I had a bunch of virtual reference questions today where the best answer I could give was the phone number of the patron’s local library reference desk. One problem with taking virtual reference questions from all over the country is that people reasonably expect that when they click on a link to chat with a librarian on their library’s web site they will be connected with one of their local librarians. And I do what I can whenever I get a question, but sometimes it is a little tricky to get an exact answer, especially when it involves a particular library’s policies on alumni access, internet access, or problems signing on to online databases.
Like today, I was trying to help one person who was having trouble logging in to a library database. I was able to find the remote access page for her library and figured out that she was logging in with the correct type of password, but after that I couldn’t do anything else but tell her to call the reference desk at her library, because I had no way of determining if there was something wrong with her not being in her library’s patron database, or if the databases at her library were down, or any number of other possible problems.
I was trying to help out someone else who had a very specific question about alumni access to their old college library, I found a web page with information on alumni borrowing, but not an answer to their specific question. Again, I gave out the phone number of the reference desk.
Things that are the kiss of death when you are trying to help out people through a nationwide virtual reference service: web pages with teeny tiny font, library web pages designed in frames, and libraries with poorly documented policy pages, incomplete site indexes, and bad web site search engines. Of course, these may also be the reasons why someone would give up after trying to use a library web site and ask a librarian for help.
A benefit of doing virtual reference is feedback. I did look over my transcripts today and one person filled out a survey saying “Tangognat is great!” which was both unexpected and nice, since I just sent them a couple web pages and told them where to direct their question at their local library for follow-up. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make someone happy.