Friday, October 10, 2008

Article Note: On discontinued reference chat services

Citation for the article:

Radford, Marie L. and M. Kathleen Kern, "A Multiple-case Study Investigation of the Discontinuation of Nine Chat Reference Services." Library and Information Science Research 28 (2006): 521-547

Read via ScienceDirect.

I read this article with some interest. My library is currently working on joining the system's consortial reference chat. This has met with lukewarm results from the reference staff, but it is part of the director's vision, so my task, as head of reference, is to make it happen. Part of the reason I am personally skeptical is because I have personal experience using online chat for reference; I did so in library school at Indiana University. Issues such as the low volume were pretty common at the time; in addition, Docutek, the software choice at the time, was not exactly the most reliable software. At any rate, this is some of the background I bring to this article. By the way, I highly recommend this article for any library who may be considering starting a chat reference service.

Some notes from the article then:

  • The article is based on a study of nine institutions (five academic, one public, and three consortia).
  • Why you should read this article: "The results of this exploratory study will be of value to library managers needing to make informed decisions about starting new chat reference services or judging the viability of existing ones" (522).
  • The literature review points out that, while there are plenty of articles discussing successful programs, articles like this one which look at services that were discontinued are rare. The authors make the following observation about a lot of those success articles: "however, authors writing about their chat services seem to define success post-facto after the collection of data rather than measured against any predetermined objectives" (523).
  • A major reason for discontinuations was very basic. It was low volume. To be honest, I could have told a few people this for free, so to speak. The authors cite S. Weismann who observes, "burnout is nothing compared to boredom. Reference librarians want to be engaged, busy" (qtd. in 523). Further into the article, the authors add that "these findings highlight the importance of maintaining enough volume for staff to stay primed and interested. Sufficient volume is critical to staff satisfaction" (531). The bottom line is a chat service will not work or last if it is not used. After a while, librarians will simply move on and put their efforts in things that actually yield results or at least keep them engaged. It may not be the most PC way of saying it, but that is just a bit of common sense. Overall, in spite of other reasons for discontinuation presented, overall the article makes pretty clear low volume is a big issue.
  • Additionally, this may be worthy of a note: "extensive marketing efforts were undertaken by services that had low volume" (528). In other words, and this is something that administrators may need to hear more often, just because you publicize, it does not always follow you will have a rush to a particular service. Building the brand does take time, but marketing is not the cure-all.
  • What were the reasons for discontinuation overall? According to the authors, "there were six major reasons for discontinuation: funding problems, low volume, low volume from target population, staffing problems, technical problems, and institutional culture issues" (527).
  • More assessment needs to be done: "Cross-case analysis revealed that there was little or no evaluation of impact on users when the services were discontinued" (530).
  • Also, things may work better if you recruit volunteers rather than imposing it on all the reference staff: "Some cases reported that it may be better to recruit volunteers, rather than forcing all reference librarians to participate, as this may result in less technology proficient librarians feeling pressured and 'hating' the service" (531). This seems to me like common sense. It becomes problematic in smaller settings, like mine, where you may not have enough staff or staff time as a whole. In other words, everyone pretty much has to pitch in to make it work or else. In my case, I would love to have certain librarians not work the reference desk, but in reality, we need every warm body we can get. Same principle would apply to virtual reference here.
  • Another important idea to note: "there may be a conflict or disconnect between what librarians and users want from the software that additional evaluation could investigate" (532). I think we can go further and say that there is often a disconnect between what the patrons may want and/or are willing to use and what the librarians think those patrons want.
The article makes a series of recommendations based on the findings at the end. The list is definitely a "must read." I do disagree with their 2 year window of opportunity. The average time that the services profiled in the article had for the service was about 19 months. I think given the realities of libraries, a little more than a year and a half is more than enough time for the service to either catch on, or just cut the loses and move to something else. A lot of things can happen in two years from funding cuts to staff turnover that could make a VR service vulnerable if it has not caught in within a a year and a half or so. Just my humble opinion. Additionally, the authors pose further questions for research, and they do include the basic profiles of the nine institutions studied without identifiers, which does make me wonder a bit because I think there would be value in seeing who actually chose to shut down their service. Also, do keep in mind this article came out in 2006, which means a lot of the work happened before 2006. In a virtual, 2.0 kind of world, that is quite a bit of time. However, that does not take away from the overall value of the article. It is still very applicable today.

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