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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

“Ask Us Live:” The Fastest Way to Reach a Librarian

Ask Us Live

Ask Us Live, a program which allows library patrons to ask reference questions via instant messaging, is the latest online reference service offered by HCL. The chat tool can be accessed by clicking on the "Ask Us Live" icon found in the persistent menu at the top of HCL Web pages.

September 10, 2009 – Following a successful pilot last year, “Ask Us Live,” the instant-messaging service that allows students, faculty and researchers to ask questions and communicate directly with librarians, has now become a permanent part of the research assistance offered by Harvard College Library.

Patrons can access the chat tool and exchange messages in real-time with librarians by clicking on the Ask Us Live icon found in the persistent menu at the top of HCL web pages. The service is available Sunday through Thursday, when classes are in session, from 3 to 9 p.m., except on major holidays.  

“Virtual reference services are becoming a significant part of how we serve library patrons,” said Laura Farwell Blake, Interim Head of Research Services at Widener. “That does not mean in-person service is not important – we’re striving to offer a range of ways for patrons to get help when they need it and where they need it.”

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The new instant-messaging feature is the latest in a series of reference services the libraries offer.  In addition to Ask Us Live, patrons can send questions via email to libref@fas.harvard.edu, to a specific research contact, or via the Ask a Librarian form on the HCL web site; or they can visit or call the reference desk in any of the libraries.  Questions from the student, faculty, and staff of Harvard University are given priority.

The chat service uses Meebo, an online instant-messaging tool, meaning users won’t have to download or install any software on their computer, said Widener Research Librarian Deborah Kelley-Milburn, who is coordinating the service. The online tool is compatible with a wide array of instant messaging networks, including Yahoo!, MSN, Google Talk, AIM, ICQ, and Jabber.

“The beauty is in the immediate nature instant messaging,” Kelley-Milburn said. “Sometimes people have questions they need answered right away, perhaps for a paper that’s due in an hour or two.  In those instances, an email inquiry, which which we try to respond to within 24 hours, would take too long.”

Not all questions, however, can be answered in an IM session that might last only a few minutes. In the case of more complex inquiries, Blake said, users will be encouraged to schedule an individual consultation with a librarian, or to contact the appropriate reference desk via email.

“A lot of what happens on IM is referral,” Blake said. “We can tell researchers, ‘Here’s the expert you need to speak with, or here’s a list of the information you need,’ but after a certain point, you have to say, ‘This is a really interesting question, let’s make an appointment to address it in more detail.’”