This exploratory study of unsolicited thank you messages from e-mail digital reference users analyzed the information provided in these messages for user perspectives on digital reference success, outcomes, and quality elements in answers. Digital reference interactions receiving thank you messages were also compared with nonthanked interactions. Results indicated that librarians who used more words in answers were more likely to receive a thank you response from users and that many other factors, such as e-mail or Web form use or the librarians' expressing thanks to the user, did not appear to impact the thank you rate.
Librarians who answer questions in e-mail digital reference services are familiar with the intriguing phenomenon of the e-mail thank you message. In most question-answering interactions via email, librarians send an e-mail answer to a user's question and then never hear back again from the user, leaving the librarian wondering whether the answer was satisfactory or deficient in some way. However, occasionally the librarian receives a spontaneous, unsolicited e-mail thank you message from the user. Is it possible that these user thank you messages contain feedback that might benefit efforts in digital reference service evaluation, such as indications of digital reference interactions that were successful from the user perspective? This research examined thanked and nonthanked e-mail digital reference transcripts, and explored the textual content of users' thank you messages in evaluating the feedback provided by users in their digital reference thank you messages.
The setting for this study was the Internet Public Library (IPL), an entirely virtual library based at the University of Michigan (UMich) that has provided e-mail question-answering services for users around the world since March 1995. (1) Questions are submitted to the service via e-mail or Web forms and are answered primarily by volunteer professional librarians and graduate students in librarianship training who participate from universities across the United States and around the world. IPL transcripts of e-mail digital reference interactions between users and librarians include the user's initial question, the librarian's answer, internal system notations such as time and date stamps, and any subsequent responses by the user or the librarian. From January through December 2002, the period for which transcripts were sampled in this research study, 5,400 questions were answered by IPL and thank you responses were received from 861 users--an overall thank you rate of 15.9 percent for the twelve months of 2002.
Although thousands of libraries are now actively engaged in online question-answering via chat, e-mail, instant messaging, and other forms of digital reference, the research field is still very new. An early call for libraries to experiment with e-mail appeared in 1981, and by the mid-1980s the first librarians were engaged in chat and e-mail digital reference services at libraries such as those at University of Washington and the University of Maryland, and at the librarian-staffed Winstar Telebase chat service for online users of Prodigy and other Internet providers. (2) However, it was not until ten years later that the first research study explored the nature of the e-mail digital reference interaction in depth. (3)
Digital reference research primarily has focused on the interaction as occurring between question submission by the user and answer transmission by the librarian. However, a 2000 study of e-mail interactions at IPL noted the phenomenon of subsequent e-mail thank you messages from users sent back to the service after the digital reference interaction was already completed. Out of more than 2,300 e-mail questions to IPL for January-March 1999, users were observed to have sent back to the librarians 458 subsequent e-mail thank you messages--an approximately 20 percent overall thank you rate. (4)
The research literature in computer-mediated communications suggests that a communications mode such as email with reduced sensory cues lowers awareness of others in the interaction and tends to produce more impersonal behavior. (5) In digital reference, the chat user who suddenly logs off during the interaction or the e-mail user who fails to respond to a clarification question might be seen as examples of the greater impersonality of reduced sensory cues in online communications. Thus, the 20 percent of e-mail users observed by Carter and Janes who made an extra effort to write back and thank the librar. Jan even after
the question-answering interaction was over may represent a potential window of insight into true digital reference user satisfaction. In providing a further exploration of users' e-mail digital reference thank you messages, this study explores possibilities for using thank you messages in the evaluation of digital reference services.
This study analyzed 810 e-mail transcripts from IPL, including 558 thanked and 252 nonthanked digital reference interactions. The primary focus of this study was to examine the properties of thanked interactions, but a smaller sample of nonthanked interactions was also drawn for …