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Gwinnett County Public Library
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Innovation Summary

The Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL) enhanced the system’s email and telephone reference service by implementing a text (SMS)-based messaging system and online questions/answer service. This project created an efficient remote reference staffing model while giving customer’s 24/7 access to the library and its resources.

Problem Statement

Developing a reference model beyond the bricks and mortar was an essential aspect of the library’s 2009-2012 Strategic Plan. The library began building a remote reference knowledge base using LibGuides by web technology vendor Springshare, and existing questions and answers previously asked by and provided to customers. With LibGuides, customers are able to find resources on a particular topic such as job searching, homeschooling, or business on our website at their convenience. These guides are based on the types of questions we get in the branches, therefore, it’s the information we know our customers want to know. Customers have the choice of browsing or searching the guides and they have been tremendously popular. The library wanted to enhance the way it provided remote reference to our customers by implementing a text (SMS)-based messaging system and online (24/7) question/answer service. We needed to prepare and carry out a timeline of steps that needed to happen and develop a plan and procedures for integrating these two services with GCPL’s existing email, IM, and telephone reference services. Procedures needed to be developed for aggregating questions and answers from these four services for inclusion in the online question/answer service. The library also wanted to investigate the idea of consolidating these services under one brand, to be identified as “Ask GCPL.” We were seeking to decentralize information for customers and staff, improving the delivery experience by providing a quicker staff response time. Accessibility, cost, promotion, and training would be considered. Recent budget cuts, hiring freezes, and a significant reduction in open service hours compelled the library to do less with more and still provide excellent customer service.


GCPL began using LibAnswers, another reference platform by Springshare, to answer online questions from our customers. The knowledge base is updated daily and is available 24/7. We subsequently introduced an SMS/texting service that gave customers the ability to send a question anonymously by text and receive a prompt reply. At anytime and from any page of our website, a customer is one click away from asking a question. The customer clicks on “Ask GCPL” and is taken to a screen which allows a question to be entered. If that question or similar questions have already been asked, the question populates as the customer types, and similar questions appear along with the answers that were supplied by staff. If the question has not been asked, the customer is prompted to submit the question and their email address in anticipation of a timely response. Customers are able to submit questions 24/7 via three different technologies (email, IM, or text) and all questions are visible when staff log in to their LibAnswers site from any computer. Staff respond during regular hours of operation and use resources at their disposal—guidelines and policies, customer and catalog databases, the library website, and accessible databases and the internet—to answer customer questions. Sound judgment is used to recognize questions that should be forwarded to appropriate library departments. Customer needs are anticipated by adding Q&A pairs to a knowledge base that’s at work even when staff is not. The software allows customizable automatic responses to be sent providing information like anticipated response time, branch hours, upcoming programs, and more. Branch staff can use the knowledge base to answer in-person questions at the Help Desk, and instructional videos can be embedded in our knowledge base to help customers with their eReaders and other GCPL technology.


Library staff have received and answered over 1,400 questions and those Q&As have had over 20,350 views. Customers have provided positive feedback on the overall service and specifically indicated high satisfaction with staff response time and quality of responses. Springshare cited the library’s innovative use of the technology in its February 2012 “Springy News” website, noting that “ folks at Gwinnett County Public Library have done a great job integrating their systems to make it easy for their community to find what they need and get help.” Decentralization spreads the workload among several staff in multiple branches using a system-wide schedule, improving our delivery of this service and eliminating the need to limit the service to one overburdened branch. The library can be accessed in multiple ways, encouraging more contact between the library and its customers, and the number of staff answering questions has increased and customer wait time decreased. Decentralization also improves and facilitates the maintenance and analyses of system-wide reference statistics. Ask GCPL invited customers to browse previously posted questions and answers, create new questions, or simply peruse LibGuides that address topics of interest. The richness of LibAnswers can be a practical tool in the creation of useful LibGuides, enhancing the customer’s reference experience. The creation of the Ask GCPL service during GCPL’s highly-regarded entry into the world of eBooks, eReaders, and downloadable audio, was a wonderfully serendipitous alignment that has generated great user satisfaction and facilitated, for many customers, a quicker comprehension of this technology. GCPL staff are innovative, techno-savvy, and firmly grounded in their mission to meet the evolving needs of our customers and community. Our organization’s culture encourages the nurturing of these talents so that we can maximize what is available to us now while looking to what we want for libraries in the future.