In recent years virtual reference has become a core library service, an expected and preferred form of reference service by users at academic institutions. For a virtual reference service to remain relevant to users, it must evolve to reflect trends in digital communication. After seven years of offering virtual reference through chat, askON is excited to enter a new era of virtual reference with the September 2015 launch of the askON TEXT service delivered in parallel with its world-class chat service.
askON is an instant-messaging-based virtual reference tool that can be accessed through the websites of Ontario college library partners. Initially developed and launched in 2008 by Knowledge Ontario and managed by the Ontario Colleges Library Service (OCLS)or the Ontario colleges since 2012, askON is a thriving college library service that has responded to over 100,000 chats to date.
Perhaps the strongest value of the askON service can be found in the collaborative staffing model, which allows partner libraries to extend the service hours they offer to students beyond what they could provide on their own.
Each partner library contributes a small number of staff hours per week, and in return their students have access to sixty-two hours of service. Over one hundred and twenty-five staff from twelve participating libraries, and a team of skilled interns from library programs across Ontario, work together virtually to staff the service and provide research assistance and curriculum support to students from each other’s libraries. Through the askON internship program, current Masters and Library Technician students receive training on the best practices in virtual reference and gain experiential knowledge through their term on the service, which they take with them to libraries across the province and beyond as they move on in their library careers.
For several years, the askON team explored the possibility of expanding to include a text-based service delivery that could respond to college students’ deadline-driven need for information when they are on the go. To determine the need for a separate text service to be delivered in parallel with its chat service, the askON team ran an eight-month pilot during the 2013-14 academic year.
Not only did college students embrace the service, the pilot results demonstrated that they used the service differently than they used the chat service.
The chat service is designed to be used by students while they’re sitting at their computer, engaged in research or looking up information on the library website, making it the ideal medium for in-depth research questions, whereas the text service can conveniently be used from anywhere and is often used to find quick information.
The askON text service is intended as a ready reference service through which staff provide library users with information about library policies and operations, assistance with technical issues, and answers to other quick questions that don’t require a reference interview or information literacy instruction. Like the rest of us, most college students have their phones at their fingertips at all times, but they may not have the time to spend navigating the library website to find the information they’re looking for. With their library’s askON text number, they can reach the service and receive an answer on their phone on the fly. These brief interactions give students the opportunity to learn about their library wherever they are, establish the library as a valuable resource, and open the door for future interactions with askON and their home library.
The askON team continues to look for opportunities to work with other college libraries and is excited to be part of the college library partnership with OntarioLearn, an online learning resource and platform for Ontario’s 24 community colleges. In September 2015, Ontario colleges added the Ontario Colleges Digital Library (OCDL) portal to the OntarioLearn platform offering online students easy access to college library resources, including virtual reference services. In later phases of the project, askON will plan to become one of the support service points through the library portal, and will be directly available to support OntarioLearn students with their informational and research needs.
In future months, askON task forces will study enhancements to the service which may include:
- proactive chat that allows askON staff to reach out to users who are hovering on a particular page;
- developing a knowledge base of FAQs for users who prefer a “self serve” flavour;
- offering local service to colleges who want to extend their service beyond the collaborative hours; and
- exploring how to provide support for students who want to use the service in French.
Jan Dawson is the Services & Communications Coordinator at OCLS and the askON Project Manager. Her interests lie in reference, service, tech, and community management. She tweets as @nunanishi. Siobán Linnen is a member of the eResources team at OCLS and the Training Associate for askON. Her interests are in the areas of reference, instruction, outreach, and accessibility.