Special Issue April 2009: Papers from the 3rd conference of the Student Association of Medical Library and Information Science of the Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences and Health Services, Tehran, Iran, held in December 24 and 25, 2008.
Chat Reference: Training and Competencies for Librarians
M.A. Students in Library and Information Science
Technology has changed library services. In particular, the use of the Internet has made a significant difference in the way that traditional services are provided. Reference service is a critical service that has been changed by technology. Digital or virtual reference has developed as a way of helping patrons "not only on the desk, but in cyberspace" (Zanin-Yost, 2004). This article deals with the introduction of chat reference as a new concept that is not extensively used in Iranian libraries and also with competencies needed to implement it. The principles of reference service are discussed in connection with competencies for chat reference.
Digital or virtual reference has multiple definitions:
Improvement in technology has led to the development of different types of digital reference in last two decades. All have advantages and disadvantages. Users can get reference help quickly and remotely. They can use reference services whenever they like. The library can use this service to attract the new users. The types of digital reference include (Rosch , 2003):
Chat reference service has been called real-time reference, live online reference, synchronous online reference, virtual reference, and chat reference. This article will use the term "chat reference." Chat reference is "a two-way conversation in real time, very much like talking to a reference librarian in person. Chat users can receive immediate feedback, thus they can use written language in the same manner used in a person-to-person conversation" (Zanin-Yost, 2004)
Chat reference can use free software such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Instant Messaging (IM). These programs are used more than others because they are free. There is also commercial chat software, including LSSI's Virtual Reference Toolkit (now purchased by Tutor.com), and Metropolitan Cooperative Library System's 24/7 Reference (now merged with OCLC's QuestionPoint). They are based on eGain, a commercial call center software (Luo, 2007).
While chat references has advantages, including remote access and co-browsing, there can also be problems, such as:
Chat Reference Competencies
Luo (2007) identifies three kinds of competencies from the literature on reference and chat reference.
She divides these competencies into thirteen categories, including competencies for general reference. General reference competencies include reference interview skills, which are discussed by Marsteller and Mizzy (2003), Ross et al. (2002), Hirko and Ross (2004), and IFLA (2002). Knowledge of electronic resources and searching skills are also competencies for general reference, and are discussed by Coffman (2003), Smith (1999), and DREI (2004). The a bility to evaluate resources and services is described by Harris (2004) and Meola and Stormont (2002), as well as IFLA (2002). Other competencies are instruction, u nderstanding of service policies, understanding of customer service ethic, and ability to derive professional satisfaction.
Competencies specific to chat reference services include online communication skills, ability to effectively use chat software, and ability to work in a collaborative environment
Competencies for general reference that are emphasized in the chat environment include basic computer techniques, discussed by Salem, et al. (2004), and the ability to work under pressure.
Chat reference training
Chat reference is an important service that will be coming to libraries in Iran in the future. LIS curricula must begin teaching the competencies of new technologies such as chat reference.
Lou (2007) has suggested in her doctorate thesis two pathways can lead to the same goal of effectuating chat reference education in a master's program:
The digital reference course developed by Harris (2004) was a course titled "An Introduction to Digital Reference". The course objectives were:
During this course, students learned models of searching, reference interview techniques and considerations, and a brief review of online sources as well.
In the redesign of this course, Harris decided to add more theoretical context and split it into two sections. The first section will cover the theory of digital reference, including "information behavior in the online environment and etc., In the second section, the focus will be shifted to the practice of digital reference, including "active learning in asynchronous and synchronous reference via the use of e-mail and chat software".
Lou (2007) suggests two paths to incorporating chat reference training in LIS curricula. The first is an advanced reference course on virtual reference that would have competency-based objectives. The second is a chat reference module that would be included in a basic reference course. The module would cover less material than an advanced course, but would introduce chat reference to students.
Harris (2004) developed a digital reference course in which students learned models of searching, reference interview techniques and considerations, and a brief review of online sources. In the redesign of this course, Harris added more theoretical content, including "information behavior in the online environment." The course also covers the practice of digital reference, including "active learning in asynchronous and synchronous reference via the use of e-mail and chat software."
Lou (2007) introduces an online workshop for chat reference training. The goal of this four-week workshop was teaching techniques for chat reference services without face-to-face instruction, using four modules:
The development of a training program starts by identifying competencies or best practices. In the studies that reported training programs chat reference services, some identified competencies by surveying librarians in other institutions and others created the competency checklist by engaging their own librarians in discussion.
Chat reference training has four primary categories and two subcategories: initial software training, training on chat reference skills, mentoring, and ongoing practice. Subcategories include training materials and assessment and evaluation of training.
Principles of Reference Service in Iranian LIS Syllabi
New technologies have transformed information delivery. Widespread use of the Internet has changed user expectations. Users expect to receive information quickly and without having to visit the library. One way of doing this is chat. Chat reference has become an important library service. Libraries in Iran should also implement chat reference. To accomplish this, librarians need training. Therefore, it is necessary to foster the required competencies within LIS curricula. Studying the LIS syllabi of several universities has led to the conclusion that the chat reference is best included in courses that teach the principles of reference service. Courses that teach those principles generally include the following subjects:
1. The concept and philosophy of the reference service.
2. Necessity of reference service.
3. Analysis of questions and process of giving suitable responses
4. Methods of searching and retrieving.
5. Types of reference sources
6. Characteristics of a reference librarian.
Some universities have added subjects such as information centers, application of new technologies, etc., to courses that teach the principles of reference service. But these modifications cannot teach librarians the required competencies for chat reference. The competency of understanding service policies can be included with the concept and philosophy of the reference services. Reference interview skills can be included with analysis of questions and process of giving suitable responses. Knowledge of electronic resources and searching skills can be part of methods of searching and retrieving. Kinds of reference sources are part of the instructional role competency. Understanding of customer service ethic, ability to derive professional satisfaction, online communication skills, ability to work in a collaborative environment, and ability to work under pressure are all part of the characteristics of the reference librarian. It is not yet possible to accommodate some of the competencies required for chat reference in present referebce and their syllabi, but there are two new alternative: acquaintance with new technologies (software and hardware) and evaluation of resources and reference services can cover basic computer techniques and the ability to effectively use chat software, as well as the ability to evaluate resources and services. (Table 1)
Table 1: Relationship between principles of reference services contained in LIS syllabi and chat reference competencies
Chat reference has become one common in libraries in developed countries. Most libraries in Iran do not use it, and many librarians know nothing about it. An important reason for its lack of popularity in Iran is a lack of familiarity and of the competencies that are needed. It is not covered in LIS curricula. Acquiring the competencies requires training. Training is the key to keeping library employees flexible and efficient. Changes in LIS curricula are required to keep up with the ever-changing environment.
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