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PROFILE: Chat Reference Librarian Provides Assistance Online

Les Vuylsteke is one of 16 e-librarians who help people use the many resources of the libraries. He literally "pushes" the information they need directly to their computers.

Date: 9/1/2003 8:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Andrew Higley
UC ingot Les Vuylsteke remembers the urgent call for help that came in on a weekend. A graduate student in Germany “rang up” Les’ computer, seeking his expertise on quoting sources for her master’s thesis. About an hour later, a very grateful grad student thanked Les for his help, which she gained by using the “Chat Reference” feature offered by her academic institution.

Les Vuylsteke
Les Vuylsteke, campus coordinator for Chat Reference Librarians

Les Vuylsteke is the University of Cincinnati campus coordinator of the UC Chat Reference Operators, or e-Librarians, who assist Ohio college students online from wherever they may be. The Chat Reference service is provided by the Ohio Library and Information Network (OhioLINK).

UC is a founding member of OhioLINK, a consortium of 83 Ohio university and college libraries in addition to the State Library of Ohio. The Internet library partnership creates one of the largest libraries in the nation, second only to the Library of Congress.

The University of Cincinnati has a total of 16 librarians who provide service through Chat Reference, and the questions could come in from a student, faculty member, staff member or researcher who’s a member of any institution that is a partner with OhioLINK. The graduate student in Germany was able to get Les’ help because she was a student at a member institution in Ohio.

Les Vuylsteke
Les Vuylsteke answers requests for references online.

“She needed sources that focused on the theory of translation in technical fields,” he explains. “It was on a Sunday. In Europe, the libraries are much different. You don’t just walk in and get the service you can get in the United States, and you can’t just go through their bookshelves for resources.

“She was truly desperate,” Les continues. “I worked with her for well over an hour, sending her as many electronic pages as she could use.”

Les was searching electronic indexes and databases that could pull up those sources — sources, he adds, that many students either don’t know exist or may not know how to use. “They need the intervention of a librarian and we can actually ‘push’ electronic pages to their computer terminal, and show them how to use that material.”

Although that contact was an extreme example of a chat reference interaction and not the norm, it’s indicative of the capabilities and convenience of chat reference and the level of service that librarians are willing to provide. The e-librarians say the majority of chat reference inquiries last less than five minutes, with the gamut of questions ranging from library hours of operation to how to find research assistance.

Furthermore, the help is immediate, and could be even faster than waiting for face-to-face service in the library, since there, the librarian could be assisting other students ahead in line, says Debbie Tenofsky, University Libraries head of Reference and Research Services. “Through Chat Reference, we have 15 seconds to respond to the call. From that point, it’s immediate interaction.”

Libraries staff introduced the Chat Reference feature to around 4,000 of UC’s newest students as they attended summer orientation. Across the state, comments from user surveys show that the virtual library visits are a big help. “This chat was very useful,” messaged on user. “This was my first time using the library and it helped me out a great deal.”

“It was a very fast response,” wrote another Chat Reference user. “I’d never used it before, but I will again. It’s very convenient!”

One user thanked UC Chat Reference librarian Mark Kovacic by name, after the student admitted that “I’m a senior and I never learned how to correctly use the resources…”

Les says that people unfamiliar with library resources are more inclined to ask for help through Chat Reference, because they can remain anonymous.

The Chat Reference Web site is at:

Chat reference hours are:

  • Monday through Thursday – 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
  • Friday – 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • Saturday – 1-5 p.m.
  • Sunday -- 1-10 p.m.

Other UC Chat Reference operators are:

  • Pamela Bach, reference and research services, Langsam Library
  • Jane Carlin, head librarian, DAAP Library and acting head librarian, OMI-CAS Library
  • Jim Clasper, associate senior librarian, Engineering Library
  • Rosemary Franklin, associate senior librarian, training and education services, Langsam Library
  • Cheryl Ghosh, education librarian, training and education services, Langsam Library
  • Olga Hart, instruction librarian, training and education services, Langsam Library
  • Charles Kishman, research associate, Academic Information Technology and Libraries
  • Mark Kovacic, associate senior librarian, reference and research services, Langsam Library
  • Barbara Macke, instruction librarian, training and education services, Langsam Library
  • Shelley Paden, research associate, Academic Information Technology and Libraries
  • Mary Piper, associate librarian, Academic Information Technology and Libraries
  • Leslie Schick, director, Academic Information Technology and Libraries
  • Edith Starbuck, senior research associate, Academic Information Technology and Libraries
  • Debbie Tenofsky, associate senior librarian, reference and research services, Langsam Library
  • Les Vuylsteke, Chat Reference campus coordinator, Langsam Library
  • Steve Welker, computer applications trainer, Academic Information Technology and Libraries


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