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AJCU Virtual Reference Project

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AJCU Virtual Reference Project

Service Policies and Guidelines


Participating Libraries 

AJCU VR Coordinator Contacts List



Mission Statement
Quality Control
Service Overview
Communication Channels
Service Philosophy
Privacy Policies 
Users Served
Use Policy
Service and Performance Standards
Consortium Governance
Database Access Policy
Commitments of Participating Institutions
Organizational Guidelines


TheAssociation of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) Virtual Reference Project is committed to providing high quality online reference service to students, faculty, and staff of all the participating Jesuit institutions.


II. Service Overview


The AJCU Virtual Reference Project provides online reference help to the primary clientele of the participating Jesuit institutions 24 hours a day, seven days a week, excluding certain federal holidays. The collaborative virtual reference model allows the institutions involved to extend standard hours of operation by distributing the staffing of the service across multiple libraries and multiple time zones.


The service uses theLibraryH3lp software platform (hereafter ‘third-party software platform’) which allows the librarian to chat with users. The service is cooperatively staffed by AJCU librarians generally Monday through Thursday from 9 am to 8 pm (in all time zones) during the fall and spring academic semesters. At other times, questions are answered by librarians hired byChatstaff, our contracted back-up/24-7 librarian staffing service (hereafter ‘third-party staffing service’).


Each participating Jesuit institution is required to contribute a certain number of librarian hours which is determined by its full-time enrollment (FTE).



III. Service Philosophy


The AJCU Virtual Reference Project provides another method of delivering reference and research services to the users of the participating Jesuit institutions. This additional way of providing research support enhances the service philosophy of academic libraries, which includes the development ofinformation literacy in researchers. During online sessions with users, librarians should emphasize teaching and learning over simply providing information.



IV. Users Served


The service is available to current students, faculty, and staff of the participating Jesuit institutions without restrictions. When a non-affiliated user accesses the service, the librarian may point the user to freely available web based resources, or may refer the user to a local public institution. Proprietary databases should not be used to aid unaffiliated patrons. 



V. Service and Performance Standards


1) Scope of service

Each library must contribute a certain number of hours to the AJCU Virtual Reference Project, determined by its institution’s full-time enrollment (FTE). During these assigned shifts, the librarian online will answer questions from all participating libraries.


There is no time limit for answering a question. If a question requires more than 15 minutes, referral to a local librarian may be more efficient. In general, librarians should aim to balance offering timely research support to the patron while also making sure the patron receives help from the most appropriate librarian for their need.


The librarian on duty is not required to answer more than one question at a time. In the third-party software platform, the librarian has the ability to set their status to “Busy” once they are assisting a patron, which will result in any new chat query going to another AJCU librarian on duty or to a librarian from the third-party staffing service. Librarians are encouraged to take advantage of the service rollover provided by the “Busy” status function.


2) Types of questions answered

The types of questions that will be answered may include:

  • A specific piece of information (examples: a fact, a date, spelling of a name) or verifying citations.

  • Suggestions for appropriate electronic or print resources to help find information for a project or research paper.

  • Help in constructing a research question and search strategy.

  • Assistance in the use of electronic resources and the systems through which they are accessed.

For in-depth reference questions or if detailed research assistance is needed, the librarian on duty can choose to follow up by email or can refer the question to a librarian from the patron’s host institution using the “Tag for Follow up” feature in the third-party software platform.


The service is designed to answer research-related questions, but general circulation or directional questions may be answered using the institutional profiles filled out by each library and securely housed within the third-party software platform.


3) Reference practices

As a general rule, the reference service provided in an online environment should:


  • Be of the same quality as in-person reference service (e.g., conducting a quick reference interview, using reliable/quality resources, etc.).

  • Focus on online resources as this is a virtual service (online catalogs, databases, electronic journals, ebooks, online reference books, and appropriate web pages).

  • Make use of databases and resources available at the patron’s host institution. Patrons should be asked to authenticate to access any proprietary databases.

Please see our Best Practices Guidelines for more information about how we provide research and reference service through the AJCU Virtual Reference Project.


4) Follow Up/Referral Procedures

Librarians on duty should try to answer each question to the best of their abilities. If they determine that a question would be better answered by a local librarian, they can refer the question to the patron’s host institution using the “Tag for Follow up” feature in the third-party software platform. In certain cases, the librarian can negotiate with the patron to continue the transaction by email if necessary. The AJCU Virtual Reference Project doesn’t include faxing, photocopying, or mailing materials for patrons. 


VI. Database Access Policy


It is important that librarians adhere to the licensing agreements for any electronic resources and databases used. As a general rule, the librarian on duty should use the databases and electronic resources available at the user’s host institution and ask the user to authenticate before access is granted. The librarian can then instruct the patron in the use of the databases. Librarians on duty should only facilitate access to databases that are accessible via the user’s host institutions.


Each institution will aim to provide a username and password to access their databases that will be securely available to librarians from the third-party staffing service and AJCU librarians.



VII. Scheduling


Before the beginning of each academic year, a schedule will be created using scheduling software (currently Sling). Each institution will sign up for a required number of shifts. The scheduling coordinator will make sure that all shifts are covered and will resolve conflicts. Every effort will be made to accommodate individual institutions’ preferences.


If an institution is unable to staff the service at its regular scheduled time, its coordinator should first request a shift trade through the scheduling software and the discussion list. The discussion list should be notified if a trade is not possible. 



VIII. Quality Control


Providing virtual reference service in a consortial environment means that librarians staffing the service answer questions for patrons from institutions other than their own. This means they will be using online resources they might not be familiar with. In order to maintain the highest standards of quality, all library staff involved need to familiarize themselves with the institutional profiles and the electronic resources of the participating institutions.


The coordinators at each institution are responsible for keeping their institutional profiles up-to-date. If a library has a change in policy or any other changes that could affect the virtual reference service, coordinators are responsible for updating their profiles in a timely manner. In the event of a systems outage at a coordinator’s library, the coordinator should notify consortium members via the discussion list and/or LibraryH3lp conference room at their earliest convenience.

If out of date information, broken links, etc. are found in institutional profiles, each coordinator should directly follow up with that institution’s coordinator.


Individual coordinators are also responsible for reviewing the transcripts involving their patrons and their librarians. They may decide to follow up by email with the quality control coordinator if the service given to their patrons was not adequate. The quality control coordinator will then pass that information along to the appropriate local coordinator, or to the representative at the third-party staffing service. It is recommended that the transcripts (or a sample of the transcripts) be reviewed at regular intervals. 



IX. Communication Channels


Ongoing communication is critical to ensure the success of the AJCU Virtual Reference Project in a consortial environment. The coordinators at each institution should be subscribed to theAJCU Virtual Reference discussion list and use it to ask questions, discuss issues with their colleagues, and provide needed information about their libraries. This list is also used to request shift trades and drops, and to receive reminders. The librarians involved in providing virtual reference for the consortium at each institution are also welcome to join this discussion list, but it is not required. It is the responsibility of the coordinator at each library to pass pertinent information and announcements along to their librarians who staff the service.

Other communication channels for the consortium include thepublic andprivate (password-protected) wikis as well as direct email communication between the coordinators. The communications coordinator is responsible for adding and orienting new coordinators to the communications channels. 


X. Privacy Policies


Institutions have the option of posting on their websites a privacy policy, which explains to the patron what personal information is collected by the service and what is done with this information. This information has been provided by both third-party vendors and is summarized below, and can be adapted as part of an institution’s posted privacy policy:

Third-party software platform (LibraryH3lp):

When the patron initiates the service through a LibraryH3lp chat widget, information that is collected includes:


1. Timestamp of transaction, queue name, and name of operator who answers the chat: none of these data points are associated with patron identity
2. Randomly-generated, anonymous guest ID: this provides a consistent guest identity across multiple chats in the same browser, until the browser clears cache, and helps with continuity in the conversation in widget-style chats, where the guest may hop around and chat more than once over the course of their current research project
3. IP address
4. Referring URL: this is the URL of the web page where the chat widget is located
5. Transcript of the conversation itself: for the purposes of quality control of the virtual reference service

This data is stored until it is deliberately deleted. Individual libraries are free to set up and implement their own data retention policies.

This data can be removed at the library’s request in a few different ways:

      • Delete transcript while leaving the rest of the chat metadata for reporting.  

      • Anonymize: this deletes transcripts and removes IP addresses from widget chats. Since the guest ID is already anonymous, it does not do anything with it. This option also leaves the rest of the chat metadata for reporting.

      • Delete the entire record of the chat: this deletes the transcript and all of the chat metadata, leaving nothing for reports.

Third-party staffing service (Chatstaff):

Chatstaff Privacy Policies

Use of Transcripts

Transcripts are only used for evaluation (staff reviews, overall look at library’s traffic, keyword analysis, etc.) and training. In cases of training, all transcripts are anonymized of all identifying information (names, email addresses, IP addresses, location). Exceptions are made for properly executed legal orders as detailed in: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/privacy

Retention of transcripts is entirely up to the library and is managed via LibraryH3lp’s software. Chatstaff does not retain any transcripts outside of this. LibraryH3lp’s software requires that libraries actively change the default setting in order for transcripts to be retained.

Emergency and Crisis Procedures

We do not require, nor do we forbid, librarians from contacting 911 or law enforcement during or after a session. Our preference is to contact the patron’s library to allow them to make the decision whenever possible.

Use of Policy Information

Policy information, including authentication information, is only used when (1) handling a patron from that library and (2) for training in resources at that library. Librarians are never allowed under any circumstance to use one library’s resources to help a patron identified as not from that library. Librarians are never allowed to share policy information or use it for personal purposes.

Policy information can be edited, deleted or otherwise controlled by libraries at all times via the LibraryH3lp admin module.

ALA Privacy Policies

We strive to be consistent with ALA’s Privacy Policies and are proud of the history and practice of maintaining the rights of patrons as detailed here: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/privacy


XI. Use Policy

Each institution is encouraged to post on their website a use policy for the service stating who can use the service and what kind of questions are appropriate.


XII. Consortium Governance

The AJCU Virtual Reference Project reports to the AJCU Library Deans and Directors group. Each participating institution has a coordinator who represents their library within the consortium. The Virtual Reference Project is led by a steering committee that serves voluntarily and is elected annually at the Virtual Reference Project Annual Coordinators’ Meeting. The steering committee liaises between the coordinators, the Library Deans and Directors group, and our third-party vendors to ensure the needs of all stakeholders are being met. Please see XIV. Organizational Guidelines for more information about the structure and governance of the consortium.

XIII. Commitments of Participating Institutions


--Active subscription with third-party software platform, including ability to embed chat widgets at point-of-need on library web pages

--FTE-based financial contribution toward cost of third-party staffing service

--FTE-based time contribution toward weekly coverage of shared chat queue: half are business hours and half are non-business/weekend hours

--Small annual fee for scheduling software (currently WhenToWork.com)

--Librarian to serve as the coordinator for each member library: representative within the consortium whose responsibilities include:

  • signing up for virtual reference shifts (once per year) and scheduling local librarians to cover them

  • training new librarians in the service

  • keeping their librarians current on changes in the service and the software platform

  • active participation in the consortium’s communication channels as well as the Annual Coordinators’ Meeting

  • creating and maintaining member library’s institutional profile within the third-party software platform

  • creating and maintaining consortial service code for the third-party software platform chat widgets

  • serving as contact person for annual invoicing for third-party staffing service and third-party software platform

  • coordinators are encouraged to regularly review chat transcripts for local patrons receiving help from librarians from either the third-party staffing service or from other AJCU schools

--Annual report and statistics: Each institution is encouraged to write an annual report using the statistics and reports available within the third-party software platform and detailing the problems and successes of the service at their institution. These reports can then be used by the consortium to improve service.


XIV. Organizational Guidelines


Article 1 – Name and Authority

The name of the organization shall be the AJCU Virtual Reference Project. The AJCU Virtual Reference Project is created and organized as an agreement among AJCU libraries to offer virtual reference service to their patrons.

Article 2 – Purpose and Mission

The AJCU Virtual Reference Project provides online reference help and research support to the primary clientele of the participating Jesuit institutions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The collaborative virtual reference model allows the institutions involved to extend standard hours of operation by distributing the staffing of the service across multiple libraries and multiple time zones.

The AJCU Virtual Reference Project is committed to providing high quality online reference service to students, faculty, and staff of all the participating Jesuit institutions.

Article 3 – Membership

Membership shall be open to any of the 28 members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

Article 4 – Meetings

An annual meeting of the local coordinators will be held at member libraries, on a rotating basis. Coordinators at each institution are strongly encouraged to participate in the annual meeting each year. The AJCU Virtual Reference Project Steering Committee will have ongoing virtual communication throughout the year.

Article 5 – Steering Committee

All official business of the AJCU Virtual Reference Project shall be conducted by the AJCU Virtual Reference Project Steering Committee with guidance from the general membership.

The Steering Committee will consist of five members. Selection of new steering committee members will take place at the Annual Coordinators’ Meeting.

The Steering Committee members will be charged with various administrative tasks including: scheduling, communication, quality control, and other administrative areas as identified by the general membership.

In order to serve as Chair a coordinator should have served on the Steering Committee for at least one year, though exceptions may be made. The Chair rotates into the role of Past-Chair after their year as Chair, after which the Past-Chair rotates off the Steering Committee so that others may have the opportunity to serve.   

Any Steering Committee member who needs to resign while their institution is still a member of the AJCU shall do so in writing.

Article 6 – Hours of Operation

AJCU librarians will answer chat requests from 9 am to 8 pm in all time zones, following the schedule created prior to the start of the academic year. The schedule will be revised once each academic year.

The service will be closed on New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.


See the scheduling page for more information on hours of operation -- http://ajcuvirtualreference.pbworks.com/w/page/1631521/Schedule%20Information


Article 7  Amendments

These guidelines, except as otherwise specified in this document, may be amended at any meeting of the AJCU Virtual Reference Project Coordinators, providing a copy of the proposed amendment was sent out at least one month prior to the meeting. These service policies and guidelines will be reviewed annually by the Past-Chair serving on the Steering Committee that year.

For current members of the Steering Committee, see the AJCU VR Coordinator Contacts List (Steering Committee members are in bold).



Service Policies and Guidelines Last Updated: 8/4/2022


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