Zee Hinz '14, gender and women's studies, is a Fall 2021 graduate of the Masters of Library and Information Science program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Zee completed an internship with UMBC Special Collections in 2021 and shares their experience here. Thanks, Zee!
During the height of the pandemic in January 2021, I joined the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery’s Special Collections department as a graduate student intern. I joined as a required field study project for my Masters in Library and Information Science degree from the University of Maryland, College Park. As a UMBC alum I relished the opportunity to assist the UMBC community. I spent most of my time at UMBC at the library but had no experience using the Special Collections. This internship afforded me the opportunity to learn about this facet of the library and how its use could be continued throughout the pandemic.
Libraries, archives, and museum collections have historically been based on the physical. We used to have a very physical interaction with our users, lending a book or getting an image or box of archives ready for viewing. That shifted abruptly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for distanced connection led to an increase in trying to provide digital programming and access to resources.
One way that this manifested was through online chat services. Though these services have been in use for many years across organizations, they became even more essential during the pandemic. The AOK Special Collections was no different. Many of the resources that the collection has were suddenly unreachable. The chat service allowed connection once again. But with this proliferation of chat services comes an increasing need to understand how and how well they are being used.
That’s where I came in. My task was to analyze chats to understand how users are utilizing the service, and how it can be improved. My first task was to learn all I could about the Special Collections and about providing virtual chat service. I have been a chat operator at Enoch Pratt Free Library since May 2020 so I brought a lot of previous experience to the table. My coursework in Library Science also gave me a baseline of knowledge about special collections that I was able to build on. My supervisor Lindsey Loeper, Reference and Instruction Archivist at AOK, made sure I read about the specifics of special collections including ethics, processes, and more.
After going through training to staff the chat myself I moved on to creating a training document. I captured everything one would need to know from day one of operating the chat service. Operating the chat and synthesizing my training into a document gave me an intimate understanding of what users bring to and expect from live chat.
Sample page from the training document
My next step was to analyze chat data to identify patterns of use and provide an easily reviewable source for the staff of the library. First the chat data was exported. I streamlined the information exported into its important component parts. I had two phases of coding the chat. First was to pick out the evident parts. This is discrete information like time of chat, chat operator, and chat duration. Next I moved on to the less black and white parts of the chat data. I had to decide how it would be best to capture the complicated and cloudy nature of online chats into a structured framework. This ended up being eight categories when taken as a whole give a complete picture of each chat. These categories are location of user, type of user, affiliation, topic, year of inquiry, resolution, material referenced, and material used. I viewed each of these categories as a question to be answered.
I used my education and information services and my experience in public libraries to bring the perspective of both customer service and efficiency in providing information. Throughout my time as an intern, and in my work before, one issue that constantly arises is the loss of institutional knowledge and memory when employees move on. Creating process documents is an essential way of capturing the information in someone’s mind before they leave. That way, the hard work put in along the way will not have to be replicated by anyone else down the line. With this in mind my final project was to create a step-by-step process document for how to codify the chats. Now anyone with a need to understand or change the chat service will have an easy outline for gathering and coding the mass of information present.
I believe that through this work we have created a better and stronger live chat service. I hope that you will be able to access the Special Collections to see our work, online or in person.