Since January 6, I have had a total of eleven IM sessions with business students. Of these , nine were basically your run-of-the-mill reference questions. Most had questions about industry ratios, market shares, or SWOT analyses. However, the last two interactions were a little more unique.
The first encounter occurred last Thursday. The question started out about a business-related inquiry, and then evolved into something else. Before I knew it, I was helping a guy with de-bugging his html code. He sent me the link to his project, and then I proof-read the source code. I would tell him what he might consider changing and he would make the changes. He would tell me when to refresh my browser to see the updated version of the page. This exchange went on for at least 15 minutes, until his html code was just right.
I had a similar exchange this morning. A guy IMed me to ask how to upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows XP. I told him where to get a copy of the OS (fortunately, we have a campus license that makes the price really nice) and then told him what he could expect during the upgrade. I also told him that after installation, he would need to do a Windows Update to get the latest Service Pack and the most current updates. He IMed me again about an hour ago and said that everything had worked fine and that he had a brand new OS on his laptop.
The stories above are not unique to virtual reference or instant messaging. While staffing the physical reference desk, I have had a number of similar encounters. Our desk is a horse-shoe shaped monstrosity, with library services staff (librarians and student assistants) occupying one side, and technology services staff (usually students) sitting on the other side. Patrons often do not distinguish between the two sides of the desk, so they ask their questions to the first person they see. As a result, the library services side, although intended for reference questions, fields a number of technical questions. We get questions ranging from attaching a file in an email to applying a filter in Photoshop.
Many of my colleagues will refer these questions to the other side of the desk, because “that’s what the other side of the desk is for.” I prefer to try to answer the tech question if I can, because this is often a way to learn something new (or at least keep in touch) with software and hardware issues. Also, I think it is bad service to pass a patron off to someone else, particularly if you are able to answer the question. Many are intimidated by technology-related questions, and that is very understandable. However, as librarians, we all know that a great way to learn about something new is to attempt to answer a new question.
Currently, we keep desk statistics for non-reference and reference questions. It might be interesting to add a third category to keep track of technology questions that we answer on the library services side of the desk. There might be some debate over whether librarians are supposed to be able to answer these kind of questions, as many feel these are outside the scope of reference duties. However, it would be interesting to see how our patrons define the scope of our reference duties. Perhaps by gathering a greater understanding of what they expect us to know, we might actually be prepared to answer new types of questions, while also providing a higher level of service. What if we have reached a new age and according to our patrons, reference librarians aren’t just for reference anymore?