Email and Chat Reference

Email has become a popular service in many libraries, and is growing in popularity as libraries incorporate email effectively into their workflow. Prompt, reliable service will insure that your patrons will continue to use this service. Chat reference, real-time transactions online, is also growing in popularity, and the rules for email often hold for chat reference as well.

When answering email or conducting chat reference transactions, you should check your library’s policies. In general, the following rules usually apply.

  1. Use an effective email reference form that prompts the patron to give you the six pieces of evidence needed for a complete reference interview. Also, several contacts for patrons (email, telephone, address) are useful if you need to contact the patron for more information or send information that will not fit on one email response.

  2. Understand your chat software and know the features. Basics like pushing a website to a patron or moving between windows should be second nature so as not to slow down the transaction.

  3. Make sure your emails have a generic address that patrons can send information and responses back to in the email. No one person should be the “email librarian” unless you are really the only staff person who manages this service.

  4. Check your responses carefully for spelling and other errors, and make sure they are complete and understandable.

  5. Give your patron clear direction and expectations for turnaround time and the type of answer and materials that are available. Will you send documents electronically, or does the patron need to come in to get copies?

  6. Create a frequently asked questions or FAQ for patrons so they can get information on what to expect from the service and how to use the service effectively.

  7. Check email responses for consistency as multiple librarians work on different emails to insure patrons are being served equally.

  8. The tone of emails should be more business than personal, depending on the patron. In email communication the patron cannot hear your tone of voice or see your facial expressions. Remarks that may be witty or appropriate in person or even over the telephone can easily be mistaken email.

  9. Library jargon and abbreviations should be avoided (ILL or ADA).

  10. Spell out dates and commonly used words.

  11. Identify the librarian who worked on a specific request with initials or another coding system, but do not use full names.

  12. Set off titles, URL’s, etc. on lines by themselves to make them stand out.

  13. Keep instructions simple and easy to follow.

Go to Be sure your patron understands the answer.

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This page was updated November 24, 2003.