University of Washington

Create a 24/7 library, no matter the weather

Photo of University of Washington students in Odegaard Library

"It's kind of a no-brainer. If users don't have to think about or find out when the service is open, if they can come anytime, then they're going to use it."

Nancy Huling
Head of the Reference and Research Services Division, University of Washington

The University of Washington's campus closed for two days due to a snow storm in January 2012, but the virtual library stayed open. "It's very unusual to close the campus," explained the Head of the Reference and Research Services Division, Nancy Huling, "but conditions were treacherous." Luckily, the whole library system uses the QuestionPoint® 24/7 Reference Cooperative. When the President's Office called to ask about keeping the library open for students and faculty to continue research from their homes, the Dean pointed to the 24/7 service. "Our librarians were on duty," Nancy said, "and when we weren't, other librarians from the QuestionPoint 24/7 team were. Over the two days the campus was closed, we answered 350 questions."

QuestionPoint fits seamlessly into University of Washington Libraries' emergency procedures, but it also provides valuable everyday service to users. Nancy recalled an architecture student she helped through QuestionPoint's chat service. The student needed information about the Carnegie libraries that make up the Seattle Public Library, including the building plans. Nancy was able to give him some information, and then she offered to send his question to the Seattle Public Library, which owns the plans. "He was thrilled," she recalled, that he didn't have to repeat everything to the other library. Later that day, Seattle Public arranged a time for the student to view their archives. "Our little mantra is, 'Move the question, not the person,'" Nancy explained.

"I think one of the strengths of QuestionPoint is the ability not just to move a question around within your own system, but also to move it outside your system."

Nancy noted several other "unexpected benefits" that QuestionPoint brings to the library. The library has created forms for certain categories of questions, such as citation management, that assign those questions directly to the team that can address them without requiring review by librarians. "We don't really care if the questions are reference or not," Nancy said, because the staff uses that information to improve services for all users. "People used to ask all the time about paying fines online. Our Head of Access Services saw that and changed the website so they could find that information more easily."

Likewise, Nancy said that the library's IT team reviews questions periodically and has identified problems, such as an issue with the proxy configuration that prevented users from accessing a collection of e-journals. "It's just really a good way to track if the users are having problems," she added. But it's not only for library users. Nancy explained, "We set up a form on our staff website for reporting problems with our catalogs, which are automatically assigned to our operations group."

But the aspect of QuestionPoint that is "absolutely critical" to the University of Washington is the 24/7 capabilities through the backup librarian resources. She explained, "When you're in an academic environment, your users are up 24/7. It's so important to have library services available to them." Nancy recalled feedback she received after backup librarians covered the Thanksgiving holiday. "One person wrote, 'I was pleased to be able to chat with a librarian almost instantaneously at 8:45 on a Saturday evening, and I'm grateful for this service.'"

"It doesn't matter whether the user is sitting right behind you or is in another state. There's so much available," Nancy said. And she's pleased to be able to share it with everyone.

Map showing location of the University of Washington

Library at a glance

  • The University Libraries includes 18 libraries across three cities in Washington
  • The "ask us!" link, which directs users to 24/7 chat as well as email, phone and text support, appears persistently on each library webpage, many pages in the university's learning management system, the course reference guides and the subject librarian profile pages
  • The library handles approximately 18,000 virtual reference questions per year
  • QuestionPoint's 24/7 Reference Cooperative librarians cover the university's chat service from 5:00 pm to 9:00 am each night and continue to supplement regular daytime coverage by university librarians

Related stories


Answer worldwide questions in users' native language

Learn about the Spanish government's effort to give all Spanish speakers access to general reference information whenever it's needed.


Provide personal reference service quickly whenever it's needed

Find out how Denver Public Library got more students than ever to use--and enjoy using--reference services.