Complexity (or Not) of Questions

Published: 2021-09-15 09:00:10
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Many reference librarians report that they are seeing fewer reference questions and more difficult technology-related questions. As technology becomes more complex, users need more assistance. Alongside this, Academic librarians are seeing an increasing number of questions that come when users have not been able to locate the information that they are looking for via the Web. Sometimes it is because the information is not there, but often it is because their search skills are not as focused.
There is conflicting evidence over whether or not questions received at the reference desk are becoming less complex, i.e. more instructional or directional questions rather than pure reference enquiries being recorded. Some, like Watstein, argue that reference desks are “incredibly busy” (Watstein & Bell, 2008)Arndt (2010) found that removing the reference desk resulted in the number of in-depth reference queries and consultations increasing, and the reference questions answered by librarians are much more likely to make use of their education and expertise increasing their job satisfaction. Schulte (2011) found rising numbers of refernce appointments lasting 30 minutes or more. Solorzano (2013) reports that librarians have anecdotally conveyed evidence of a change in the type of reference question users bring to the desk, trending toward more complex queries that require longer, more in-depth responses.
In other studies, these assertation do not hold up.
Stetson library conducted an extensive survey in to what sources were used at the reference desk over a four-year period in the library (Dinkins & Ryan, 2010). Librarisn there knew that the desk transactions included many more hardware, software, printer, and copier problems than actual “questions” and, anecdotally, they also thought that the reference questions were less complex (owing largely to the growth in the number of databases and the ease of searching the Internet (Dinkins & Ryan, 2010). The results showed that “Librarian knowledge” accounted for 25% of the total sources used to answer questions. Print reference books were used only 7.9%. Online soruces accounted for 57% of the sources. Another interesting result was that librarians used only one source to answer a question 75% of the time and used fewer than four sources 95.8% of the time. Tone fo the conlusions one can draw from this is that if librarians could answer 75% of the questions with only one source, most questions coming to the desk were probably not very complex.
In Ryans 2008 transactional alysis study, only 11% of the reference transactions were classified as “research” questions. Fifty-nine percent of the total reference transactions (including non-informational directions and machine queries) in this study could be answered using only the librarian’s knowledge of the library; 75% of recorded questions in this study (excluding non-informational directions and machine queries) were answered with only one source. This again points to questions becoming less complex. Rich & Lux (2016) found that chat questions received at their library were not in fact the quick, easy informational questions it was first thought they would be. A high percent of the questions received via chat were research based, often complicated and challenging. If this is the landscape of reference queries, were libraries are receiving a lack of “difficult” reference questions, then it impacts the staffing at that library. Go in to paraprofessionals.
Other/Changing reference service models
The conditions and evidence from a library’s local environment should be used in any decision about the best way to offer reference service. One size does not fit all.
Pre-emptive reference. Many librarians are making online systems more user-friendly by delivering pre-packaged guidance to help patrons overcome obstacles. Examples include course guides, screencasts, widgets for library Web pages, and blogging.
As discussed, data compiled by the ALA Office for Research & Statistics (2008) showed a steady decline in the use of reference services in academic libraries between 1994 and 2008. Information of this sort is causing libraries to re-evaluate their position on reference, particularly as the physical desk begins to seem less relevant. Budgetary concerns, competition from Internet services and an ever-changing clientele are further contributing to this desire to change the way librarians approach reference (Zabel, 2005b). As a result, libraries are increasingly trying new things, and implementing unorthodox programs and solutions in an attempt to keep up with the needs of their users.
One of the first changes to significantly alter the reference landscape was the advent of end-user search tools. A desire displayed for instructon on these tools foreshadowed a trend that would continue to develop in subsequent years.
Acknowledging the possibility that there is something to be gained from altering the balance of power in the reference interview is an example of the kind of adaptability that modern reference librarians need.
The UL’s emphasis on engagement and community building, reverse reference and research immersion, and meeting users where they are, enhances the role of the reference librarian. At the UL reference librarianship is not dead. Our statistics show increases in both reference and instruction. Even though the restrictive barrier of the iconic architecture of a desk is disappearing, and our reference desks are being removed or relocated, reference service is flourishing. These interactions create more fluid relationships which are not bound to traditional standards but are responsive to the multiplicity and complexity that reflects the way users approach information.
Intro to this section:
The answer for libraries may lie in more flexible reference services. For example, academic librarians may have office hours within the departments they serve. Librarians in both public and academic libraries need to explore the possibilities offered by roving reference service that takes the librarians out into the stacks to assist users. Appointment-based reference services is another option that is being explored in both public and academic libraries. Some librarians have established office hours in the academic departments where they serve as liaisons.
Many academic libraries may have reached a point where they have enough content. But do we have enough to serve the information needs of our clientele? If the answer is yes, then we need to ask if we are doing enough to encourage the use of the content we already have. Reference librarians have a role here in both promoting their electronic collections as well as in teaching users how to make the best use of these collections. Bibliographic instruction is still a central role for reference librarians, but instead of print resources, librarians now must address the range of materials from print to databases to the Internet.
Typically, these expansions or changes in services are not met with a commensurate increase in budgets or staffing. For example, there has been an abundance of service-point consolidations and an increased reliance on lower paid staff for provision of reference and access services. Intriguingly, few, if any academic libraries have lowered their expectations for the quality of these service.
The advent of the internet and the ensuing technological revolution gradually made many resources and services available to the academic users “anywhere and at any time” through the internet. Now-a-days, users’ physical presence in library buildings has become unnecessary to perform many library-related activities. The paradigm shift in service delivery and access to resources, shrinking operating budgets and declining statistics of reference transactions have forced many academic libraries to revisit and reform reference services to make them more efficient, cost-effective and adaptive to users’ needs and preferences
While some academic libraries have consolidated reference desks with other public service desks to streamline the service (Flanagan and Horowitz, 2000; Jones and Zou, 2009), many others have adopted tiered reference services where the basic reference questions are answered by nonprofessionals and the users with complex queries are referred to professional reference librarians (Dinkins and Ryan, 2010; Faix et al., 2010; Stevens, 2013). Some academic libraries have eliminated the physical location of the reference desk and adopted a model where professional librarians are “on call” to answer reference queries and provide reference consultations by appointment (Arndt, 2010; Sonntag and Palsson, 2007)
Changes are happening in both the information landscape and users’ information-seeking behaviors. As academic library users are becoming more and more technology-savvy, they feel more comfortable in finding information on their own using the internet. The availability of online databases, e-journals and e-books from their institutional libraries makes it possible for them to find and use information in their own environment without making any trips to the libraries. Moreover, the producers of electronic resources are trying to make the interfaces user-friendly to enable end-users to search their products with minimal or no training.
Other studies have revealed that the traditional model is still valid in many academic libraries. Banks and Pracht (2008) surveyed 101 libraries and found that 86 per cent of those surveyed had one reference desk and remaining others had more than one desk. The authors concluded that a single reference desk reflected “common operating procedure”. Similarly, in a survey, Miles (2013) found that 79 (66.39 per cent) respondents out of 119 participants had reference desks in their libraries, while the remaining 40 (33.61 per cent) libraries indicated they provided reference services from the desks shared with IT staff or circulation staff and had reference librarians on call.
The relationship between librarians and users has evolved, driven by new and emerging technologies. Rather than just passive “readers”, library users have opportunities to be an active contributor to the library via web technologies that enable participation, personalisation, collaboration and co-creation (Thorpe, 2017).
Virtual Reference Services
A majority of academic libraries (75 percent) provide virtual reference services including email, commercial chat services, and text messaging. There are three behavioral issues at work, and they all work against the traditional reference desk model. First, Millennials are much more adaptable to technology solutions. Between cell phones, instant messaging, and text messaging they are more likely to seek assistance virtually rather than face-to-face. That’s why virtual chat and instant messaging reference give these students a desirable option for accessing reference assistance.
Our younger generations spend significant numbers of hours engaged in their networks. As a result, not unlike researchers who often do their information seeking within their own professional networks, it is now more common for students to send out requests for help with assignments to their network peers. That results in fewer reference questions asked at desk.
Surveys have indicated that those who participate in social networks are far more likely to ask others, even strangers, for help before asking professionals.
One thing that has not changed is the reference interview. Librarians need to talk to the readers and determine what their needs are. An interesting development with the advent of virtual reference services is the lack of visual cues. The librarian no longer can rely on tone and facial expressions as the question is being asked and answered. When a user is in the library, the librarian can more easily follow up. This is more difficult in a chat or IM reference environment.
Reference transactions via direct, face-to-face contact between librarians and users had once been the “gold standard” in academic libraries. In addition to telephone and e-mail, many academic libraries are now using chat, text messaging, Instant Messaging (IM), audio and videoconferencing software to offer Virtual Reference Service (VRS).
While convenience, anonymity and the speed were rated as top three advantages by the users, limited hours of service, the number of people online at the same time and indirectness of service, including inability of responding library staff to show the resources directly, were the major disadvantages indicated by the users.
Something to consider is that students come to universities or colleges with different levels of computer competencies and information-seeking skills. As noted by Gale and Evans (2007, p. 90), “many are truly confused and at a disadvantage in the electronic landscape of information research”. Moreover, many academic library users access the library databases remotely without consulting any librarians. They do not always know how to formulate or reformulate their database search strategies for effective information retrieval. In addition, nontraditional student enrollment has soared and these students now represent the new majority in higher education. These learners are among the most racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse students in the history of higher education and their numbers are continuing to rise considerably older and their computer skills vary widely. Important components of success for these nontraditional students focus on the provision of library reference support in navigating the research process and in utilizing technologies that are either completely foreign or vastly different from any they had used earlier in their academic careers.
Despite the apparent dominance of digital technology and resources in today’s users’ information-seeking behavior, not all users are able to find what they need online on their own. In the digital environment, there is still a significant need for human intervention and human-to-human communication in the acquisition of inferential, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Digital technology is unable to outperform human beings in terms of logical thinking, critical interpretation of information and its contextual application. At present, no digital resources or technologies have the abilities to interpret and synthesize information from multiple sources the way an intelligent and knowledgeable human being can do. The current digital technologies and resources do not have the capabilities to completely replace the need for mediated reference services in academic libraries.
Chat reference is a creative response to the shifting reference environment. But medium can make it tough to analyze the needs of the user, especially when compared with a face-to-face reference interview. It falls to the reference librarian, then, to be proactive in this regard or else risk leaving the user unsatisfied. In chat the potential for instruction was great. One reason for this was that users could leave their chat windows open while conducting their own searches, then simply type a follow-up question for the librarian later if they required further assistance. A lack of social cues is seen as another aspect of chat reference to which librarians must adapt.
A remote reference model that takes full advantage of voice chat, video conferencing, and screen sharing capabilities. The resulting interaction, performed over Skype in this case, offers remote learners an experience that is much closer to an in-person reference interview. However they’re used primarily by specific groups (such as faculty or international students), depended heavily on promotion, and were particularly sensitive to technical difficulties.
The need for librarians to evaluate whether a given technology is appropriate for a local user base. This idea of avoiding assumptions and focusing on specific user needs when developing reference services cannot be overstated and is of critical importance for reference librarians who may wonder why the desk is seeing less traffic lately.
Chat Reference
Pop-Up Chat
Chat reference has been a mainstay of the library’s reference service since the late 1990s.
we knew that not all of our students were aware that we offered such a service.
Making the chat proactive rather thanr elying on the user to discover it meant that chat transctions more than doubled. The most likely and obvious explanation as to why the number of chat questions increased so drastically is that users did not know online assistance was available until the pop-up was triggered. Another plausible explanation is that they had heard about the library chat service, but they had forgotten about it or it did not occur to them to use it or maybe they did not know how to access the service. they might not remember regular chat at their point of need. Proactive chat is one effective response to this challenge. It effectively markets itself and undoubtedly reaches students who we would not otherwise reach, even if they had previous knowledge of the service.
And not just reaching them in a passive way, but rather engaging them in interactions at their point of need within the library research process.
Meeting distance students where they are is not just convenient but essential for those unable to visit the library in person. The proactive service helps us reach distance students who might be needing our assistance but are unaware of the services we offer.
What do these data tell us? For one, it suggests that the proactive chat box initiates more chats than a static chat box.
Live chat services have been widely adopted among public and academic libraries for almost two decades, with technologies making this service easier to set up and asses.
Literature by Matteson Salaman and Brewster shows that users are not aware of chat services. They recommended that future research could explore what strategies were most effective in increasing awareness of chat service such as using new technologies to reach out to users.
adding this pop-up chat box feature to the existing live chat service makes sense to those customer service-oriented libraries
Since the pop-up chat box can be customized and installed anywhere on certain web pages, this provides more flexibility than the static chat widget for reference services, especially in staffing.
Several studies recommended that reference services models incorporating a tiered reference model and proactive chat service best met the demands of contemporary student research styles.
Overall, the ability to proactively reach out to library users encourages questions and communication between the library and its users, and also enables libraries to more effectively satisfy user needs. Based on the experience at the UTHSC library, the recommendation is to install pop-up chat boxes on appropriate library pages according to users’ needs, especially on the home page, to increase use of chat reference services and to provide a better library user experience

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