E-mail. Texting. Chat.
Virtually all libraries have adopted one or all of these reference services over the years. And virtually all these services have notoriously low usage. One study found that younger users enjoy the convenience and anonymity of virtual reference services, but often turn to Google first because of impatience and a desire for immediate results. Another study found that 69 percent of students prefer face-to-face reference (Mu, Dimitroff, Jordan & Burclaff, 2011).
With the massive growth of distance education, and a growing number of adult students taking online courses, it concerns me that not enough is being done to accommodate the reference needs of these students.
My solution? Google+ Hangouts
Now that organizations can set up a Google+ page, Hangouts is a simple solution to the lack of face-to-face library service that distance education students are getting. Google Hangouts is basically a web conferencing tool, which allows for virtual face-to-face meetings and screen sharing. You may already have web conferencing tools at your disposal, such as Adobe Connect or Elluminate, but in my experience these can be a pain in the you-know-what to operate. Google Hangouts is just plain easy to use. And it’s free!
My guess is that this type of service would not be any more demanding than chat, text or e-mail. You could even set it up by appointment only, or by set hours. What it would do though is provide distance students (especially) with the kind of face-to-face reference service that on-campus students currently benefit from.