Reference Interface: Email, Phone, Chat

As technology changes, reference librarians modify their services to meet patron needs and expectations.  This means the traditional reference interview must be adapted to these new technologies.  Some suggest that email, phone, and chat reference services can counteract the problems they believe exist with traditional, desk-based reference service, perhaps even replacing the reference desk entirely (Miles, 2013).  However, research shows that these methods have significant problems as well, although rated as positive within the context of the study (Cassidy, 2014).  This paper considers the professional literature in light of my experience participating in reference interviews across three types of electronic interfaces, email, phone, and chat.

Howard Schwartz found that “The Reference and User Services Association’s (RUSA) elements of approachability, interest, searching, and follow-up still apply, but they need to be modified to take into account the fact that the patron is not physically present (2014). In my experience, I often found that the RUSA guidelines weren’t even applied, let alone modified for a particular interface.  For this project, I ended up emailing three libraries, chatting with two, and calling one.  The email interface provided the least satisfactory experience, followed, surprisingly, by phone, with the chat interface providing the most useful, though somewhat disappointing experience.

The first library I emailed was the Herman B Wells Library, not realizing this was a university library, as Google seems to call it a public library.  Only after submitting the form was I redirected to a FAQ including the following usage statement:

This service is intended for the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Indiana University, Bloomington. If you do not fall into one of these categories, we are sorry that we can only reply to your inquiry if it concerns Indiana University or some unique resource of the Indiana University Libraries.

I felt that already this interaction had failed the accessibility portion of the RUSA guidelines, as even if I was not part of their service population, this information could have been presented on the form submission page, instead of after I had already submitted the form.  That said, I did receive a reply. “The Library isn’t involved with self-publishing. We have a few titles on the subject, but they’re getting to be a few years old. Here’s a pretty good list of self-publishing platforms:”  While I appreciated that the librarian took the time to send me a resource despite the fact that I was not part of his service population, I wasn’t certain what the library’s involvement with self-publishing had to do with my request.  Leading with this statement made me feel the librarian was tossing me a crumb, instead of going above and beyond to provide excellent service.

Regardless, none of the email interactions included any clarifying questions or any back-and-forth communication.  Asking for information on self-publishing, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library first offered a link to their events page, where several author fair presentations were listed, some of which pertained to writing.  Leading with self-promotion, again, was off-putting, and did not very well address my request.  The second link provided was to search results in their catalog, and the third link was to the Indiana Writer’s Center, which really didn’t address my request at all.  I also emailed the Avon Public Library, but have yet to receive a reply.

The phonecall I made was to the Anderson Public Library.  The reference librarian was professional, introducing herself and stating I had reached Information Services.  I felt the need to clarify that I had reached the Reference Desk, as “information” sounded a little vague for my purposes.  “Information Services” could provide information on the location of the restroom, or hours and location.  Again, I doubted the accessibility of information.

Asking my question about self-publishing, I was offered books in the collection, library-produced information packets, and the suggestion that I attend upcoming programs.  I then asked what information was available online.  She asked me to wait while she checked the library’s website for a subject guide, however she found none.  She then suggested Amazon’s Independent Publishing page, but added that there was a fee involved.  Next, she offered articles on CNet and Wikipedia.  On the whole, I was satisfied with the resources I received.  However, I didn’t feel the interaction lived up to the RUSA guidelines, although the phone-call interaction met those guidelines better than the email interactions did.

My first interaction via chat was with Johnson County Public Library.  The response was immediate, in other words, very accessible.  The resources I received were excellent, the best from any interaction, and ideal for use in my annotated bibliography.  However, rather than copying and pasting the transcript for later use, I used the “email transcript” feature.  The transcript never arrived.  I lost the entire conversation and all the resources.  I will have to contact them again.

My second chat interaction was with the Carmel-Clay public library.  Here, it took ten minutes to get a reply through the chat service.  However, the librarian apologized for the delay and explained.  Though the resources I received were similar to those from other libraries, and not quite as good as those I received from Johnson County, the reference interview was excellent.  The librarian asked a clarifying question, and explained the resources she was providing, suggesting specific books, instead of just a link to search results. She was definitely interested and listening, and I felt she was really working to provide the best information she could.  I’ve included the full transcript below:

11:58 me Hi, I’m looking for information on self-publishing. Can you help?

12:09 librarian Hi! I apologize for the delay, I was busy helping a patron with an e-book issue. What kind of information are you looking for?

12:10 me I’m writing a book, and I’d like to know what information is available for publishing it myself. How would I go about publishing? I’m looking for instruction, I guess.

12:12 librarian No problem. We do have a couple of books in thelibrary that might be good for you. The best one would be “How to write and self-publish your own book : 7 steps to a finished product in 30 days” by Joani Ward. It is checked out now, but I could put a hold on for you. Here is a link to the search I did in our catalog. Take a look at some of the other books, particularly the Microsoft Word book. It might help with formatting etc.

12:15 librarian We are also going to be hosting a series of lectures on publishing and writing in November, for National Novel Writing Month. We’ll be discussing issues like marketing and online resources for writers wanting to publish. We also have some hours blocked out throughout that month where local authors can come to the library and write together. Those are going to be on Wednesdays in November from 6:30 to 8 p.m. I’ll take a look online right now and get back to you in a few minutes with what I find.

12:17 me Thank you. I’m going to step away a minute myself, but  please do reply with what you find when you’re available. I’ll leave the window open. Thank you.

12:19 librarian Ok, I found a lot of stuff online I hope will help. First, here is a pretty detailed guide from a publishing expert on the different options and steps to self-publishing:

12:23 me That looks really good. Did you have any more?

12:23 librarian These next two sites are services that help people with the process. On both, you can access information on how to get started with your book and they can help you with designing a cover, formatting pages, etc. Of the two, I would recommend Lulu. it’s a very easy-to-use site and has a lot of good information and simple steps to getting your book published.

12:23 librarian

12:24 librarian CreateSpace is also a pretty commonly used site, I just prefer Lulu’s user-friendliness.

12:24 me Excellent!

12:24 me Thank you very much. Those will do nicely.

Although I was happy with the outcome, it did feel somewhat awkward at the end, in regard to how to end the interaction.  And 25 minutes did seem to be a long time, when not actually speaking with someone face-to-face.

In “Shall We Get Rid of the Reference Desk,” Dennis Miles cites Karen Summerhill’s argument that library reference service is “designed for ‘emergency style services in a non-emergency situation,’” and that “consultation should be offered by appointment.”  However, his research found that face-to-face interaction at the reference desk is still the main means of providing reference services for most libraries, with other electronic interfaces offered to supplement desk service. (2013)  Erin Cassidy, in “So Text Me—Maybe” found that 59% of reference interactions via text message reviewed for the survey “received human responses within 30 minutes of the initial question,” and notes that only 11% of studied patrons used the service a second time (2014).

In my experience, I would have to say that patrons are looking for “emergency-style services.”  Every librarian knows well the experience of having patrons come looking for resources at the last minute before a paper or project is due.  To these patrons, their situation is an emergency.  Perhaps the low rate of returning users to electronic interfaces for reference questions has to do with a lack of accessibility, listening, and inquiring.  Most of the interactions I had did not seem to meet the accessibility guidelines, and the resources provided, especially those that were library programs I would have to wait several weeks to attend, did not suit my immediate needs.  However, none of the librarians I interacted with considered how immediate my research need might be.

All-in-all, I found the experience enlightening.  The Carmel-Clay interaction provided me a prime example of a professional, experienced reference interview, and an example to aspire to.  However, the flaws with electronic interfaces in the reference interaction, such as a lack of back-and-forth interaction, inquiry, and accessibility, leads me to believe that the reference desk will continue to be the main means of providing reference services to patrons for a long time to come.


Cassidy, E. D., Colmenares, A., & Martinez, M. (2014). So Text Me–Maybe. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 53(4), 300-312.

Miles, D. B. (2013). Shall We Get Rid of the Reference Desk?. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 52(4), 320-333. doi:10.5860/rusq.52n4.320

Schwartz, H. R., & Trott, B. (2014). The Application of RUSA Standards to the Virtual Reference Interview. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 54(1), 8-11.

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