It has been a few weeks since our class with Karen Reiman-Sendi, but it has been one that has stuck in my mind. I have been especially enthralled with her idea that the ideal library is a spectrum. For some a the library building itself is a refuge, while others elevate the information and want it to be available in their homes. This may not be a huge surprise. People are different, have unique preferences, and favorite places. I would expect that those who prefer to access library resources t home would be more likely to access virtual reference services (VRS). I was surprised to learn that that is not the case. In fact, the VRS service at the University of Michigan fields many inquires from within the library buildings themselves. This took me back to one of our very early discussions of the librarian – patron relationship.
This was one of the explanations for as to why patrons are unlikely to approach a reference desk within the library space. It proposed that the librarian is perceived as having more power and that approaching the desk is a daunting task for some users. Another iteration of this explanation suggested that by approaching them the user is admitting weakness, like the user should know where to find, know to search, and what information is available. VRS was mentioned at the time, but I did not realize how important it could be for these patrons who need help but are unlikely to approach the actual desk. Our job as reference librarians is to connect people to the information they want, empower them to preform those functions on their own, and simply be there for the user. Before our talk with Karen, I was unconvinced VRS could accomplish all these tasks.
But it can. Many users do not need a tour of the library itself, as they are already searching for information on a virtual platform. As demonstrated by the first of our sample VRS interactions, a VRS librarian can easily share their search process with the user and walk them through the steps to find the information. Whether that person is in the actually library or not is irrelevant as the users are getting the help that they require. In the case they are in the library, VRS has helped overcome the approachability problem. In the case they are not in the library, VRS has helped the user when they had access to no other help.
I experienced just how useful VRS was when my wisdom teeth came out a few weeks ago, I had two 2000 word paper due and two midterms, in addition to my regular school work. Simply, I was bedridden and braindead. If VRS was not available, I would be unable to even begin seeking the help I need. And if reference service did not exist, I would be unable to even begin my work. The access to VRS allowed me to get a small foothold in the library from my bed with icepacks wrapped around my cheeks. I was able to explain the assignment and how my brain was hibernating to find the help and information I needed to begin to develop my own ideas as soon as I was back on my feet.
An enthusiastic thank you to Karen and her team!