Librarians are eager to help through live chat

One of the first lessons everyone learns about a library is the expectation of quiet.

That isn't exactly how it works at the University Library. Sure, it's not advisable to go screaming from one floor to the next, but when there are questions, the librarians want people to speak up and are eager to talk. Since 2003, the library has had a live chat function on its website to answer questions students, faculty, staff or anyone in the world may have.

The live chat is part of the library's "Ask Us" page. Twelve librarians take turns monitoring the chat weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"People are sometimes shocked they are talking to a real person," head of research services Lorrie Pellack said. "We are all trained librarians who have specific subject areas."

Each librarian spends two to five hours a week in the live chat. In a time when technology has changed much of what a librarian does, Pellack said she and her staff value this time.

"Most of them went through school wanting to work at the help desk at the front of the library," she said. "We are not out in the public area staffing those anymore. This is a way we can regularly help people and get that satisfaction."

Wide reach

The number of individuals reaching out through the live chat continues to grow, ranging from 1,000 to 1,400 chats a year from 2016 to 2019.

Since August, new software from LibAnswers allows for a red "Live Chat" widget to float on the lower right corner of the screen when viewing the library webpages. The new chat module also allows for anonymous questions, which Pellack said is important because the library is not trying to collect data on users.

So while there is no way to know who is taking advantage of the service, Pellack believes the chat users mirror the majority of those who come to the actual building -- undergraduate and graduate students.

There are 72 frequently asked questions users can scroll through ranging from "Where is a notary public on camps?" to "Which login and password do I use for the library?" Most questions are answered during a chat session, but a complex issue may get forwarded to another librarian who is more familiar in a certain field. Email is effective for questions that require more research or if a language barrier exists.

Most questions come from those on campus or in the surrounding communities, but over the past four years there have been questions from Texas, California and Alabama and across the world from Canada to Nigeria.

Helping out

From tracking down corn yield records in surrounding states to aiding an emeritus faculty member working on a book in their newly found free time, each day brings a different challenge.

"We are glad they are using the service. I don't think there is a lack of questions out there, I just think people are not aware of our service," Pellack said.

Not all questions may seem to carry the same level of urgency, but that is in the eye of the beholder. Pellack said one of the more interesting developments has come with the increased volume of users at the computer stations in the library.

"Our workstations out in the library are so full, [students] don't want to get up to ask a question because they will lose their computer," she said. "So [through live chat] they will say, 'I am on the fourth floor looking for a book I can't find, can you help?'"

The chat also can alert staff to issues -- for example, a subscription service being down -- that otherwise may go unnoticed, Pellack said.

Who can use the service?

The live chat is available for anyone, even if they are not affiliated with the university.

"We are able to help researchers who don't have access to a library," Pellack said. "As a land-grant institution, we welcome all questions from anywhere in the world, and we don't even ask who they are."

There are a few restrictions on how much help librarians can give to those not connected with the university.

"We can't supply full-text journal articles that we have a subscription for to someone who is not with ISU," Pellack said. "Also, access to some of our databases is limited."

There are limits on what can be accessed remotely, but anyone -- ISU affiliated or not -- can visit the library and download any article or other resource and take it with them.

Looking ahead

Pellack hopes to grow the hours of the live chat to respond to students' need.

"A lot of the students are from surrounding communities, and they go home for the weekend and come back on Sunday ready to do their homework," she said. "We are not staffing on Sunday and the paper is due on Monday.

"So we are toying with expanding at some point, hoping it would give us more point of need with the students."