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ASK a Librarian: Chat Service Provides Critical Outlet for Information as Students Navigate Remote Coursework

March 28, 2020

While contacting librarians online is not new, the recent COVID-19 events bring virtual reference librarians to the front lines with an increased demand for their services.

Anticipating the uptick in engagements, the UW-Madison Libraries worked tirelessly throughout spring break to broaden the availability of online reference professionals that monitor our Ask A Librarian chat service. Our staff added more shifts to increase the number of librarians available per shift and expanded contact hours. Now multiple librarians can be reached seven days a week.

When asked about the logistics of increasing availability so quickly, Public Services Librarian Ellen Jacks expressed gratitude.

“This experience has made me thankful that there are still libraries on this campus that staff the reference desk with librarians and other permanent staff. The number of professionals who came together recently to make sure that students and faculty had the technology they needed was truly inspiring.”

These amazing librarians can simultaneously answer 2-5 complex reference questions using all forms of electronic communication – email, chat, or text. They can also communicate librarian-to-librarian on a backchannel at the same time to help each other out. Just how much of an increase have they seen in engagements? Here’s just the first days back from break (not even the whole week)!

  • 80% – Increase in overall chat questions
  • 180% increase in questions during evening service hours
  • 460% – traffic spike in questions around 5 pm

Answering questions is what they love to do, and when the students “returned” from break, librarians were ready. On Sunday, March 23, 2020, the average number of inquiries that came in more than doubled. Students flooded library chat and text lines. As students tried to adjust to the changed learning systems and how to proceed in a virtual classroom, our librarians helped set expectations and kept students focused on finding solutions.

The mood was a combination of frustration and anxiety from students, mixed with patience and goodwill from librarians, helping to calm some fears.

Some of the chats were even students offering help TO the libraries: One student wrote that they left paper towels and Lysol in one of the study carrels. They didn’t want them back, but they offered the supplies to the staff.

Librarians also heard typical research questions mixed in with procedural issues like How do I print? How do I find this article? How do I get the course pages I need? As students begin to settle into their new reality, reference professionals expect some of the logistics inquiries will diminish just as academic search questions increase again.

Regardless of their questions, our librarians love hearing from the campus community. Helping is their passion.

“Sometimes, people express concern they’re asking their question in the wrong place, or they’re bothering us or wasting our time,” remarked Raina Bloom, a Public Services Librarian. “Any question is the right question to bring to us. We like questions we’ve heard many times before. We like brand-new questions. We like helping people with their course-related or professional research. We also like helping people find information about their community, about entertainment, or about technology. We have lots of connections to colleagues in the Libraries and other campus units to make sure we’re getting the best information for people who contact us.”

Our Ask a Librarian service expanded its hours to help you navigate this new normal. 

  • Sunday – Thursday 9 am – 11 pm
  • Friday – Saturday 9 am – 6 pm
  • Patrons can text a librarian at 608-729-7886