The Maryland State Law Library Adds Live Chat to Its Reference Services

By Catherine I. McGuire
Outreach Services Law Librarian
Maryland State Law Library

Last June (2010), the Maryland State Law Library began monitoring the Maryland AskUsNow! 24/7 chat reference service for live questions, four hours per week.

The Library has been a partner with Maryland AskUsNow! since the program’s start in early 2003. Maryland AskUsNow! ( is a statewide interactive chat reference service, and is a partnering member of an international consortium called the QuestionPoint 24/7 Reference Cooperative. Librarians from the AskUsNow! and partner libraries globally respond to reference questions from customers via chat.

The Maryland State Law Library has been participating, as a back-up subject specialist, in the chat service since the service began in March 2003. When a customer asks a law-related question during a live chat session and the resources or knowledge required to respond are too specialized for chat or the providing librarian, the session transcript is referred to the participating law librarians. The Charles County Public Law Library joined the State Law Library in responding to follow-up questions in 2005.

In June 2010, the State Law Library began making a law librarian available through live chat as well, four hours per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:00 p.m. to 4 p.m. (except holidays.) During those hours, a law question in the system is answered live when the customer needs help, not later via email.

During the hours that a law librarian is “live”, someone with a question can enter the AskUsNow! chat service in a number of ways: through participating libraries’ websites including the State Law Library’s site; through; or via a link on the Maryland People’s Law Library ( On the People’s site, during non-live-chat hours, a link is provided so that the public can choose to email a question to the State Law Library’s reference desk. That question will be picked up and responded to through the Library’s regular email reference services.

Questions through the service have come from a broad range of Marylanders. A large portion of the AskUsNow! customers are students; however, while law-related questions have come in from the student population, there have also been a good number of non-student customers: self-represented litigants, teachers, a few attorneys, and even a few non-law fellow librarians.

The Library is tracking usage; however, from June 2010 until early January 2011, there was no wide advertisement of the availability of law librarians. This was a deliberate choice, made to allow the law librarians staffing the service to adjust to the different functionality of a virtual reference service, and to allow testing time to sort out optimal service hours and scheduling conflicts. In January 2011, the link from the Maryland People’s Law Library went live, and with it, a general announcement that the service is available. Since January, usage of the law connection on AskUsNow! has trebled. Though it’s still early to measure the consistency of the response, it is clear that the service is both utilized and appreciated.

Questions received through the service vary on topics as widely as they do at the regular reference desk. There have been consistently higher numbers of questions on family law (particularly custody issues) and foreclosure, but there also have been questions on tax issues, zoning, landlord/tenant, privacy laws, neighbor law, criminal law, and more. When responding to chat questions, chat librarians try to point the customer to web resources as much as possible. When a question clearly requires non-online materials, librarians have the option to route the question to the follow-up system, to respond in a more lengthy and comprehensive manner after researching in alternate resources.

Patron response has been very positive. After a session, patrons have the option of completing a brief online survey relating to the service. The surveys received relating to law sessions have almost uniformly come back with “excellent service.”