MassAnswers, a 24/7 ref project, answers my question sort of

Again, I say I feel odd commenting on the work of other librarians, so I’ll let this one mostly speak for itself. I had a friend who works in Boston who had a reference question “How many pre-1900 cemeteries are there in Massachusetts?” I thought I might be able to get this one with a quick Google but I was mistaken. So I decided to try out a service I was curious about: MassAnswers.

You know how Home Depot in every state says “[your state name]‘s Home Improvement Warehouse”? MassAnswers is just a rebranded 24/7 Reference project. So while the main page strongly implies you’ll talk to someone local (and I did), they also note that your question “may very well be answered by one of these Massachusetts librarians, or it may be answered by a librarian from California, Florida, North Carolina or some other community who contributes to the 24/7 service.” I decided to try it out, and I went there from the main page of Boston Public Library, where I have a library card. I use chat all the time, every day, a lot. I was curious to see how chat reference worked in a 24/7 environment. MassAnswers says this on their how does it work page.

You will communicate with the librarian using chat software accessed using your internet browser. You will type in questions to the librarian, and read their responses. Chat combines the immediacy of the telephone with the preciseness of a written e-mail. As you get into this form of communication you will realize that the pace of a chat “conversation” is a bit different than you might expect. You will put in a question, and then go off and do something else on the computer while the librarian picks up and formulates a reply. There will follow periods of rapid interchange of messages interspersed with longer pauses. During the pauses it is best if you open a complete new browser window if you want to do other web-browsing. That way you will not inadvertently drop the 24/7 connection.

It’s an interesting way of explaining chat, and yet read in a really odd stilted way, don’t you think? Once you get to the login page, you also read this:

Please do not try to bookmark (add to favorites) or print anything during the session! At the end of the session, you will receive a list of live links, which will allow you to go back and visit all of the pages the librarian showed you. You can bookmark anything you want at that time. If you try to bookmark during the session, you may experience a disconnect.

So, I will be shown websites which relate to my query and yet I shouldn’t be bookmarking them, adding them to my favorites, or printing them? Wasn’t one of Ranganathan’s five laws “Don’t make the user’s computer act differently from the computer they are used to”? If not, perhaps it should have been. Sarah Houghton has talked a lot about what needs to be fixed in QuestionPoint new interface but I’m pretty sure I was using the old interface. Stephen Francoeur has also discussed what he’d like to see fixed or improved. I’ll briefly talk about my experience.

Here is my transcript from which you can glean a lot. An interesting thing to note is that while the librarian I was working with was designated by her location and her initials, the transcript I received merely called her “librarian.” Also interesting is that the realtime transcript I was seeing had no timestamps on it while the transcript that was emailed to me clearly did. My reference transaction took 37 minutes and at the end of it I had the name of a book to go look in and a number of a librarian to call. My question was not answered, though to be fair it may have been a tough one.

A few things to note from the transcript:

  • the first link I was given was a) one that I had found in my own 5 minute google search and b) unhelpful because it had no date information. I’m sure there are many people who don’t know what the heck they want when they’re in this sort of situation, but I was not one of them. My question was clear. This web site did not answer it.
  • There was clearly something wrong with either her software or her understanding of it (I am assuming this was a woman I was dealing with) if you’ll note the times I got an address or a book title pasted eight times (twice)
  • The narrowness of the browser window — which is adjustable, but I used the default settings — means two things 1. all the cites she pasted for me were horribly formatted and hard to read 2. all of the websites we co-browsed were horribly formatted and hard to read
  • At the end of it all, she looked up a book for me in an OPAC though she admitted that there might have been print resources that would be helpful. She was clearly not in a library. I understand this is how these systems work, but it seemed like if she had had the book in front of her that she might have had a chance at helping me with my question.

The MassAnswers site spends a lot of time saying “librarian … librarian … librarian…” over and over again like a mantra, but I think it’s a valid question “Just how useful is the librarian outside of their library?” I feel that I’m pretty useful on Ask MetFilter and on these silly IM reference hunts, but honestly when we tell people we’re providing them with librarians but what we give them are MLS-educated people with access to the Internet (same as the asker in this case), what are we providing? What are we telling them? I’m pleased that the person I worked with tried so hard to help me out, but what chance did she have? I answered the follow-up survey I got honestly, and OCLC swears “Your answers and comments will help us to better tailor the system to your needs.” but I doubt it, I really and truly doubt it.

15 Responses to “MassAnswers, a 24/7 ref project, answers my question sort of”

  1. Scott Says:

    Hi Jessamyn,

    Thanks for posting this, and the transcript. Very interesting indeed.

    I sometimes wonder if the infrastructure required for 24/7 is worth the investment of staff time and resources? In one sense it seems like it is – having the library be available 24/7 can be a powerful marketing tool.

    But… it seems to me like the services are being marketed in a way that suggests that they are “replacements” for live, face-to-face librarians in ones own library – in a sense, emulating the “classical” way of dealing with reference transactions and taking on any question from anyone. But if we are offering to take on “all comers” and their questions, I think we need to do a better job.

    In reality these services seem to work far better as a “ready reference” resource. Which is a kind of reference that – for good or ill – is rapidly being replaced by people using the Internet themselves. In which case, I think there is a bit of a disconnect between what people are really coming to the service for and what the service provides.

    [Though, to be fair, they may be a great resource for people who can't successfully search the web on their own, for whatever reasons.]

  2. Michael C. Habib Says:

    It sounds like you were using the new QuestionPoint to me. IMHO, the old version was considerably more stable and much easier on the librarians.

    For in depth research questions, VR systems have a lot of potential when it comes to teaching patrons how to use databases. However, the co-browsing feature is what makes this valuable and the instability of the new system makes that harder to do. This is really helpful for a lot of classroom assignments where students need x number of literary criticisms or journal articles, but isn’t so helpful for questions that require books. That said, I am glad the librarian refered you to a book. Again, the problems with co-browsing are technical problems, not problems of VR in general.

    Anyway, I just wanted to pipe in a brief defense of VR in general. Personally, I prefer IM reference so I might not be the best one to make this argument.

  3. Sarah Houghton (LiB) Says:

    I agree with Michael. The older system, stinky as it was, was indeed more stable and easier for both the librarians and the users. This new system is worse in just about every way possible. We were all promised that this new version of the software would fix all the problems we had, but all it did was create new problems. Delays, disconnects, messages not showing up, difficulty picking up patrons, a harder to use interface, co-browsing that still doesn’t work. Combine the wealth of tech problems with the lack of connection with a local librarian, and services like this are losing their value in my mind. I would ask every director who says their web-based chat service is great (especially because it’s available 24/7) to do three things. 1) Look at your stats–how much is this being used? 2) Look at the breakdown by time of access–how many people actually use the service between, say, 7pm and 9am? 3) Read the transcripts of your users’ sessions–are they getting good service? Then I’d like to talk to those directors again and see if they’re still happy with the service.

  4. Just Me Says:

    My question was not answered, though to be fair it may have been a tough one.

    Having spent time trying to locate cemetery information for genealogical purposes, I wanted to mention that when I read your question, I immediately thought, “Woooo. Good luck with that.” Generally there is no complete listing of cemeteries out there, especially not with founding dates. There are simply too many obscure village cemeteries or tiny family cemeteries hiding out on old farms or in city personal gardens. While there are books that list cemeteries in states, I’ve never seen one that claimed to be complete. So while your experience was negative, I’m not sure that even a genealogy buff of a librarian who was in the library would have been able to help you.

  5. Just Me Says:

    Actually, I’m wrong. The book she directed you to does claim to be a complete listing of MA cemeteries. Dear Lord, that was one bored author. *boggles*

  6. The Shifted Librarian Says:

    What Is a Virtual Librarian?

    Jessamyn West has an interesting post about MassAnswers, the statewide virtual reference service for Massachussetts. It says a lot of the things that have occurred to me during the last three months, but I’d like to see more discussion about…

  7. Lisa Says:

    As a librarian who provides virtual reference I’d like to comment on this “At the end of it all, she looked up a book for me in an OPAC though she admitted that there might have been print resources that would be helpful. She was clearly not in a library.”

    It is entirely possible to be in a library and be doing chat w/o access to the physical collection. For example I work from my office PC far from the reference collection and stacks. I can’t leave this to go to our very large 4-storey, 2-wing stacks to look for a book, as I am monitoring IM and consortial chat queues as well.

    With a tablet or laptop I could use the print collections but am unlikely to if I am juggling 2 or more patrons as it’s hard enough to work with them in a stationary position. I don’t think this is a particularly unusual setup. Not an excuse but a reality check.

  8. Chris Shaffer Says:

    I’m so glad we dropped 24/7 in favor of Gaim and accounts on AIM, Yahoo, MSN and Google Talk. They’re only available when the library is open (until midnight most nights) but at least the users always connect with a local person and the systems are easy to use and very, very stable.

  9. laura Says:

    I think the important thing to note here is that the source the librarian provided a title for is probably the best answer to the question. However, she could have done a better job helping Jessamyn figure out how to find the book. One thing this points to is that not EVERYTHING is available on the internet, and anyone who thinks that is naive. Yet many people, librarians included, do think that. And 24/7 reference seems to imply it as well … It’s a service, but certainly not the best possible service we can provide.

  10. IL Librarian Says:

    I left this on Jenny’s blog as well, but wanted it here, too.

    Do I give good VR service? Nope. It’s difficult when you look at the majority of questions asked. They are not ready-reference things that can be answered just by using the internet or databases.

    90% of the time, they are users who want to know if they can renew their book. Or can I put XX on hold for them. Or why did they get this fine? Or what is the best way to get to XX branch from 55th Ave? They do not understand that when they click on this service, they are NOT necessarily talking to someone at their home libary.

    The next 5% of questions are not able to be answered with a quick online search. Like Jessamyn’s question. A perfectly valid question, just not for a VR librarian session. Being in Illinois, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to get her that info besides Google.

    The problem with the last 5%, real questions that can be answered online, is that NO ONE IS TRAINING US TO DO THIS WELL. I have 4 librarians on my staff who are supposed to do the service, and one of them can hardly use the internet for patrons here in the building, don’t make me laugh about trying to get her used to the chat windows and all.

    I would like to state that none of us on staff see this as a good use of our time, we feel as though we are forced to do it because our director is gung-ho about it. I wish the director would wake up and see that when 1% of our population is using this, it’s not worth the expense. You can push it and push it to people as much as you want, but the public doesn’t care. It’s not like it’s difficult to get on the phone and ask a reference question.

    I think that libraries are so afraid of being seen as behind the times, we then get ourselves into trouble trying to do things that people aren’t really asking for. And not even doing those things very well. Doesn’t really help us much, does it?

  11. Emily Says:

    A few comments on IL Librarian’s post, also left on Jenny’s blog…

    I’m surprised to see the number of reference questions that you get as low as 10%. In my experience providing VR, I do see a lot of real reference questions, both ready reference and also questions that demand more time and research than can typically be given in a chat session. Still, I wouldn’t dismiss all those circ questions. If a patron uses VR to get help with a circ question and gets a good answer, won’t that patron be more likely to come back with other, maybe reference-type, questions? And won’t giving that patron help lead us closer to our goal of getting people to love libraries?

    As far as using the phone to ask a question, you’re right, it’s not that hard to use the phone. But patrons shy away from using the phone for any number of reasons. Rather than telling patrons how they should communicate with the library, can we trust them to choose the method that suits them best?

    When you say that “no one is training us to do this well”, rather than dismissing VR, how about demanding better training? To show a librarian how VR software works and then stick her behind a computer and say “ok, go!” is unfair to the librarian and to the patron. Librarians need training in how to communicate online, the value of a reference interview, and how to build up our VR competencies.

  12. L-net staff information blog » talking about bloggers talking about virtual reference, or, how to conduct a reference interview and show your patrons that you love them Says:

    [...] A bloggy discussion started by Jessamyn West last week has been making the rounds, and I hope that everyone will have a look at what Jennie Levine, Steven Cohen, Luke Rosenberger and Jessamyn again have said. I am thrilled to not have a lot to add – these intrepid bloggers are right on the money. [...]

  13. Arriving Somewhere » Blog Archive » Virtual Reference Says:

    [...] There is an ongoing discussion about virtual reference (VR) services that was prompted by post by Jessamyn ( and Jenny (Shifted Librarian and a well thought out (and verbose!) response by Luke (LBR. I’d like to chime in with my thoughts because I haven’t seen them addressed yet (although the blogsophere is a big place, surely I’m merely repeating what someone else has already said!). [...]

  14. Bruce Says:

    While I agree that the librarian might have done a bit more in terms of providing the patron directions for obtaining the book, all in all I think she did a pretty good job. This is a very difficult question to answer, and the librarian identified a resource that seems very promising. As Lisa notes, it is not always realistic to leave a VR session to get a book from the shelves to answer a question. The main problem I see in this transcript is the technology. Having been in similar sessions, I empathize with the librarian. I am very glad our (academic) library has dropped VR in favor of IM. We continually experienced technical difficulties with VR software (we tried several). We rarely used co-browsing because it wasn’t stable. Many of our students lack high speed Internet access, so they couldn’t use co-browsing effectively even when it was working. With IM we are meeting students in their environment. My experience with IM has been vastly more positive than with VR. I have high hopes that our stats will increase as students learn we now offer IM.

  15. Unit 7: Near East « INLS 758 Blog Says:

    [...] I have some of the same qualms about libraries outsourcing reference work – through 24-hour virtual reference services where a patron might chat online with a librarian who might come from a completely different academic or organizational culture and who is not familiar with the resources available to the patron. Jessamyn West, who chronicled an less than wonderful experience she had with a virtual reference service, reflected later that “The VR librarian never gets to know you, never learns your habits, doesn’t have an investment in your continued patronage and in fact wouldn’t have a way to continue a librarian relationship with you if they wanted to.” To me, this is eerily similar to the practices of corporations who outsource their business. Jessamyn continues on to say that it is very important for libraries not to value expedience over people and to have profit as a motive over service. Libraries, I believe should not follow the path of corporations in this growing trend of outsourcing, but instead should continue to get to know and understand their communities and partner with them in providing the best library services possible. Posted in Assignments | [...]