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Motivations and Uses: An Evaluation of Usersí Use of a Chat Reference Service

Lili Luo and Jeffrey Pomerantz School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, CB 3360, 100 Manning Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3360. Email: <luo, pomerantz>

Sparking Synergies: Bringing Research and Practice Together @ ASIST '05 (ASIS&T 2005)
Westin Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 28 - November 2, 2005


With the increasing availability of computers and Internet access, computer-supported services such as database resources, digital reference, and online tutorials have become the most rapidly growing services in libraries. Chat reference is one of these services. Implementation, management, and evaluation of chat reference service have attracted plenty of attention from the field of library science. The questions of whether chat reference is beneficial enough to users to justify the cost of offering it, and how valuable it is to users in fulfilling their information needs, have been primary concerns for library administrators. Evaluating chat reference service from the usersí perspective and exploring their feedback on their use of the service constitute a solution to gauge the value and utility of the information provided by such a service to users.

This paper presents an evaluation of NCknows, a state-wide chat reference service in North Carolina, to explore usersí motivation for using this service and how they use the information provided to them in real life situations, which reflects the value of the service to them. Users who indicated a willingness to be contacted for their feedback were interviewed by email or telephone two weeks after their chat sessions with NCknows. The data collection method of follow-up interviews is a new approach to evaluating a reference service, made possible by the online nature of the service. By contacting patrons through their email address, this study was able to step out of the physical restrictions of libraries and track how users apply the information in their real life, and therefore, evaluate the chat reference service in terms of how it actually helps people in solving real-life problems. The findings indicated that the majority of use of NCknows was motivated by school or work related tasks and projects, and issues related to usersí personal life. Over sixty percent of users reported they used the information provided to them to fulfill the information needs that motivated them to use the service; approximately 10% reported partial use, and a quarter did not use the information at all.

This analysis of usersí motivations for seeking and use of information facilitates understanding of the complete process of reference interactions: motivations as prior to a reference session and usage as an extension of it. Placing the evaluation within the context of a userís information need and how it has been fulfilled, allows a holistic assessment of the value of chat reference services.

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