Trend Reflection – Virtual Reference

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    • #1061
      Chris Sonneveld

      The thought of working in a library only briefly crossed my mind as I was finishing high school 15 years ago. The only downside I saw to working in a library was the technology at the time was too slow and wasn’t accessible to enough people to make it feel like I was going to be of any help. Instead I followed my interest in hospitality and tourism and as I quite enjoyed developing my customer services skills. We now live in a time where information is at the fingertips of many but still not available to the masses but a lot more widespread than two decades ago. What has drawn me back to libraries is my interest in providing others with a starting point and a direction for their research. Whether that is helping them find information so that they can complete their assignment or to help them gain greater knowledge on an area that interests them. Any reference task that involves helping others achieve their goals is something I definitely want to be a part of.

      An issue with modern library, as highlighted by Searing & Greenlee (2011) is that virtual reference services are replacing physical library services as it is can be far more accessible and cheaper to implement than physical services even though the downside according to Bardhan Arya & Mishra (2012), is that virtual reference services may not be as helpful as interacting with a human. I prefer to use virtual services as I have not found face-to-face help as beneficial. On a number of occasions I have not been able to have my questions answered. Whether that is because I’m not asking the right questions or the person assisting me is not able to help me with finding the answer. The benefit of online resources is that it’s almost like a hive mind, one mind connected to many. Online it’s okay that one person does not know the answer because there are many contributing to the one answer. You still have issues when you’re asking the wrong questions but at least online there is an increased likelihood of finding questions and answers you may not have considered before starting your search. It would be a great loss for libraries to completely lose human contact as in a lot of cases it’s much easier to have something explained face-to-face than having something explained through an online chat service or through a game of email tennis. Many of my favourite customer service experiences working in hospitality were from face-to-face interactions and as a librarian I hope that not all my time is spent behind a computer screen replying to emails, chats and social media posts. There is always the chance that all services will become virtual as again they are cheaper and reach greater number of people. However, they will need to evolve so that they are effective for a larger number of people. I hope that in the near future libraries introduce communication methods similar to teleconferencing so that reference services can reach a wider audience and provide help that’s just as effective as face-to-face interaction. This way virtual reference services can target those people who find it difficult interacting with the current virtual reference services on offer.

    • #1074
      Nicole Steer

      Hi Chris! I liked this reflection. I was really interested to see you drew parallels between customer service and librarianship. I’ve always felt that there are strong connections between customer service and customer support and librarianship. On the customer service side, there will always be people who prefer ordering drinks or buying clothes from an actual human in an actual shop or cafe, even if they can get the same service online or from a self-service machine, and there will always be people who will prefer dealing with an actual librarian in an actual library than an “Ask A Librarian” service on their local public library’s website. The human element really helps.

      On the customer support side, I like to use the metaphor of when you, the savvy, smart, worldly technology user, buy a new computer, and it’s great – but then something starts going wrong, it slows down, the screen only shows in shades of green and blue. It could be the RAM, it could be the CPU, it could be the motherboard, who knows? You’re smart, but the ins and outs of what goes on inside computers isn’t your field of expertise. And so you call up customer support. Similarly, even people who are cool and smart and know all about books and the internet will need help from a librarian for things when they find themselves a bit out of their depth – whether it be ordering in books from a different state, doing a serious business thesis, or just trying to figure out how QUT Library Search actually works when it’s your first semester!

      Okay, that got a bit rambly! But I hope it was interesting to read. 😛 I liked reading your reflection and it got me thinking about what I think of virtual vs in-person librarianship in the modern age.

    • #1153
      Stacey Larner

      Hi Chris, I don’t think VR will ever replace physical helpdesk completely, as long as there are physical libraries taking up space. The only way I reckon you’d lose the face-to-face is if libraries went completely digital (which is happening in some places). I’m also not sure it’s cheaper hiring only VR staff–there are the costs of software to factor in, and from my limited experience I get the sense it’s not particularly cheap (and ongoing). It does feel more rewarding though doing the face to face thing, maybe that’s just human nature?

    • #1277

      Hi Chris, I have to admit to feeling a little alarmed by the thought of wholly digital libraries. For me the library is much more than a place (physical or virtual) to get the answer to a question and I think, reading your reflection that that’s how you feel too – ‘helping people’ and ‘discussing research issues’ seems to me to comprise more than a mere exchange of information. For example, I love the smell of books and wandering through the shelves surrounded by knowledge and literary charcters seething within the book jackets. Of course there is a place for technology and the speed and cost effectiveness that it can bring, as you rightly point out, and as Stacey mentioned some libraries are becoming completely digital. I think it’s the sometimes intangible human element in face-to-face conversation that adds value to transactions, particularly when issues are complex or uncertain.

      A friend recently grabbed my arms when I was ranting about some outrage and, laughing, asked me to explain it to her without waving my hands about. I had to admit it was much more difficult 🙂 I think it would be a substantial loss to lose the face-to-face reference transaction altogether.

      Thanks for your interesting point of view, it’s good to prompt thinking about the things we value.

    • #2296
      Chris Sonneveld

      Thank you Nicole, Stacey and Robynne for your responses. I think it will take a while to replace us but in the mean time we should be able to develop better tools to compliment our human touch.

      Here’s a recent article from that you might find interesting: IBM Watson Gets Smarter Artificial Intelligence — Language, Vision And Speech

    • #2375
      Christopher Brander

      Great post, Chris. It brought to my mind a couple of thoughts. Firstly, I agree with Robynne that I don’t think libraries and books can or should ever go fully digital. Virtual spaces are great in many ways but they don’t replace the feeling you get while holding a book or perusing a bookshelf. Secondly, your point about teleconferencing made me think – why aren’t more libraries offering teleconferencing services? Libraries typically have internet connections and there are plenty of free video conferencing services these days like Skype. Teleconferencing is like a happy middle ground between web chat and face to face -it’s convenient because you don’t have to travel and you can still use the non-verbal aspects of speech to get your point across.

    • #2415
      Paola Beretta

      Hi Chris,

      Another great reflection. I am working as a virtual librarian at the moment and I see great value in this service as it is available to users who cannot visit the library for a number of reasons. However, I agree with you that the face-to-face interaction is still a more complete experience. Sometimes it is difficult for the user to ask a question in a manner that actually makes sense to the librarian who is trying to help them. It might then take a few more questions to understand what they really need to know and this can be frustrating.

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