I work in an academic library so this is my experience. Students in academic libraries are constantly evolving in their use of the library and technology. When I first started, databases were published on series of multiple CD-ROMs housed in CD towers and our students had to come to the library to access them via a network file share available from computers in the library. Our library had 7 photocopy machines because students needed to make copies of articles found in journals in the stacks. Today the copiers in the library have be reduced to 2 as most journal articles are available electronically (although they still like to print them). Students are not tied to the library computers anymore. The databases that they need are accessible over the Internet provided by the library through various subscription agreements with publishers. So it comes as no surprise that the way students interact with librarians has to change.
Librarians need to go where the students are. Where are they? They can be anywhere as long as they have an Internet connection and access to the library resources via authenticated access. So how do we provide help to students who could be accessing from anywhere? That is the goal in order to reach all users.
One of the current solutions is the venerable “Ask-a-Librarian” link. The link can simply be to a librarian email address or more sophisticatedly to a librarian chat interface. Having access to a librarian via a chat can be a valuable tool but it does have some drawbacks. First, staffing a librarian or group of librarians for 24/7 chat access would typically be cost prohibited for libraries. Second, the Ask-a-Librarian link is user initiated. If the student feels as though they shouldn’t need help and are either afraid or to proud to ask, then they will not use the link. Third, the Ask-a-Librarian link is usually found on the library’s homepage and maybe a few other select locations but not available once the student starts navigating a search and moves onto various publisher sites. Fourth, chatting works as long as the student can explain the problem in words. What if they can not?
So, I think a solution or collection of technologies can be useful here so that the student’s research needs are met if they run into a problems and need help. The Ask-a-Librarian idea is good but I think it needs to be expanded to reach all users. First, libraries and librarians will need to pool their resources to create a 24/7 user experience. From a quick Google search, this appears to be a direction that some libraries have taken.
Next, let’s expand on the Ask-a-Librarian link by providing a librarian’s assistance even if not prompted. Recently I was looking for a part to my microwave. As I was searching on Sear’s site and I paused or stayed on the page for a while; a chat popup soon appeared to offer me assistance. I am sure that you have seen similar non-prompted popup appears on other retail or financial sites. I think the library could deploy a similar technology for live chat with a librarian. If the student is struggling on a search and doesn’t feel like they need help or does know how to get help, this could be beneficial. There are some guidelines to consider. Don’t be too pesky and prompt repeatedly or too quickly; students will definitely get annoyed quickly. Don’t be invasive. No one likes someone looking over their shoulders while searching neither should the online librarian be a virtual hanger-oner.
The library assistant can prompt automatically for help but if it is dismissed and later the student needs help, what will the student do? There still needs to be a means for the student to contact a librarian without leaving their point of issue. One solution are various library toolbars as is pointed out in this Library Journal article. We use LibX but frankly, we do not prompt its use as much as we could. Thinking a little more about what most academic libraries do. Most academic library resources are restricted based on a license. Libraries develop means to authenticate patrons to these gated resources. Some librarians use Single Sign-On (SSO) solutions to seamlessly provide access to multiple authenticated resources as the student moves through them. The next step I think is to capitalize on SSO’s means of tracking authenticated access and through the same technology provide assistance services to the patrons. In other words, the Ask-a-Librarian link or automatic chat would follow the student as they moved from one library resource to another. When assistance is needed, the librarian would know which resource the student is currently accessing and how they arrived at that resource. This information can be valuable when answering research questions and not duplicate searches that have already be done or when tackling technical issues. The main concern for this type of technology is again a loss of privacy. Perhaps when assistance is requested, the librarian will need to ask if they can access the patron’s research history.
Lastly, the case of when words fail. Remote access / viewing / control is already in use. I think that some libraries already have the means to ask for remote access to a student’s computer using today’s chat technology. I think that this technology has to continue and grow in the future. Through the above mentioned, SSO like, session tracking, remote viewing could be initiated in a more direct and concentrated manner. The technology to view remotely also needs to be easy and clientless; the patron shouldn’t have to go through difficulties to establish a remote session with a librarian. Thinking more into the future, will there be a means to remotely view a student’s iPad screen or Android smartphone? Reflector seems to be a possibility now to view an iOS device from an Mac. Or maybe the solution is more low-tech; someone mentioned in a forum using Skype with mirrors.