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Libraries and Business in Digital Environment: Social, Economic, Information, and Legal Aspects
Libraries and Business in Digital Environment: Social, Economic, Information, and Legal Aspects 
  • Monday, March 18, 2002
  • Queens Borough Public Library
  • Flushing Library
  • International Resource Center
  • Flushing, NY

E-Mail Reference, a University Library Experience

Susan J. Beck 
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Head of Public Services

Paul Robeson Library 
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey 
300 North 4th Street 
P.O. 93990 
Camden, NJ 088101-3990

Why E-Mail Reference?

E-Mail reference is a natural extension of providing traditional reference service in the digital age. It is a positive and necessary service response to meeting the needs of our distance education students globally. We virtually serve the library reference needs of our students regionally and aboard.

When we began providing remote access to our collections (books, journals, reserve materials, databases and our online catalog) for our users, it was only reasonable that we would also assist them in the use of these materials just as if they had come into the library. Our users were still coming into the library, but doing so via their computers from all over the world.

If we do not provide this type of assistance, our users will be forced to exploit the capabilities of Ask An Expert services http://www.cln.org/int_expert.html available on the Internet such as Ask Jeeves http://www.ask.com/ or the new Google Answershttps://answers.google.com/answers/main?sourceid=nrh.

The Rutgers Experience

Our first E-mail service actually began accidentally in 1997. Our Library Internet Advisory Committee (LIAC) placed an e-mail link on our library web pages for users to contact them with questions related to system problems or web development issues. Although users did ask those type of questions, they also asked reference questions about both the library's and the university's resources, technical questions about our systems and general questions relating to renewing books and borrowing privileges.

Growing Pains

As questions increased from 12 per month to hundreds, LIAC members recognized the need for an alternative service to handle this volume. LIAC was not a large enough group to handle these questions and members were overwhelmed by the new workload. LIAC's participation in this activity also interfered with their growing web development responsibilities.

Full-Blown Service – The Six Library Model

Responsibility for answering questions changed from the LIAC committee to rotating among the 6 largest libraries in the Rutgers Library System. In this format, each participating library's reference

Librarians took on the responsibility for answering questions every six months. Again, the number of questions asked continued to expand.

No Guidelines, Procedures or Policies

Under the six-library model, there were no guidelines, procedures or policies. Questions were answered haphazardly, and not in any timely fashion. Because of the library rotation, there was no sense of ownership for the service other than a sense that a specific library "had to do it" for a particular month. The service was not perceived as an important public services function of the library system. There was no sense of recognition of frequently asked questions. Each month, librarians from "the library of the month" were "reinventing the wheel". Variable answers over time created conflict among both librarians and users.

Created Ask A Librarian Volunteer Teams

Once again, the service was in need of a major overhaul. The Public Services Council, a group that recommends system wide public service policies, was charged with creating a system wide service. A coordinator was appointed who recruited a volunteer group of five Ask A Librarian teams:

  • Reference Team is responsible for all reference as well as remote access and systems questions received on their assigned day.
  • Access services/circulation Team is responsible for all access services questions including circulation services, physical plant, and collection access questions received on their assigned day.
  • Interlibrary loan Team responds to questions about the status of interlibrary loans and their renewals.
  • Rutgers Request Service Team responds to questions related to borrowing among all the campuses.
  • Systems Team responds to questions related to specific and remote access database problems.
Coordinator's Responsibility

The Coordinator is responsible for recruiting and scheduling all the teams; tracking questions to make sure they are both answered, and answered in a timely fashion. The Coordinator develops policies, procedures and guidelines and keeps the AAL Frequently Asked Questions web page current. http://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/rul/ask_a_lib/ask_a_lib.shtml

The Coordinator also prepares an annual report see the annual reports from 1998 to 2002 at:http://newark.rutgers.edu/~natalieb/aalrpts.htm.


Team Members Responsibility

Each team member initially answered questions 3 –4 days per month, and were responsible for all questions in their respective areas for a 24-hour time period. Response time goal is 24-48 hours.

Listserv Set Up

Initially all questions and requests were directed to a common listserv that was distributed to members of all teams, including many PIN requests. PIN and barcode registration requests now directly go to a separate Access Services Team Listserv from the libraries' homepage. All questions and answers continue to be sent to all members of the AAL Teams. 

Benefits of the Listserv Model: A Learning Process

Distributing all answers on the listserv provides an excellent learning forum for all teams. It allows others in the organization to learn from the query and answer exchanges on the list. This enables librarians and staff to share their knowledge of additional relevant resources with their colleagues. It also provides staff with an opportunity to appreciate the diversity of the library system by observing different departments working together to answer AAL queries.

Benefits of the Listserv Model: Quality Control Is Facilitated

When errors in answering questions are detected by members of the list, a behind the scenes effort is undertaken to make sure the user receives a corrected answer. Sometimes different interpretations of the questions can facilitate alternate answers. Sometimes policies have changed and team members are unaware of the modified policies or procedures. When an error is detected, team members privately contact their colleagues. The team member responsible for the day then contacts the user again and corrects any misinformation given or provides additional information available about the question.

Benefits of the Listserv Model: Facilitates Problem Notification

The AAL Listserv facilitates quick problem notification to library personnel, because people from many library units participate. The list often serves as the place of first notification by our users of most of our database problems, whether it is a problem with our online catalog or a problem with a vendor database. This allows us to quickly resolve reported issues. We are notified of broken links and URL changes on our web pages. Sometimes we will be notified about a vendor or a subscription problem with our database or journal suppliers. Even maintenance issues regarding specific libraries are reported via our Ask A Librarian service. Heating and cooling issues are commonly referred to us as well as mechanical failures in equipment such as printers and copiers.

Using Ask A Librarian (AAL)

Ask A Librarian is available from the library's homepage at http://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/. There is a pull down menu of "HOW DO I?" questions that links to web pages, which answer our most frequently asked questions. These include how to connect from home; how to use online catalog features, how to locate specific types of materials; and how to contact librarians for more specific subject advice. Our AAL form simply asks for a name, email address, (required so we can respond) asking about [a topic], and a question box. Once it is complete, the user clicks on a "Submit Your Question" button and off it goes to our AAL Listserv.

AAL Home Page

Our AAL Home page is full of useful information, hoping a user may quickly find just the information they are looking for before they submit a form. There are again links to using our online catalog and how to do some basic library functions such as renew materials and order materials through interlibrary loan. There are some unique resources here, which include information on studies completed by faculty members at Rutgers University or Rutgers students such as the commencement address of Paul Robeson. There are also guides to our genealogy and local history collections, and links to general information about both the libraries and the university. Just in case a person would actually rather call than use an email reference service, telephone numbers for all of our reference desks are provided along with a list of library hours.

Competencies for AAL

What competencies are necessary to answer AAL Reference Questions? Competencies for individuals answering e-mail reference questions often mirror those needed for librarians and staff working any public services desk.

Competencies for AAL: Who Is the User and What Do You Know About Them?

When answering e-mail questions, it is important to attempt to identify who the user is. The ability to decipher clues about the user is important. The email address often provides clues to who the user is, and often has implications for how questions are answered. Users are usually affiliated with the university. Unaffiliated users often seek information unique to Rutgers University such as requests for information about research conducted at Rutgers, or a dissertation completed at Rutgers, or about unique local New Jersey resources.

Competencies for AAL: Flexible Professionals

It is advantageous for the librarians who participate in answering questions to let go of their subject specializations and think like a generalist. We sometimes have art historians answering science questions and pharmacy specialists answering English term paper questions. Librarians who are willing to think outside of the box and broaden their subject level boundaries are happy participants in the service.

Competencies for AAL: Ability to Use & Explain Library Resources Effectively

Librarians participating in this service must be familiar with and be able to communicate how to use our library resources effectively. This includes our online catalog, all subject indexes and databases, bibliographic utilities such as RLIN and OCLC, as well as regional library and national catalogs, electronic journals and books, subject research guides and electronic reference sources.

Competencies for AAL: Technological and System Skills

Librarians and staff must have the ability to effectively use email. They must have the ability to identify if a user problem is system, browser, or database related and be able to distinguish between the different features of internet browsers when trouble shooting. Knowledge of remote access requirements is necessary as well as knowing when to refer users to systems staff for more technical assistance. 

Competencies for AAL: How to Find Information on the Web

Librarians must effectively use search engines and be aware of the array of search engines available. They must also take advantage of unique features such as web-based language translation programs. They also need to be familiar with unique web-site content such as specific government web sites; reviews via online bookstores; and free specialized subject databases such as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service Database at: http://www.ncjrs.org/. 

Knowledge of Library System Environment

The Rutgers University Library System is made up of 30 unique libraries located in three distinct geographic areas across the state of New Jersey (Camden, New Brunswick and Newark). Understanding this complex organizational structure as it relates to the library system is crucial when answering questions from individuals who made be located in any one of the different geographical locations, or outside the university. It is also important to understand and be able to apply information relating to our library's policies and guidelines as they relate to individual questions. It is important to have a clear understanding of how lending materials works, both internally and externally, especially in the areas of international lending policies. Knowledge of our unique collections is essential.

Knowledge of the University Environment

Rutgers is a very large complex educational institution. It is imperative to have knowledge of both general and unique institutional resources. It is useful to be familiar with the university websites so that you may refer individuals to other institutional resources, from simple questions regarding admissions requirements, to detailed questions regarding a specific research center. Knowledge of university operations and the university's organizational structure is also important when negotiating questions. Understanding the university's unique geographical structure is also important when you are trying to direct someone to a convenient library location or even trying to identify which campus they belong to based on their university-supplied email address. 

Knowledge of Government Resources

It is also useful to be aware of the resources provided by different governmental agencies including the State Library. A general familiarity with the resources of local, state, and federal governments is also useful. 

Knowledge of Community Resources

Knowledge of local community resources such as those available in your local public library is useful. Each one of our three campuses is geographically located in large metropolitan areas so it is important to have a clear idea of where you can refer people with special research needs, and the access policies of libraries in the region. It is also important to understand the complexities of Consortia Resources and relationships. The state of New Jersey is divided into regional areas for some public library services and Rutgers users have access to those resources according to their primary residence.

Feasibility of Telecommuting

Most questions, which come into our Ask A Librarian Service, can be answered remotely regardless of the physical location of the librarian. For example, yesterday it was a Sunday and I was the scheduled Ask A Librarian for the day. I was able to answer all the questions I received from my home, which is located 60 miles away from the university. Questions ranged from easy questions such as: How did New Jersey get named, which I found in the online LexisNexis Academic Database which includes a copy of the World Almanac as part of it's reference tools; to a more complex question tracking down a 1972 manuscript which required access to multiple databases such as ISI Web of Knowledge, RLIN and OCLC. Telecommuting is best done with a broadband connection for speed and access.

Who Is the User and What Do You Know About the User?

Our users tend to be affiliated with the university. Although users are not required to provide affiliation information, they are easily identified by their question subject matter. The easiest test of affiliation is the use of a Rutgers' email address. However, many users have email accounts with other Internet Service Providers such as America Online, Yahoo, or Hotmail. They often indicate they are Rutgers' students doing a specific research paper for a specific class, or they are asking questions about specific services that are available to only our users such as how to use the Electronic Reserves function of our Online Catalog, or how to set up proxy servers to use our resources remotely.

Non-affiliated users often tell us who they are and why they are looking for information from us. Yesterday I had a researcher from Cornell University contact us regarding a specific paper, which was delivered at a conference by a member of the Rutgers' Economics Department Faculty in 1972. Often when there are televised announcements or reports of research conducted at Rutgers, we will receive requests for additional information. We also get requests for information from prospective students. Often it is necessary to refer them to another location, but as a public service we are pleased to be their first contact with the University. 

How Would Service Differ at the Desk?

Our Ask A Librarian Service is very similar to working a reference desk in any library. But when considering how the service differs from the service a user receives at a traditional reference desk, there are several differences. Access to help is immediate and there is no wait for the Virtual Librarian to respond to your written question. User feedback can lead to immediate additional assistance and further re-clarification of the question. The in-person librarian can instruct the user about how to use specific databases, electronic resources, and the web and verify the user's understanding. The user can also re-approach the librarian after initial research for other resources, or to follow up on new tangents. Librarians can quickly provide hard copies of just the right ready reference book with the right answer. The users are also able to obtain hard copies of originals of poorly digitized documents. 

Turn Around Time?

Turn around time varies among librarians. Most librarians reply within 24 hours of receiving the question. Many librarians have good connections from home, in what would be considered after working hours in the late evenings or weekends and answer questions much more quickly. Often our librarians are so dedicated they answer questions when traveling and some have even answered questions from hospital rooms. From January 2002 to August 2002, 96.1 percent of all questions were answered within our "24 to 48 hours" guideline.

Benefits for Librarians & Staff: Information Sharing

The Listserv Model of our Ask A Librarian Service and improves sharing of information among librarians and staff. It encourages an improved sense of collegiality. The Listserv model also increases everyone's knowledge base in a relatively painless way. It is actually one of the great cornerstones of this service.

Benefits for Librarians & Staff: Informal Peer Review

The Listserv Model of Ask A Librarian enhances respect for the individual talents of colleagues. You are often showing what you know to your colleagues perhaps for the first time; and perhaps what you don't know. This review aspect is crucial to the success of the service. 

Benefits for the Library

AAL provides assistance for both our users and people from outside of university to ask about the unique resources of the library such as our Special Collections (e.g. NJ Genealogy and NJ History). The AAL Service provides guidance for use of our many electronic and print resources and provides virtual reference services to our remote users. It is also a good Public Services/Relations tool for the library. When developing such a service, if you limit services for outsiders, you may eliminate service for people with legitimate needs for information that is unique to your collections and resources. 

Benefits for the Institution

Our Ask A librarian Service encourages good public relations and provides a positive public service for the university. It provides a positive point of access as an introduction to the institution for prospective students and parents even if you refer them to other university web sites such as admissions or financial aid.

It is a logical place for people to ask for information relating to research studies conducted at your institution by specific faculty members. Because of many such requests, we have created a Done At Rutgers FAQ for popular research studies on our AAL Home Page. Our service also provides other university departments a place to refer people to for their information needs.


Our Ask A Librarian service is quite successful. We need to establish a searchable question archive and update our FAQ's as needed. We need to conduct user satisfaction surveys and survey the participating staff on how they feel about the service and potential changes and then make changes as needed.

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