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The Power of Dots: Using Nonverbal Compensators in Chat Reference

Jack Maness

(Submission #41)


The purpose in this study is to find the intent behind the use of nonverbal compensators in chat reference, and to suggest best practices for their contextual use by comparing satisfied and unsatisfied patrons.

One central aspect of library 2.0 and emerging library services online is social interaction using CMC. Though trends in CMC are certainly toward the use of visual and audio formats, most synchronous communication online still involves written language, and certainly in libraries this “chat” medium is the primary way librarians communicate with patrons through web-based technologies.

But effective CMC through written language is a skill unto itself: it appears to be not conventional written communication, but neither is it spoken; it is a unique form of written communication with qualities of both written and spoken language. If librarians are to, as RUSA guidelines suggest, “[use] a tone of voice and/or written language appropriate to the nature of the transaction,” it is then necessary they understand the nature of this relatively new type of transaction.

This study provides insight into the use of nonverbal compensators in chat reference with the intent to foster a positive relationship with users, in order that librarians better understand what sort of language is most appropriate in chat reference. This understanding and resulting skill is necessary in order to facilitate the creation of library 2.0 environments.

This paper analyzes the use of nonverbal compensators in librarians’ chat reference conversations with college and university students. Comparing the transcripts of conversations with students who rated librarians as “very helpful” and “unhelpful” in a survey following the reference interaction, the data shows that the librarians’ frequent use of certain compensators for the purpose of engaging, empathizing, or expressing continued thought is correlated to student satisfaction with the librarian. Specifically, the use of ellipses and dashes to supplant more traditional forms of punctuation, the purpose being to convey thought and interest in the patron’s information need, is extremely predictive of positive satisfaction levels. The implications for practitioners and instructors of chat reference include purposeful use of such compensators for specific purposes and the inclusion of computer-mediated-communication (CMC) in contemporary reference education.


[Paper (DOC)]  

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