Virtual Reference Interview Fail

I made a chat reference inquiry with a library worker from Florida’s Ask a Librarian statewide service. This was my question:

I’m looking for information on Richard III – was he healthy when he died, besides his humpback? It’s for a school project. Thanks!

I admit, I was a bit of a mole, since I already knew the answer I was looking for and part of the intent was to see if the reference staff followed current events/newspapers.

Overall, the experience was a bit of a let-down, especially given the very positive experience with chat reference I had with an academic librarian a month prior when I was searching for a reference cited in a book I was reading and needed digital inter-library loan to get it.

The Florida librarian did not conduct a reference interview beyond the fields in the form I had to fill out in order to log on to the chat. (My name and ZIP code were required. My email was optional. I had to choose from a drop down menu that I was a graduate student. This was also where I entered my question.) Once the librarian logged on, she proceeded to search for resources and send them to me. Her only questions were closed questions, such as confirming that I could open a link or that I got her emailed article.

I was actually surprised with how rushed the reference chat felt. There were several times during the interaction where the librarian tried to pawn me off on searching for books in my local library’s catalog because she wasn’t finding suitable results for me with her resources. Had this been a serious query, I would have left feeling like I was on my own and wondering why I had consulted a librarian in the first place, because she gave up on the search. I tried to give her feedback on the content of the articles, but she never did provide anything that actually answered the question. As she started to end the interaction, I was very tempted to give her a hint that maybe there would be forensic analysis somewhere, in light of the news of the discovery (since I had already found such an answer in a newspaper article). However, she ended the interaction quickly, without checking if she had met my needs or waiting for my final “thank you.”

I suspect that, toward the end, she was in a hurry to finish up because the chat service was closing in 30 minutes, even though she hadn’t completely helped me. It is also possible that she figured out that my ZIP was not a Florida ZIP code, and, therefore, she had little obligation to help me because the service is for Florida residents. Since I also had to list on the form that I was a graduate student, she may have been less willing to try as hard for me because graduate students are usually more competent at searching on their own.

If I had been the librarian in this situation, I think I would have tried to learn more about the assignment and asked me what I had already found, instead of throwing resources at me, hoping I’d go away. I think that her attempts at the search were not successful because she didn’t actually conduct any sort of reference interview. It seemed like she was more interested in the mechanics of doing the search and completing the task than actually meeting my needs. I was also very put off that she didn’t confirm with me that I was satisfied with the interaction and did not even give me a chance to say thank you—to me, a librarian should always focus on providing this kind of customer service.

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