Staffing Chat Reference with Undergraduate Student Assistants at an Academic Library: A Standards-Based Assessment

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Academic libraries have long experimented with how to staff the reference desk. Recent trends at college and university libraries indicate a shift toward a tiered staffing model, relying on a mix of professional librarians, library paraprofessional staff and often graduate students when available. Fewer academic libraries employ undergraduate students to work at the reference desk. This paper examines the use of undergraduate library assistants specifically to staff chat reference services at an academic library. It analyzes chat transcripts for content and comparative quality between different types of answerers: professional librarians, paraprofessional staff, and undergraduate students. Our analysis of 451 chat reference transcripts determined that undergraduate students can indeed provide satisfactory chat reference services, comparable in quality and content to that of paraprofessional staff and professional librarians. The data suggests that having well-trained undergraduate students staff chat reference is a viable, and even desirable, option for academic libraries.