Radford, Shah Receive $250K to Study and Improve Virtual Reference Services


Marie RadfordThese days, people with questions -- whether profound or dealing in minutiae, for an important project or for sheer, random curiosity -- never need to wait around for an answer. They go online in search of answers to any question. Some people take a more traditional route and ask a librarian, while others use social Q&A services like Yahoo! Answers, Ask.com and Askville on Amazon.

Could there be a way for the typical user of virtual reference services to go to the “crowd” to answer their questions -- and come back with a reliable, accurate, and satisfactory answer?

A research project at the School of Communication and Information, funded with a $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, seeks to answer that question. Library and information science professors Marie Radford and Chirag Shah, along with Lynn Silipigni Connaway from the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) will spend the next two years studying both virtual reference services and social Q&A to figure out how to combine the best of both worlds.

Chirag ShahThe project, titled “Cyber Synergy: Seeking Sustainability through Collaboration between Virtual Reference and Social Q&A Sites,” builds on an earlier collaborative project between the two organizations that was funded by IMLS. The newly awarded IMLS grant represents about 45 percent of overall funding for the project, with the remainder coming from Rutgers and OCLC.

Those who use a library increasingly do so from their homes, using virtual reference services. They reach reference librarians via live chat, social networking sites, mobile applications, instant messaging, texting, and other mediated platforms.

Virtual library reference services provide high-quality information, but there is often a collaborative aspect missing that could yield more satisfying results. With social Q&A services, credible answers are a bit harder to find, but users tend to find more satisfying experiences through empathetic answers from the “crowd.”

Enriching the answers and the general experience users find through virtual services helps libraries remain viable despite continued cutbacks to the field.

“People come to virtual reference services with a wide variety of questions relating to their particular situation and needs,” said Radford, associate professor of library and information science. “Social Q&A has a different model: one question to many people. People post a question and then many people see it and may choose to answer. People answering are not librarians, but may be experts in the area of the question asked.”

In both social Q&A and virtual reference services, users’ feelings about the interaction are very important.

“One of the reasons people pose questions online is to gain empathy from the community,” said Shah, an assistant professor of library and information science. “In virtual reference services, we know that people who ask questions liked positive interactions even if they did not get an answer, because the librarian was polite or cared for their needs.”

The first phase of the project will consist of a longitudinal analysis of 500 randomly selected virtual reference service transcripts and 1,000 social Q&A site transcripts. The second phase includes in-depth phone interviews with 150 subjects from key user and information provider populations. And the third phase focuses on creating design specifications to link virtual reference service and social Q&A to explore solutions for sustainability of library reference services.