I recently completed an assignment to compare reference transactions in three different media: at the physical library, via email, and through a chat service.
It was only when I set out to do this that I realized I couldn’t recall ever asking a librarian a reference question. As a kid I loved the library, but I really enjoyed wandering around picking out my own books. As I grew older I had the attitude that I should be smart enough to know how to do my own research. One reason why I am grateful for this assignment (and class), is that I see there’s no shame in asking a librarian a question.
The transaction I preferred was the email transaction. The form was very simple; the only required fields were the question and an email address. I appreciated that it was so easy and really liked that I could ask my question whenever I wanted, from wherever I was. My answer was written clearly. I now have a document I can refer to, instead of having to rely on my memory as in the desk transaction. I was given fewer resources than when I used desk reference, but was given the librarian’s name and several points of contact for follow up. This shows the potential to develop a relationship with the librarian, allowing us to continue to work on my question.
I had high hopes for chat reference. I anticipated that it would combine email’s ease of use with a transparent search more tailored to my specific needs. I thought it would be a great opportunity to work closely with someone to explore online resources and develop a good search strategy. Unfortunately my librarian, while friendly, did not keep me informed of what she was doing. She disappeared during the search, and I was left twiddling my thumbs while she was presumably browsing the web. The session basically took up thirty minutes of my time and presented four links, two of which I had already discovered quite quickly via Google. At the end of the session she told me her shift was over but did offer to transfer me to another chat librarian or forward my question to the library as an email.
The desk reference transaction produced the greatest number of resources, but was somewhat unfocused. I am kind of a shy person and felt a little overwhelmed by the reference set up. The library was busy and there were no clear markings stating “This is the Reference Desk.” When I finally worked up my nerve to approach a desk, the librarians were friendly and attentive. I was referred by my initial contact to another librarian. Both of them set aside what they were doing and gave me their full attention. The librarian who ended up helping me walked me to the section she thought might be appropriate. The service fell down a little bit in terms of questioning, search and follow up. She did not try to figure out where I’d already looked, she didn’t ask me if the material was what I needed, she indicated sections of shelving which might be appropriate but didn’t tell me why or help formulate strategies, and she didn’t advise me to come back if I needed more. I was mostly satisfied with the transaction, primarily because of her friendly demeanor (something which I think is more difficult to convey via digital reference), but I think my search could have been better served.
All the services I tried could have done better in terms of instruction and questioning. I now have some great resources for the project on which my question was based, but I don’t have any better idea on how to find more by myself.
Relatedly: I sent an additional email question on behalf of a friend of mine. In the answer, the librarian quoted Wikipedia! In all fairness, the quote did explain the answer clearly and concisely, but I was a little shocked.