“Are We Getting Warmer?”

Marie L. Radford, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Patrick A. Confer, Susanna Sabolcsi-Boros, Hannah Kwon


As virtual reference services (VRS) have become vital alternatives to traditional face-to-face (FtF) and phone reference, guidelines for best practices emerged to ensure that users are being well served across different modes of service delivery. Yet much remains to be understood about whether and how the essential process of query clarification occurs in the live chat reference environment. This study is among the first large-scale analyses of chat transcripts from libraries of different types, sizes, and world-wide geographic regions. It reports results from a qualitative analysis of a random sample of 850 transcripts from QuestionPoint, a 24/7/365 cooperative reference service administered by OCLC Online Computer Library Center with one thousand plus member libraries across the world. A Query Clarification Coding Scheme was developed as part of the analysis by using the constant comparative method. Close reading and evaluation of the transcripts revealed that librarians ask clarifying questions heavily before searching, while users generally offer clarification of their information need more often during the searching process. Both groups clarify to seek or offer information about the query topic and background; search history; and extent, depth, and type of resource needed. They also clarify to verify understanding and correct misunderstanding. Results indicate that accuracy was enhanced for librarians who used clarifying questions in answering ready reference (factual) questions. Although highly recommended query clarification techniques, especially using the follow-up question before logging off, are generally prescribed to improve accuracy, only 50 percent of librarians used follow-up questions and 33 percent of all questions asked to users were open questions. These findings suggest that emphasis on increasing these two techniques during VRS librarian training will improve the effectiveness of chat reference. Additionally, users with queries related to school, academic, or work-related information seeking were found to comprise 26 percent of the analyzed transactions, suggesting important implications for further research efforts as well as VRS librarian training and practice.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.50n3.259


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