I don’t know if this will be helpful for anyone, but today I’m going to tell you the story of how our virtual reference service evolved.
I say evolved because it has been an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process. Slow with gradual changes and some extinction.
Back in 2002 I led a project to investigate some virtual reference projects. I’m not sure now if this was a project to keep me out of trouble (having a reputation as a shover and a maker round here) but it did serve as the taster to our virtual reference dining experience.
Over the period of the project we looked at several commercial virtual help products from a variety of vendors. One in particular stood out and that was the one we recommended but it was (as you might imagine) the most expensive. So we didn’t get it and the whole idea of virtual reference languished for a few years.
Then I decided to look at some of the free instant messaging tools available. I signed us up to a bunch and then used Trillian (loaded onto the desktop) to monitor them. It proved annoying for some staff to have to staff both reference “desks” at the same time, as the free Trillian product only allowed a single sign on rather than multiple users for monitoring the IM accounts. This may have changed since of course.
Trillian did the job, but buy in by the staff was not happening, so we tried Meebo & Pluggoo. These worked better but we still had issues over the single sign on and rostering still was a sore point. We missed several queries because folks forgot to log on or the customer did not supply an email for us to get back to them.
Recently we moved to an open source product called Library H3lp. This product was developed for librarians by librarians and has proved to be cost effective for our small user base. It allows for multiple logins and does a whole lot of other Good Things. Our experience with it has been positive, and we have a growing number of queries using this service.
How does it compare with our f2f service?
In terms of numbers, we have far more f2f , phone or email queries than we do on Library H3lp. We hope to have an increase in queries as we promote the service, especially now we have links on the catalogue to the “live help”. We haven’t been overwhelmed at any time so far! It will be interesting to see how evening shifts manage if there is a dramatic increase in queries after 4.30pm.
We have asked staff to log on when they are sitting and working at their desks rather than having a specific rostering process. This has worked reasonably well though we have had a few hiccups during lunch breaks and evenings. There are a group of stalwarts who are constantly there, and a few others who pop in and out over the period of the day.
I don’t know if our experience of introducing such a service is typical. We’ve been a little “hampered” by a lack of digital strategy throughout the institution directing us, but this is changing. I hope this will make it easier to introduce further web 2.0 services in the future.