Book shelves and study stations in the Bobst Library in New York City.

NYU's global network of libraries, including the Bobst Library in New York City, pictured here, is critical to the success of Ask A Librarian.

After an unsuccessful search of the stacks in Bobst Library, the frustrated NYU student did what most Gen Zers would: Pull out their phone and open the Ask a Librarian chat. Nickeisha Pencil, a reference and instruction associate who was working the virtual reference service that day, came to the rescue with a brief tutorial on navigating the seemingly endless aisles of books. 

More knowledgeable but still empty-handed, the student started sending photos of the shelves to the chat, and Pencil responded from her remote location with directions—go left, turn right—until the book was in hand.

While unusual, the memorable hunt—which the student likened to being in an escape room, Pencil recalled—is just one of thousands of digital queries handled by NYU libraries every year. Anonymous, convenient, and accessible almost 24/7, NYU’s Ask A Librarian chat is a massive undertaking with a simple mission: Provide immediate answers and help patrons successfully access the library’s vast resources. 

“This is pure. They would like help with a thing, and we would like to help them with the thing,” said Physical Sciences Librarian Margaret Smith, the head of Science Research Services who started the chat service and spends about 10 hours a week working it.

NYU’s virtual reference service is unusual in higher education because it operates independently. Most universities must team up with other institutions to provide a similar service. Not NYU.

“NYU is global and has librarians in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, so we are able to staff the service independently. It is valuable across time and space, contains our messaging, and ensures our students are getting the services they need,” said Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, the Division of Libraries Associate Dean for Teaching Learning & Engagement.

Alyssa Brisset, left, and Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz lead the library's effort to provide accessible research help.

The virtual chat started in 2005, and the text messaging function was added three years later. Since this was before web-based apps, the library purchased a phone that was designated for the text service and which staff had to physically hand off at the end of each shift. Now requests that come via email, text, and chat are received and processed through a single system.

The service has grown in popularity in recent years, and has eclipsed in-person queries—in part because the in-person reference desk was closed for 18 months starting in March 2020 because of the pandemic. There were more than 15,000 virtual queries in 2021, a 13 percent increase from 2019; library officials expect usage to continue to grow.

Close to 50 research, subject, and adjunct librarians and reference associates from several NYU libraries and campuses staff the service almost around the clock (it shuts down for some morning and weekend hours). Two employees are on at the same time (they pick the time and length of their shifts) and each can handle two to three requests simultaneously.

Successful virtual interactions rely on the same principles used at the reference desk, librarians say.

“For me, it’s coming back to this place of the beginner’s mind and never assuming anything. That helps me pay attention to what they’re really saying. You never answer the first thing that is asked because the first thing someone asks is really like ‘Hello.’ You treat that as a greeting and then you figure out what they’re really talking about,” Smith explained. “Figuring out what the question is is half the problem.”

Another challenge is navigating an interaction without being able to read body language and other physical clues.

“There are certain things you get from a person when they’re in front of you,” Pencil said. “In person I can show them my process, which likely includes some trial and error. In the chat, we do those things but they do not see it.” 

“It can be harder to gauge how much of a rush some of them are in,” added Smith. “They think it will be really easy and fast and they don’t know it might take a long time.”

Shelves of books and research tables and chairs at the Abu Dhabi library.

The Library at Abu Dhabi is part of the network that provides almost around-the-clock virtual research help.

Common questions include “When is the library open?” “How do I find this article?” and “How do I access a resource from off campus?” The service also receives many questions unrelated to the library (typically involving security, registration, and residence life), a fact the librarians chalk up to students knowing how to reach them.

Another frequent question? “People ask if we are robots, which is always tricky because it’s like, ‘I’m a real person, but that’s what a robot would tell you. So how far do you want to get into this. How do I prove to you that I’m a human if you can’t see me?’” said Smith. “It usually ends up being funny.”

Patrons ask the staff if they can recommend a textbook (they can’t) or if a book is published in other languages (sometimes it is). Last summer, Smith, who is renowned for her emoji game, answered a query from an individual trying to locate an NYU master’s thesis from 1955. “Intriguing” was her initial response. A few minutes later she added, “I’m not seeing anything. 😭”

Another memorable request involved the meaning of the “@” symbol displayed between two columns of numbers in 19th century Chicago trade and commerce reports, Smith said.

“It's tricky to figure out how to search for something that's either not a word or an extremely common word, and in this case it was both,” she said. Smith solved the puzzle (it means “range”) by reviewing digitized copies of similar reports from the 1860s.

Librarian Margaret Smith is renowned for using emojis in her chats

Professional ethics prevent them from disclosing the most surprising questions, the librarians said, adding that doing so would also undermine their effort to reduce patron anxiety. Asking for help is difficult, and the virtual service provides a shield.

“Students feel safer asking ‘I need this and I need it now’ in a chat,” Pencil said.

The staff is trained to be welcoming and encouraging—part friend, part tutor, part coach—and to establish a “we’re in this together” environment. Librarians are fiercely protective of this relationship.

“It’s a conversation where we learn from each other. We try to emphasize that. We’re not necessarily experts on every topic. The patron is the expert in their subject area and it's a collaborative process to get to a successful reference interaction,” Alyssa Brissett, Head of Reference at Bobst Library, explained. “It's important to be approachable and give online interactions a human touch. Some of our reference providers use humor and emojis to reach that goal."

“My first introduction to the internet was through AOL chat rooms so it is a very comfortable medium for me,” Smith, the librarian, said. “I use a lot of emojis and a lot of humor because that’s how I am generally. Making patrons understand they are welcome and in the right place—that goes a long way to setting the tone for the rest of the conversation.”

Nickeisha Pencil helped a student navigate the stacks in search of a crucial book.

The library saves the transcripts of chats for future research and to pinpoint ways to improve the service, said Associate Dean Smith-Cruz. “What are the questions that our community has? What are the largest points of confusion? Where is the biggest interest?”  

The chat is also monitored in real time, which allows for a rapid response when there’s a glitch in the Ebook Central access or an error message for the ProQuest database. “If we get 20 texts in an hour on something, it sounds the alarm,” Smith-Cruz said.