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Christina's LIS Rant
Sunday, September 18, 2005
  More on IM at the reference desk
We’ve seen in example reference transactions that reference interviews appear to be very much truncated in VR via IM.  (See examples given by Aaron Schmidt various places).  Specifically, there appears to be less question negotiation.  In general, best practices dictated negotiating questions using a series of open questions, then closed questions, then restating the request and then following up to make sure the information provided completely meets the customer’s need.  The point of all of this grilling of the customer is to gain grounding – you really know what they need and you really know that what you gave them will do the trick.

The idea of message-media fit theory is that users will choose the media that provides the richness they need for a particular message.  IOW – stopping IM and picking up the phone or dropping by a local colleague’s office to clarify a complicated point.  While there’s been some disagreement about this recently, it almost seems to fit A.S.’s examples:  he’s answering more straight forward and directional questions, questions that need less clarification and less detailed information exchange.  If a purpose of IM in libraries is to show a human face or that reference staff are really available, then it works.  Anecdotally, a local county is finding that they refer even questions of medium complexity to e-mail or in-person (they are using a cooperative VR system).  

I read this today:
;“the capacity of a particular communication medium to support construction of common ground may be less a function of characteristics of the medium (e.g., visibility and etc.) – and more a function of communication strategies used within the medium” (Birnholtz et al, 2005)  

And I was thinking that besides the fact that we’re afraid we’ll scare the customer away… we still need to properly negotiate the question if we’re going to successfully use this service with people we don’t know.  The point is that we’re in an unequal power relationship:  we have the info the customer needs (customers aren’t known to appreciate the fact that we need to keep ref stats to justify our existence).  What’s preventing the IM reference staff from asking more questions?  Is it wanting to be cool?  Not enough time (or perception that if they’re not quick enough the customer will run away)?  As the customer vanishes into the ether, do we know with IM that we’ve successfully answered their question? (yes there are studies by Kaske, Hernon, and others on VR… but how about IM where stats aren’t uniformly kept, and questions are answered from the desk—not by a dedicated staffer.) Maybe we need to be more careful in setting expectations from IM reference (as some libraries have done)

Reference:
Birnholtz, Jeremy P., Thomas A. Finholt, Daniel B. Horn, and Sung J. Bae. 2005. Grounding needs: Achieving common ground via lightweight chat in large, distributed, ad-hoc groups. In CHI '05: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems21-30ACM Press.
 
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This is my blog on library and information science. I'm into Sci/Tech libraries, special libraries, personal information management, sci/tech scholarly comms.... My name is Christina Pikas and I'm a librarian in a physics, astronomy, math, computer science, and engineering library. I'm also a doctoral student at Maryland. Any opinions expressed here are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or CLIS. You may reach me via e-mail at cpikas {at} gmail {dot} com.

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Christina Kirk Pikas

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