Virtual Reference: Helping Patrons Wherever They Are

With walk-in reference help shuttered at academic libraries around the country because of COVID-19, helping patrons virtually is more critical than before. WSU humanities librarian Erin Hvizdak learned this recently when a professor in San Francisco contacted her to check a footnote in a book at the last minute for her research. All nearby libraries that held a copy were closed. WSU Libraries carried an electronic version of the book, and Hvizdak accessed the eBook and worked with the professor to check the footnote and get the information she needed.

Closeup of Erin Hvizdak
Erin Hvizdak

“She was so appreciative,” Hvizdak said. “I think that in times like these, we are addressing so many questions about how to get information quickly when physical access is not possible. Getting more information from patrons about what they really need and coming up with workarounds are crucial.”

Online reference for WSU Libraries’ patrons is available 24/7. Pullman librarians and staff are online Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Staff at other libraries will help during other hours. See the Ask Us page for available reference methods. For subject-specific reference, please contact a liaison librarian.

Students and faculty from all WSU campuses can use virtual reference. For contact information and assistance from the Spokane Academic Library, please visit the WSU Spokane website. Contacts for email reference service are available for the Tri Cities’ Max E. Benitz Memorial Library at the WSU Tri-Cities website. The WSU Vancouver Library is offering chat reference and other services, which are outlined at the WSU Vancouver website.

Reference sessions are often integrated with Zoom, Hvizdak said. While libraries’ staff use Zoom for scheduled research consultations with students and faculty, she finds herself relying more on her personal Zoom room during virtual reference.

“It makes it easy to just hop on and have the student share their screen with you so that they can show you what issues they are experiencing, or so you can more visually walk them through how to find resources,” she said.

Librarian Jen Saulnier in the bookstacks.
Jen Saulnier

WSU online learning librarian Jen Saulnier said she was answering many questions about how to get library resources remotely, such as using the new locker pickup system and mailing books to home addresses. She has also been helping many beginning researchers find sources for papers and projects in online databases.

“We get questions from such a wide variety of people—undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, community members, researchers from across the world—covering so many different topics that our virtual reference system has been really helpful in referring questions to the right people,” she said. “Libraries are complicated systems during normal operations, but add in a pandemic and it becomes even more crucial for us to work together and make sure people are getting the information they need. Not only is our chat and email system easy to use for those that need help, but it’s easy for us to make sure people are getting help as quickly as possible.”

If WSU researchers have a specialized research question, they frequently work with a liaison librarian like David Luftig, who serves as the point of contact for agricultural sciences. Since all WSU librarians are both subject specialists and generalists, Luftig said, they can answer many reference questions that are outside of a particular subject area.

He also emphasized the importance of 24/7 reference coverage to patrons wherever they are.

Closeup of David Luftig
David Luftig

“The WSU Libraries provide not just reference assistance to WSU students; we provide such assistance to a consortium of libraries worldwide,” Luftig said. “This means that even when a WSU librarian might not be online, such as in the middle of the night, another trained librarian from around the world will always be online to assist. Additionally, if there are questions that a librarian can’t answer, those questions will get tagged for a WSU librarian to follow up with as soon as possible. It’s a good system that ensures that there is always a knowledgeable librarian providing online assistance.”

WSU students are also answering virtual reference questions—and gaining valuable knowledge at the same time.

Closeup of Samantha Hage
Samantha Hage

“As an undergraduate senior, working on virtual reference enhances my student experience because it allows me to have an idea of what my peers at WSU are researching, what types of questions they generally have and also how they communicate,” said Samantha Hage, a human development major from Upland, Calif.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, WSU Libraries planned to switch over to a new chat system, with more streamlined abilities to forward and tag chats that need referral and follow-up, as well as better integration into the libraries’ larger reference transaction database, Hvizdak said. The switch was made in May, with no disruption on the patron end.

“Who knew that this would become so crucial,” she said. “This helps us to design better services and guides. But overall, having the new chat system be more streamlined and integrated has helped us to track and respond much more easily and quickly than before.”

—Story by Nella Letizia