May 22, 2020

Libraries’ reference experts apply ‘can do’ approach so online questioners can know


The team of people working behind the scenes and screens within Purdue Libraries’ digital reference services have lent their expertise to the Purdue community for years.

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that expertise is being sought out more than ever.

Purdue Libraries’ digital reference is a pool of librarians and library staff members who answer the questions that come in through the Ask-A-Librarian chat service. They also work together to answer questions that come through email, texts and phone calls.

Mary Sego Mary Sego

Mary Sego, an archives processing assistant, has worked with the digital reference services since it was formed 16 years ago. Back then, Sego knew it would revolutionize how – and how quickly – people at Purdue got their information. But what she didn’t know was how much the services would affect not only Purdue’s campus, but people across the globe.

“This is a job where you truly have the opportunity to help people, sometimes complete strangers, from across the world,” Sego says. “From Purdue students looking for information for class assignments, high school seniors wanting to learn more about Purdue and families trying to find information about their loved ones, every day is different and equally rewarding when you can find someone an answer they’ve been looking for.”

Sego has worked in a variety of different roles within Purdue Libraries. She is also a Purdue alumna, and she will retire in June after working at Purdue for 36 years.

“It’s been fun finding answers for people for this long,” Sego said. “I still remember the day we started using computers. If you would have told me back then that today I would have the means to work from home during a pandemic and my job could be done entirely online, it would have been hard to believe.”

Recently, the Ask-A-Librarian service has increased both its hours and staffing levels in response to the move to remote instruction. Weekday hours for Ask-A-Librarian are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. with the exception of Friday, which is 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The service is also now available 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

The Ask-A-Librarian service can be accessed here or by clicking the “Ask Us” button on the side of the Libraries homepage.

In March, the online reference service saw a 27% percent increase in traffic, compared with the month of February. Those numbers tend to trend downward in March and April because of spring break and midterm exams, but the opposite is occurring this year.

Frances Christman, a reference assistant, has also worked with digital reference since the beginning. For her, the job means learning something new just about every day.

“If the person handling the chat function can’t answer the question, we create a ticket and assign it to the person we know can,” Christman said. “I’ve been here for 26 years and over time, you form relationships with people all over campus and have your go-to experts. We all rely on each other and have a giant pool of information just within ourselves.”

Frances Christman Frances Christman

When she’s working behind the chat function, Christman says that’s probably one of the most interesting components of the job – simply because you never know what you’re going to get.

“You definitely get some off-the-wall questions sometimes,” Christman said. “There have been some quirky ones over the years. But more often than not, we get legitimate questions from people who are relying on us to help them.”

Over the last couple of months, the questions have varied – but a lot of them have related to working and learning remotely.

“We know it has been a big change for everyone,” Christman said. “We’ve seen more questions about locating printers, computers and how to return items – but we’re also seeing more questions about finding articles and other materials for class assignments. With students not being able to drop by, they’re relying more heavily on us.”

Sego says the questions that land in her inbox – either by email or through the chat service --  come mostly from students. Though some questions can be answered quickly, some take more time and require multiple people and resources to answer.

“With everything available virtually, it’s easy for people to want answers quickly, but I have to remind them that sometimes it takes more digging than that,” Sego said. “The amount of people who utilize our service reminds me that libraries still have a place in this day and age. You can’t do a quick search on the internet for something and expect an academic answer. You have to dig a little deeper than that.”

Both Sego and Christman say the gratitude from those has always been a motivator.

“There’s something really gratifying when you help someone find an answer, no matter how big or small it is,” Sego says. “I have emails saved from people I’ve helped over the years because it reminds me that we’re making a difference.”

And even though they miss the face-to-face interaction they typically have, Christman says her role has prepared her for the current learning environment.

“We weren’t prepared for the situation we’re in now, but somehow we were prepared for it at the same time,” Christman said. “We miss the students and everyone else on campus that we were used to seeing. But even though we’re not all together, we can still help our community move forward by getting them the information they need.”

Anyone with questions also can email a librarian, send a text message or call to make a request. More information can be found here.

Writer: Abbey Nickel,

Source: Mary Sego,

            Frances Christman, 

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