4 Jun 2013

IM reference chat etiquette

Providing accurate and reliable information to library patrons during synchronous virtual reference interactions (instant messaging) is not all that matters. It is also important to consider what impact formal or informal language use by reference librarians can have on the level of success in IM reference chat. The idea of a social 'face' also applies to virtual environments and not just the all-familiar face-to-face encounter at the traditional reference desk.

Verbal language style, prosodic signals as well as facial expressions and body language augment expressively to the "what's going on" in face-to-face information exchange. The challenge of IM reference is the apparent lack of these cues due to the physical separation of patron and service provider. Hence, IM reference librarians solely rely on written language to compensate: the question is whether to use a strictly formal or informal register.

Necessarily, effective IM reference delivery is
determined by two basic variables: quality of information provided and use of written language style. Waugh (2013) considered this very question and conducted semi-structured interviews with five 17- to 25-year-old university students to find out how formality of language affects their perception about librarians they encounter during IM reference situations. The interviewees were asked to pass judgement on two IM reference transcripts (one uses formal, the other uses informal language), and subsequently share their opinions about perceived levels of professionalism, competency and credibility displayed by library staff. The quality of interpersonal connection was also considered.

The results of this exploratory study were a mixed bag. And that's no surprise, really, because the researcher looked at personal perceptions about the effects of language use in two very different IM reference transcripts. For example, the formal transcript was considered robotic and impersonal by some respondents, but also valued as competent and trustworthy. Essentially, there was no clear preference expressed for either - formal vs. informal - language use in IM reference interactions. Both styles bring with them inherent advantages and disadvantages, which are perceived differently depending on the situational context and individual patron.

The basic challenge is that IM reference interactions take place place in a vacuum, because so many signifiers are absent.

To compensate for this, I tend to simulate the patron's language style in IM reference. But the 'right' style of language can sometimes only reliably figured out by buying some time. Depending on the situation, I do this by deploying a neutral welcoming statement. This is an effective way to establishing a socio-emotional relationship despite the obvious constraints in doing so in the first place. Tuning into the patron by adopting their IM lingo has to date worked quite well. It's an intuitive and adaptive approach more than anything else as I don't subscribe to rigid formal or informal language styles. This is one of the main reasons why I don't use pre-formulated (canned) replies as they just don't work in most interactions.

In addition to 'appropriate' language use, it is also important to let the patron know what's going on at all times during a VR reference chat session. It is particularly important to spell out instructions as clearly as possible in order to avoid any misunderstandings. Not doing this can have two very negative effects; 1) unnecessarily prolonging the conversation, 2) potentially turning a positive exchange into a negative one.

Use of emoticons, abstractions and abbreviations can also work well for IM reference relationship building. However, I tend to use these devices with caution, and only if an informal rapport has been truly established.

Without trying to downplay the argument over which language style is most appropriate (formal vs. informal), at the end of the day it is the patron who sign-posts the level of formality in IM reference chats.

Ref. & resources:
Waugh, J.. Formality in Chat Reference: Perceptions of 17- to 25-Year-Old University Students. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, North America, 8, mar. 2013. Available at: http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/17911.
IM and SMS References Services for Libraries
libsuccess.org / Online Reference


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