Horowitz, L. R., Flanagan, P. A., & Helman, D. L. (2005). The Viability of Live Online Reference: An Assessment. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5(2), 239-258.

Abstract: The MIT Libraries enthusiastically implemented real-time online reference service in September 2001. After 15 months, Ask Us!-Live was suspended due to ongoing software problems. This article describes the four-part assessment of the service with recommendations for the future.

Actually I’ve known 2 of the authors for years, Pat Flanagan & Deb Helman; we all served together on the NEASIST program committee back in the day. (The day, here, being before the silent T.) These days, sadly, I only ever see them at ASIST conferences.

Even though Deb told me about this article when I saw her last (at ASIST in Providence, natch), I have to admit I was still surprised to read about the failure of this service. I was surprised that the service failed, and just as surprised that face-to-face was the preferred mode, and at MIT of all places. Here’s my interpretation of their results: the failure of the service was the result of a mismatch between their users’ expectations of the service & what these users actually wanted to use a reference service for. About half of the users were grad students, who would naturally have a need for research help – which is to say, involved reference transactions & potentially ongoing relationships with individual librarians. But more than half of users believed that chat reference is only good for quick answers to easy questions.

In my experience it is actually not true that chat reference is only good for quick answers to easy questions. Quite the contrary; in my experience chat is excellent for conducting reference transactions & for answering researchy questions. Why? Because it’s possible to carry on an actual conversation with the user. In this way, chat is better for answering lengthy & researchy questions than email. But there is a misperception that chat is only good for quick-and-dirty reference. Where did this misperception come from? I don’t really know, but I suspect it’s a carryover from IM being perceived as a technology for teenagers. This seems to me to be an area where chat reference services need better marketing. Anyway, that’s my interpretation.

Horowitz, Flanagan, & Helman conclude by listing a set of criteria for a chat ref app that’s as pithy as any I’ve seen. Chat ref app developers take note:

  • The software must be simple for busy librarians to grasp with minimal training.
  • The skills needed should be transferable to and from other chat software packages.
  • Optimally, chat and e-mail services could most easily be managed if integrated into the same system.
  • Despite early hopes that chat software might be useful for instruction, its communication potential is currently more relevant–e.g., fewer bells and whistles were needed.
  • The system must be one that works well across MIT’s diverse and complex network to keep troubleshooting to a minimum.
  • Browser compatibility issues should be monitored as the technical problems we experienced might be mitigated by upcoming Web browser standards.