The Tele-Reference Model: Adopting Virtual Tools to Enhance Reference Services During COVID-19 and Beyond

The Tele-Reference Model: Adopting Virtual Tools to Enhance Reference Services During COVID-19 and Beyond

Sandra Avila, Sarah A. Norris, Rebecca M. Murphey, Min Tong, Richard H. Harrison II
Copyright: © 2022 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8942-7.ch001
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At the University of Central Florida Libraries, a new alternative to traditional reference service was adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic as a remote solution for safely staffing the Research and Information Desk (RAID) at the John C. Hitt Library. Due to the challenges of a partial library re-opening at the height of COVID-19 variant infection rates in Florida, a safe alternative to physically staffing RAID was conceived and coined “Tele-Reference.” Utilizing a Zoom institutional license and readily available work equipment with audio and video capabilities, the Tele-Reference service model was developed by our research and information services librarians. The implementation, challenges, assessment, and future directions of using Tele-Reference at the University of Central Florida Libraries, as well as possible applications at other institutions, are explored herein.
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The COVID-19 pandemic had a substantial impact on services provided by academic libraries worldwide. Many closed their facilities for extended periods of time. Services, such as reference support, were provided 100% remotely during library building closures. Additionally, academic libraries and librarians had to make this shift to remote work and support quickly. Thus, many services were either paused temporarily, no longer offered, or were adjusted by using new and existing technologies. The John C. Hitt Library at the University of Central Florida, like many academic libraries, faced these issues and developed a new service called “Tele-Reference,” to provide traditional reference services in a virtual setting.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) is one of 12 state public universities in Florida. With an enrollment of 71,948 (Fall 2020), it is the second largest university in the United States and is classified as a Carnegie RU/VH (Research Universities/Very High Research Activity) institution (UCF Facts 2020-2021). This metropolitan university is comprised of a main campus, several other campuses, and regional locations, along with renowned fully online programs. Therefore, the UCF Libraries provide research support to a large and diverse campus population.

Beginning in March 2020, UCF library staff would begin working 100% remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The duration of time for remote work was indeterminate during this transition. Reference services were initially provided to patrons using a statewide virtual reference service called Ask-A-Librarian, by email, chat, and phone, or by making an appointment with a librarian to meet virtually for an individual consultation. However, as the library began considering reopening its physical building, the need to provide regular, in-person reference desk services arose. A review of safe physical distancing standards, university guidelines, and staffing needs were under evaluation as the institution and library administration discussed protocols and processes for re-opening the John C. Hitt Library, at least partially, beginning in August 2020.

During this evaluation, the UCF Libraries conducted an environmental scan of other State University System (SUS) schools in Florida in June of 2020. Feedback from other institutions across the state indicated that no other universities were planning to provide physical, in-person reference services during this time. In fact, based on communication with other institutions, none of the universities that were queried offered in-person reference services from March 2020 through August 2021. However, UCF Libraries was committed to providing pre-pandemic levels of service to students, faculty, staff, and community patrons beginning in Fall of 2020, to abide by the university guidelines related to staffing of physical spaces on campus. As a consequence, feedback from the environmental scan, university guidelines, and other factors led the Research & Information Services Department (RIS) to propose a new reference service to be contrived, developed, tested, and adopted.

The Tele-Reference model uses Zoom, a web conferencing program, and existing computer hardware to provide traditional reference services to patrons who are physically in the library. The service operates by using a continuously running, single Zoom session accessible on dual monitors located at the library’s Research and Information Desk (RAID). The sole means of input from the patron is the camera and microphone, mimicking a face-to-face reference interaction. Removing the keyboard and mouse eliminates another potential mode of COVID-19 indirect transmission. This setup allows reference librarians who would normally provide services at the desk to do so virtually. Patrons are able to have an interaction with a librarian that is similar to traditional reference services available before the pandemic while allowing both patrons and librarians to be physically distanced, aid in mitigating COVID-19 exposure, and provide consistent services when librarians were working remotely.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Springshare LibGuides: A content management system developed by Springshare used to curate knowledge, share information, and develop websites and blogs.

Research and Information Services (RIS) Department: The department of a library which supplies information requested by library users and assists patrons in locating needed information using all available resources.

Reference Ambassador: Student employee who physically staffs the Research and Information Desk in conjunction with Tele-Reference.

Tele-Reference: A virtual reference service developed by the University of Central Florida Libraries using web conferencing software and computer technologies to provide traditional reference services in an online setting.

Ask-a-Librarian: A service providing free, quick reference assistance with basic answers to brief, factual questions via chat, instant messaging, telephone, and/or e-mail.

Springshare LibApps: A suite of services provided by Springshare used by libraries to share information and manage library services and resources.

Research and Information Desk (RAID) Reopening Task Force: A committee charged to survey best practices shared by academic libraries that comport with campus reopening strictures and to develop guidelines for University of Central Florida Libraries concerning site management, staff and user safety, circulation and resource sharing, research and information services, and materials handling as pandemic conditions evolve.

Research and Information Desk (RAID): A public service counter where professional librarians provide library patrons with directions to library materials, advice on library collections and services, and expertise on multiple kinds of information from multiple sources.

Zoom: A web conferencing software program, developed by Zoom Video Communications, used for online meetings, chat, phone calls, webinars, and other events.

Springshare LibInsight: A tool developed by Springshare to gather, track, and analyze data collected by libraries.

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