Lincoln University Library's Online Live Chat Service
In July 2014 Lincoln University’s Library, Teaching and Learning (LTL) website launched our online chat service AskLive, allowing online users to enter into a live text chat with a member of LTL staff. Prior to this launch, all staff underwent training on how to use the system and how to answer queries in this live online environment. The project began with a six month beta test before bringing all LTL staff onboard. The choice of LibraryH3lp and Pidgin software allows Lincoln to utilise an innovative first-come-first-served staffing model which removes the need to have a scheduled staffing roster.
LTL’s innovative promotion of the AskLive service on their website is the most ‘in-your-face’ of all the NZ university libraries. During the website redesign process in late 2015, LTL staff were in agreement about their commitment to a strong promotion of AskLive and incorporated the AskLive button as a major design feature on every page to advertise the service on every page of the website “so the button is right there when you’re ready – at the point of the user’s need” (D. Fitchett, personal communication, June 1, 2016). In addition to this button, there is also a pop-up ad for the service in the lower RH corner of the screen which appears after a user has been on a page for one minute. This intensive advertising was a significant change from the old website, which was similar to other NZ university libraries.
Figure 1 Screenshot of LTL homepage showing the AskLive button, chat widget, and timed pop-up, June 1 2016
All LTL staff have been trained in answering queries and using the Pidgin software. Available staff receive a pop-up on their screen when a new question comes in, and then it’s a race to be the first to answer it. Staff are encouraged to respond with “Hi” before even reading the question so that users have as short a wait time if possible, and staff aren’t just cherry-picking the questions they want to answer. It is likely that the staff member answering the question won’t be an expert in that area, which is totally fine. We have handy cheat-sheets so everyone can answer basic FAQs and also know the most appropriate person to transfer to (if available). If all else fails and we can’t provide an answer, we will take the user’s details and organise someone to email them back. Anecdotally we’ve found that user’s aren’t put off by this delay, they’re just happy someone was on the other end of the conversation at all.
All LTL staff are automatically logged in when they are at their computers (though they can manually log out if needed), after one minute of inactivity, the system changes the staff member to unavailable. When no staff members are available, the button changes to a link to our email form, and the pop-ups don’t appear
Figure 2 Screenshot of LTL homepage showing that no staff are available on AskLive, June 1 2016
Benefits of Being Small
As a relatively small university library, Lincoln is in a great position to support this type of innovative staffing model. Being in a single location, having most staff both trained and working in multiple areas, and generally being well-aware of roughly where everyone works, makes it easier to get answers quickly. Several university libraries have described their frontline staff answering online reference queries as a triage process, who then forward questions to appropriate departments. While this is also somewhat true at Lincoln, the small staff size means that most people have enough knowledge to answer most basic questions (with the help of the cheat-sheet) or know the person who can. When an interesting question comes in, it’s not unusual for other staff to check the transcript to see how the question was answered – a practice that is strongly encouraged.
The number of AskLive queries since the system began July 2014 clearly shows a significant uptake in the service in February 2016. While part of this increase can be attributed to the beginning of the academic year, as in 2015, the stability of high numbers since February 2016 is likely due to the aggressive promotion of AskLive on the new LTL website, https://ltl.lincoln.ac.nz
In January 2017, the AskLive button was added to the Primo search results screen and the student Learn site. These two new locations have resulted in an increase in questions about access to e-resources and general course advice respectively. The early numbers for 2017 are looking very promising and it will be interesting to track this throughout the year and see the impact of questions coming in from the new locations.
Figure 3 Monthly statistics on AskLive queries at Lincoln University LTL
Lincoln University LTL’s implementation of a live online chat service has been a positive change in their services. The LibraryH3lp and Pidgin software chosen, due to their success at UC, have allowed for an innovative staffing model freeing staff from rosters and set hours. The strong promotion of the service on the website has resulted in a significant increase in use which can be seen in the open statistics freely available through the website. LTL staff have often commented on how much they are learning about their colleagues and services through seeing the questions and answers of the AskLive service.
A more thorough study of the chat service is planned for 2017, focussing on which questions come from where, and on the consistency and expertise of answers from librarian and non-librarian staff.
My effusive thanks to Deborah Fitchett for her tireless support with this ongoing project, ehara koe i a ia!
And to my former HoD Kerry Lyford for pushing me to apply for Kōtuku and always believing me to be capable of more. Te mahue koe e ahau.