Early Warning Systems describe the timely provision of information regarding an emerging dangerous situation where that information can point to quick action now, to limit the damage. There are early warning systems for natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, maybe earthquakes) and potentially lethal health conditions (the early warning signs of heart disease, etc). But chat sessions from your patrons can also act as an Early Warning System for issues with your library systems.
Stephen Francoeur (Baruch College) pointed this out in his Digital Reference blog a few months ago: http://www.stephenfrancoeur.com/digitalreference/2013/11/25/digital-reference-as-early-warning-system-for-systems-issues/. A student reported a problem with the links in the library’s fulltext discovery service, using the Ask a Librarian chat service. Stephen muses that: “Problems like this don’t seem to get reported at the reference desk so much. My theory is that if a student is having a problem, they are far more likely to report it immediately than later on; the only way to reach us immediately is through our digital reference services (we also get some from the telephone at the reference desk).”
There are several ways to encourage users to report issues of this sort (special troubleshooting or problem reporting forms, for example), but the key is to review your chat transcripts. As Stephen says, “it’s clear we’ve got a really valuable source of feedback about our systems coming in via digital reference channels and we would be well advised to continue paying close attention to that feedback”. Well stated, Stephen!
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