Ask A Librarian: A Renewed Systemwide Commitment

With A Bridge to the Future: The Rutgers Digital Library Initiative, our long-range plan, the Rutgers University Libraries began to create a new library system characterized by its ability to use technology to transform and enhance traditional resources and services. Service changes that capitalize on emerging technologies have already been made with the introduction of electronic reserves, access to electronic resources through IRIS and the Libraries' website, and online requesting for the Rutgers Request Service and interlibrary loan. A service priority specifically identified in the five-year plan is the provision of enhanced information services, and Ask a Librarian is the model given.

Ask a Librarian, the electronic reference service of the Rutgers University Libraries, provides reference and information services in a virtual environment. A virtual one-stop library service point, AAL allows users to ask for information or get help with research strategies, resolve their checkout or request problems, renew or check the status of their interlibrary loans, and receive assistance in accessing networked electronic library resources and services. AAL is featured prominently on the top page of the Libraries' website and is linked from various library Web pages and the university information page. In addition to an online question form, AAL Web pages offer a series of FAQ's with links to other library Web pages and a substantial list of links to publicly accessible quality databases.

Ask a Librarian began as a project of the Libraries Info Advisory Committee several years ago. Called Ask-LIAC, the service was managed by members of the Libraries Info Advisory Committee as a support to the Libraries presence on Info, the university's first information network. As Ask-LIAC grew, library representatives to the Standing Advisory Committee for Public Services (SACOPS) became responsible for organizing librarians in their libraries to answer questions on a monthly rotation basis. This model worked successfully for approximately two years. Eventually, however, the acceleration of change in our resources and services made it difficult for librarians to answer questions when they were on duty only one month every six months. The learning curve each month was so steep that SACOPS representatives, who are all members of the Ask a Librarian list, observed a decline in quality at the same time that our users need for assistance and the number of questions was growing. SACOPS reviewed a number of different service models in use at other academic libraries and eventually determined that the best model for Rutgers is the one currently in effect. This model became possible only when Natalie Borisovets proposed a systemwide coordinator position and agreed to become the coordinator.

Despite significant decreases in demand for other library services, including traditional reference desk services, demand for the Ask a Librarian service continues to grow. Whereas in September 1998, the first month of the revamped AAL service, 132 questions were received, in September 1999 438 questions (+232 percent) were received. Between September 1999 and August 2000, an average of about 456 questions was received by the Ask a Librarian team monthly as compared to a monthly average of 245 in the previous year. It is anticipated that the number of questions asked each month will rise to more than 500 during this spring semester and will top 700 in the next academic year. Various statistical analyses have shown that more than 90% of the questions asked are from members of the Rutgers community and that a majority of questions is about local Rutgers resources or services.

Ask a Librarian currently operates with a team of 28 librarians and staff. A librarian from the reference team and a staff member from the access services team are scheduled each day to answer the questions that arrive during their assigned 24 hours. Systems staff, interlibrary loan staff, and the Rutgers Request Service coordinator pick off and answer questions related to their areas. All team members receive all questions, and all answers are copied back to the entire list. In this way, the knowledge base required for success in this rapid-paced online environment is maintained, shared, and developed by the overall group of participants.

To sustain and nurture Ask a Librarian, Cabinet and the Public Services Council have determined that wider participation by public service librarians and staff throughout the library system is needed. The service can no longer be considered an ``extra'' but is now another library service point. We are merely setting up an assistance station at the place to which we are actively directing many of our users: our virtual library of electronic collections and services. Just as we give physical help with our print materials and in-person services, we now also give virtual help with the virtual materials and services. Since virtual queries do not sort themselves out geographically like those presented at our library service desks, participants are needed from all libraries.

Cabinet and the Council also recognize that the knowledge base developed by AAL needs to be transferred to services personnel throughout the system. Frontline service personnel should not have to refer users to AAL but should instead have the same level of knowledge about our resources and services. In addition, all participants, however, need administrative recognition of the time they are devoting to AAL.

Participating in an online reference or information service requires a different approach than that encountered at in-person reference or other service desks. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, the reference or information interview is alive and well in the online environment. In an online service, the traditional interview is transformed into a dialog that begins with the user's first question and often extends afterwards to a virtual relationship that puts the librarian or staff member and library into the ongoing information process of the requestor.

The dialog only develops, however, if the initial service given is exceptional. While each AAL participant is encouraged to develop a personal and personable style, the hallmarks of exceptional service include:

The following elements form the basis of a new model for participation in Ask a Librarian and will be implemented after review this semester by Cabinet and the Council:

Coordinator - The service is managed by a coordinator, who recruits and schedules participants, oversees development of supporting FAQ's and other information, monitors the quality of the service, and provides reports. The central library administration provides clerical assistance for the coordinator, and the coordinator designates a deputy coordinator.

Participants - The coordinator will draw participants for the reference and access services teams from a systemwide pool of all librarians who provide reference service and from all staff members of access or circulation departments. The coordinator recruits participants directly. Individuals requested to participate work with local supervisors to arrange the time needed. Systems, ILS, and RRS participants are ex officio.

Time and Workload - All participants receive acknowledgement for the time they devote to AAL duties. During the period someone is assigned to AAL, his or her local workload is adjusted. In addition, AAL work time is counted as work hours. Someone who answers AAL questions on a day when they are not normally scheduled to work, for example, has those hours counted as a workday or portion of a workday.

Terms - Participants generally have staggered terms of six months duration, with changing quarterly. After being recruited, each participant is added to the online list and reads messages for one month before answering. The coordinator may ask anyone to step back into reading if the quality of answers given is not acceptable.

Minimum Monthly Service - The minimum service required of participants is two 24-hour periods each month.

Core Group - Availability of a core group of online reference and access service experts will give continuity across the staggered terms and bring the expertise of the group back to the home reference service. Individuals who wish to make online service a primary contribution to the Rutgers enterprise should be encouraged.


As the Libraries move forward, we will continually redesign our work. In recognition of the many changes that have occurred, the Public Services Council will develop this semester, for Cabinet review, generic information for academic position profiles and position descriptions for librarians and library staff that participate in public service activities.

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