing so prompts the librarian to interrupt the long, drawn-out reference interaction with the patron already seated to say, “Can you tell me a little bit about your question?” so that the librarian can effectively triage incoming questions against the ongoing one. The distinction that I think is important is that it’s institutional culture and community that informs whether or not IM reference is just like any other kind of reference. In my reality, IM is interruptable, it’s complex, it’s sometimes frustrating, it’s sometimes satisfying, and it’s subject to all the other qualifiers we place on any other reference transaction. It’s not automatically or hierarchically different than face-to-face reference. But, as you say, that’s about my community and my experience.


  4. Thank you for this. I agree with Anna. The thing that annoyed me about David’s posts (actually most of his posts…) is the tone of “you should be doing it THIS way, shame on you”.

    David works in a large and well funded library (as do I, now) and should get off his high horse. This is the main reason I no longer read him much.

    We do IM in a way that works for us. If it doesn’t work for him… I really don’t care. 😉


  5. Hey, folks, I’m glad my words are resonating, and I’m happy that I can provide a space for discussion, but I hope that anyone who has something to say to DLK will say it to DLK… and not just wander over here to say that they agree with me and then sideswipe him (or anyone else).

    I’d rather stay positive about the things we really care about than have a cool discussion devolve into a listing of why someone else is wrong.


  6. I have another customer on the phone, but you’ll be next…
    Thanks for waiting; Yes, juggling customers or patrons is part of the job. Good policy and training can help, but the service is ultimately provided by a (somewhat overworked) person. The metric is the satisfaction of the customers divided by the staff hours alloted.


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