Krisellen Maloney and Jan H. Kemp recently published a fantastic article about how chat reference and proactive chat are bringing back the complexity of the reference question:
Some key points:
“Online chat may be popular (and less threatening) because it makes the service interaction available to users in a way that is culturally more familiar and inviting, providing assistance in a manner similar to many other online chat services they encounter in daily life. At the reference desk, it is fairly common for students to preface a question with an apology such as “I’m sorry to bother you," or "I should already know the answer to this, but…” Interestingly, in the chat reference environment at the University Libraries, apologies are almost never offered—student simply ask their questions."
“By differentiating between questions asked at the reference desk and questions asked via chat, we see evidence that users do ask more complex questions via chat. The trend of declining questions complexity does not appear to hold true in the virtual environment"
“the findings demonstrate that the reference transaction can result in the librarian providing guidance and advice, involving the librarian in a learner-centered approach to the research process that focuses on the active participation of the learner and experiential learning rather than on activities involving rote memorization.”
“After spending more than a decade moving librarians away from the reference desk and more recently away from chat reference, new evidence about user preference and students’ increasing use of chat reference to support learning may encourage academic libraries to reconsider the reference staffing model."