AskUsNow! Service Guidelines

Maryland AskUsNow! (AskUsNow!) is the statewide virtual reference service that provides chat and email follow-up for Maryland residents, students in Maryland schools and institutions, and people outside of Maryland who find the service have online conversations with chat librarians.  The service started as a pilot project between the Baltimore County Public Library and Harford County Public Library, and is currently hosted by the Maryland State Library Resource Center at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.  AskUsNow! went live as a statewide service on March 17, 2003 and has been growing strong since. Much of our success is thanks to the dozens of libraries and hundreds of librarians around the state who provide and support the service. Thank you for your continued support.

AskUsNow! unites the information expertise of librarians, the resources of Maryland's libraries and tomorrow's advanced technology to meet the information needs of Marylanders whenever they need it, wherever they are. AskUsNow! is accessible from or through the logo, chat form URLs or Qwidgets on a partner library's web site.

These guidelines explain the expectations of the service for liaisons, providers, and administration.

Service Structure

AskUsNow! is a family of over 500 librarians across the state of Maryland representing all types of libraries; academic, public, special, and federal. Maryland AskUsNow! is a project of the Maryland State Library, funded through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and hosted by the Maryland State Library Resource Center at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The service is run by the Statewide Coordinator who monitors usage and provides quality control, trains staff, heads marketing initiatives, grows the service with new partnerships and technology initiatives as well as schedule staff and troubleshoot. Each partner library appoints a Liaison to represent their library with AskUsNow!. The liaison is responsible for attending the quarterly liaison meetings, making sure their staff is up to date on service expectations and information and other duties.

AskUsNow! is provided by trained reference and information services staff at each of the Partner Libraries. While over 500 people have been trained over the years, we currently have about 200 active providers. Without the enthusiasm, dedication and service skills of our providing library staff, AskUsNow! would not be as successful as it is.

Librarians from partner libraries around the state staff the service during regular library hours. Backup and after-hours coverage is provided by OCLC QuestionPoint’s freelance staff as part of the QP service agreement.

The Fine Print


Maryland AskUsNow! provides timely, authoritative answers to research and library access-specific questions, as well as guidance and "teachable moments" in conducting student personal research using freely available online resources, SAILOR, MARINA, and customers’ libraries’ databases and collections.  If the customers needs information that is not available online, AskUsNow! will provide non-online resources and referrals. 

Every effort is made to provide accurate information; however the libraries do not control the content of resources used. By using AskUsNow!, the customer agrees to not hold the libraries liable from any claims, losses, damages, obligations, or liabilities relating to the use of information obtained from this service. The provision of any factual information or materials, and the identification of other websites that may be useful in obtaining additional information regarding legal or medical issues cannot be construed as advice. Only a professional practitioner can provide specific advice and direction in resolving legal and/or medical issues.

By using this service, customers agree not to send any question or content that is illegal, harassing, libelous, threatening, harmful, obscene, or otherwise objectionable. Customers agree not to send any question or content that otherwise violates any applicable local, state, national, or international law.


The Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) governs the reproduction, distribution, adaptation, public performance, and public display of copyrighted material. Responsibility for any possible copyright infringement lies solely with the customer; the Library disclaims any responsibility or liability resulting thereof.

Librarians providing service should be aware of the four part Fair Use test when considering whether information provided is in compliance with copyright. University of Texas provides understandable information on Fair Use including this link to the test. 

Local database license agreements supersede copyright law. Individual systems need to check their license agreements and/or talk to their vendors in order to verify if a generic library card may be provided for other libraries to use. When possible, this card number will appear on the library’s policy page to help chatting librarians give customers help as if they were their local librarians. Generic (dummy) library card information are not given to customers.


Maryland AskUsNow! respects customer privacy and confidentiality, and observes applicable laws, policies, and professional codes of conduct. As part of routine reference service in a networked environment, AskUsNow! and the QuestionPoint 24/7 Cooperative collect and retain some customer information for network quality control and security purposes. Thus, email and other electronic communications should not be viewed as absolutely confidential; however, the service strives to protect this information to the fullest extent possible. Transcripts of sessions are kept at the OCLC QuestionPoint secure server and used for analysis only. In keeping with library policy, customer information is considered confidential and accessible only by designated library staff.  We refer to American Library Association Code of Ethics and related documentation on patron privacy and QuestionPoint Patron Terms of Service.

Identifying Information for Customers

When logging into the service, customers may be asked to provide certain identifying information. If customers check the box labeled anonymous, no personal identifying information about them will be revealed.

An email address is not required to use the service, but when available, email is used to send a customer's transcript of their sessionsor to follow-up on particular questions that could not be answered in the live chat. No email addresses are provided to entities outside of the libraries providing service. The customer’s name is used by the software to identify a session and in communicating with the customer. While a name is required, it does not have to be the full or real name.  If one is provided, it will be used only in the provision of service from this site.

Information collected about any individual using this service is generally incidental to the technical operation of the system. Such information will not be voluntarily published or shared with any other entity. In the course of clarifying the customer’s request for information the librarian may ask for information regarding purpose (for instance, “Is this for a homework assignment?”), or reading or grade level. Such incidental information will be used to identify appropriate resources only. Any information given to the librarian will be stored in a session transcript.


Communication is very important to AskUsNow!, both communications between the service and it's librarians and customers as well as the communication from AskUsNow! administration to valued stakeholders.

Communicating with staff

AskUsNow! provides many avenues for communication among staff and the administration. The AskUsNow! administration relies on it's Partner Library Liaisons to ensure that every AskUsNow! staff member is up to date on policies, service expectations, and other relevant information.

AskUsNow! Staff Website

The AskUsNow! Staff Website provides all the necessary information for providing excellent service to customers as well as information relevant to the growth of the service and the development of it's staff members. All information distributed through other venues will also be available on the Staff website which includes announcements and news, contact information for service administration and liaisons, training documentation, schedules as well as forums where AskUsNow! staff can discuss important topics among the staff across the state.

AskUsNow! Listserv

The AskUsNow! listserv is available to all AskUsNow! staff but membership is mandatory for all AskUsNow! liaisons. The listserv is used for software update notifications, day-to-day operations, and other AUN-related business.


Connecting with customers

AskUsNow! wants to remain an organization that is open to the comments and discussions of it's customers in order to best serve them. Aside from the customer surveys and webmaster email account (, AskUsNow! utilizes the following social media tools to open the lines of communication between the service and it's customers:

twitter logo

Daily, the AskUsNow! admin posts customer questions and customer comments (both stripped of all identifying information) on Twitter as both a marketing tool and a communications tool. Customers are able to @reply or direct message (DM) AskUsNow! whenever they need to. The #askusnow hashtag is also utilized to follow conversations happening about AskUsNow!.


facebook logo

Facebook are used for "friends" and announcements. Announcements are also automatically posted on Twitter.



Statewide Schedule

The statewide schedule can be found at:  Partner libraries contact the Statewide Coordinator and Support for Operations with scheduling needs.

Monitoring Shifts

Liaisons are responsible for scheduling their staff.  Libraries are responsible for logging on and accepting chat during their scheduled shifts. Librarians should be ready to accept chats at the moment their shift starts and should remain monitoring until the end of their shift. Librarians monitoring shifts whose endpoint coincides with their library's closing time may end the shift at 10 minutes before the hour, if not engaged in a chat.

The statewide schedule indicates when a session is Global or Local Maryland service hours.

Librarians providing Local Maryland service should select:

Librarians providing Global service to the cooperative should select:

Note:  All librarians who are not scheduled for Global service have the option to provide Global service.


For staff to maintain skills, a minimum of one hour of service every two weeks is recommended. If staff have not provided service for at least 6 months, the Liaison is responsible for ensuring that staff is prepared to resume service. The Statewide Coordinator and Support for Operations should be contacted if training is needed.

Time Clock, Coverage, Making Up Chat Hours, and Holiday

If a partner library is unable to cover a regularly scheduled chat hour(s), the Liaison will notify the Statewide Coordinator and Support for Operations as soon as possible.

Partner library will follow the "Humanity Instructions" at


Dates that no coverage or making up of chat hours is needed by the partner libraries is found at:

Guidelines for Chat Sessions

Service is provided by experienced reference staff as determined by each partner library. Staff are experts at Internet searching and have completed the formal 24/7 Reference/Maryland AskUsNow! training.


AskUsNow! staff will exhibit the following 8 competencies:


Performance Standards

Staff competencies are monitored by each Project Liaison as well as the Statewide Coordinator and Support for Operations through the review of transcripts. Standards of review are based on the Maryland AskUsNow! Behaviors Checklist, the QuestionPoint Best Practices, and the Library of Congress Best Practices. Each week, Project Liaisons will log in as their library's supervisor to run a report and review:

Session transcripts provided by staff at another library or state system that are in need of improvement may be either forwarded directly to the Operations Supervisor or to the QuestionPoint Quality Staff. Provide comments as needed.


Handling chat sessions

AskUsNow! librarians will work with no more than three customers at a time, or only as many as the librarian feels comfortable working with at once.

AskUsNow! chat provision is the first priority of the person assigned to the shift. The AskUsNow! chat provider may also work on e-mail/follow-up questions during the shift, however the chat service is their first priority.

AskUsNow! chat is not provided at the public service desk where the public asks questions face-to-face. These locations for chat service provision are acceptable:

Responding to the chat

AskUsNow! librarians should pick up Maryland customers as soon as possible.  When monitoring globally for the cooperative, librarians are to wait 60 seconds when there is a local librarian monitoring.

AskUsNow! librarians are expected to use professionalism with every customer as per the various Best Practices documentation.

Following up with the customer

AskUsNow! librarians will follow up with a customer within 72 hours or 3 business days using the virtual reference software.  Such reasons may be:

Librarians should obtain or confirm customer contact information and indicate when the information will be sent.

Librarians should select the Resolution Code of “Follow up by…” either “me” or “patron’s library” depending on the situation.

Librarians who review the chat questions can determine if follow up should be provided regardless of the Resolution Code.

Referring the chat to an outside agency

AskUsNow! librarians should refer a customer to an outside agency when the question would be most efficiently answered by another agency such as the local library, AskUsNow! subject specialist or another organization.

Librarians should select an appropriate agency to which to refer the customer and provide the customer with contact information, such as e-mail or postal address, phone number, or website URL.


Transferring a chat session to another online librarian

AskUsNow! librarians are expected to complete sessions with customers. librarians may sometimes determine that it is appropriate to transfer a customer to another online librarian. Such reasons may be:

The original chatting librarian is expected to contact the librarian they are trying to transfer a session to in order to see if the other librarian can accept the session and to explain why the session is being transferred. Initializing a transfer within the software gives the chatting librarian an opportunity to IM the librarian to whom they wish to transfer the customer.


Ending Chat Sessions

Session Length

Sessions must always be ended in a courteous manner. Customers should never be told that they have asked their limit of questions or that their “time is up.”

A session shall be brought to a close when either the customer indicates that he or she has the information sought, or when the librarian is confident that the customer is able to search independently for the information or that through reading resources already sent, the customer will find the information. The librarian should always clarify with the customer that they don’t have any additional questions or still need information.

When a customer has a long list of questions or continues to demand more information, the librarian may politely inform the customer that there are other customers waiting for assistance and encourage the customer to log back on later if they need additional assistance.

If a librarian does not receive a message from a customer for 1-2 minutes, he or she should try to confirm that the customer is still online. Flash Chat will “yellow” a customer when they have gone idle after 3 minutes. This means they have disconnected on purpose or due to technical issues, or they have navigated away from the page. If the customer is idle or the librarian suspects they are gone they should let the customer know of the situation, (i.e. “it looks like you’ve disconnected. If I don’t hear from you soon, I will end this session”). It is up to the librarian if they want to pick up another patron or end the chat.

Chats should be managed as effectively as possible by all librarians on a particular shift.

Resolution Codes

Librarians will assign a resolution code to every chat session they handle. See for details.


Ending a Shift

Librarians must be sure to Log Out at the end of their shift so they will no longer appear ready for chat.

Working with Customers

Good communication skills in the chat environment

Librarians should be familiar with the Behaviors Binder and the 24/7 Reference Best Practices (.pdf).

Librarians also should strive for the best practices from the RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers.

Dealing with difficult customers

The anonymity of virtual reference sometimes lends itself to inappropriate behavior.  Here are some suggestions for dealing with difficult customers:


Customers who just wish to “chat” with the librarian should be encouraged to ask a specific question.  If this behavior continues, the librarian may suggest that they log back on when they have a question before ending the session.

Inappropriate or Threatening Language and Behavior

Customers who are rude or obscene, who ask an inappropriate question, who use offensive language, or who threaten the librarian should be sent a message (scripted or not) appropriate to the situation.  Here are some examples: 

At the next instance of such behavior, they should be sent a message explaining that the session will be terminated:

Expletives/Profanity/Racial Slurs/Sexual Innuendo (BL)

If the customer uses a phrase that could be categorized into   these areas,  the session should be ended using the “Inappropriate_disconnect” script

Example: "What the f**k is taking so long?"
But not: "Can you hurry it up?"

Example: "What are you stupid?"
But not: "That other librarian didn't have a clue."

Example: "Hey, you want to get it on?"
But not: "Where do babies come from?"

Working with distressed customers

The AskUsNow! service is not intended for providing service to customers who need assistance beyond the scope of reference service. Some examples are customers who are in danger, ill, depressed, or suicidal. The librarians role in such circumstances is to provide a referral to an agency that may provide the assistance the customer may need.

See the Crisis Guidelines for additional information and resources to help you

Personal Opinions 

Librarians should try to avoid giving their personal opinions or making comments about the matter of the customer’s question. This does not include the small amount of self disclosure that a librarian may choose to offer to the customer in order to build rapport with them.

Offering opinions on medical or legal questions is never appropriate. Offering INFORMATION relating to their need, including medical and legal needs, is completely appropriate and expected.

Customer Privacy

Avoid asking customers for any more information than is necessary to complete the transaction. When librarians do need to ask for personal information (a customer’s grade in school, home library, or whether they have a library card), they should be sure to explain why the information is necessary. librarians should have customers type in their own library card numbers and passwords when appropriate. 

Librarian Privacy

Librarians are under no obligation to answer personal questions from customers, such as their real name, gender, location, or schedule.

Explicit Material

AskUsNow! librarians will not intentionally provide pornography to customers of any age. Librarians should inform the customer that questions seeking online pornography are beyond the scope of the service.  A website which contains such language or content can be provided but explicit content not cut and pasted. Example: “lyrics to jay z show me what you got?” (librarian would push:

AskUsNow! librarians should not knowingly bypass a computer filter against the intent of the parent/guardian,school or other institution which installed the filter.

Sexual Questions

Questions about sexual education, sexual health, or human anatomy should be treated as legitimate reference questions. If the customer’s questions or comments become inappropriate during the transaction,  the librarian should refer to  the guidelines in the section on  Dealing With Difficult Customers. 

Questions about the service

Customers may ask questions about the AskUsNow! service itself. Librarians may answer their questions or direct them to the “About AskUsNow!” information on the customer sign-in page. Questions about the service’s policies or management or very specific questions about procedures, funding, or staffing should be referred to the Statewide Coordinator.

Reference Policies

Librarians should use any resources available to them.  These include:  databases available through Sailor; member library proprietary databases (in keeping with the library’s license agreements); free materials available via the web, and print resources.

Remote authentication of database and online resource subscriptions

Website evaluation

Select those websites that are authoritative, non-commercial, and “objective.” When information is available only on a website that is questionable to the librarian, the librarian should inform the customer of this. (See for more on specifics regarding website evaluation.)

Cite Sources

Websites used in answering the customer's questions should be accompanied by a brief explanation of what the page is and why it is relevant to the customer’s information need.  When a website is not directly sent to a customer, librarians must cite the source used to provide the information.

Explicit Materials

AskUsNow! librarians will not intentionally provide pornography to customers of any age. Librarians should inform the customer that questions seeking online pornography are beyond the scope of the service.

AskUsNow! librarians should not knowingly bypass a filter in recognition of the wishes of the parent/guardian, school, or other institution which installed the filter. A website which contains such language or content can be provided but explicit content not cut and pasted.



For resources, see Recommended Chat Resources.

Crisis Call Guidelines

Although they happen rarely, we occasionally receive crisis calls through AskUsNow!. These may be suicide calls or calls that indicate some sort of abuse or threat is involved.


"I am going to kill myself"

"My boyfriend punches me"

"There is a bomb in a locker"

"My father was touching me"


Some of these calls may be pranks, but we should always assume that the call is real and take the situation seriously. The following guidelines are intended to help prepare librarians for the possibility of a crisis call and provide appropriate steps to take in the event of a crisis call.

I might have resources to help you.

It makes me sad to hear that.

I want to help you.

Let's work together to figure something out.

I'll do my best to get the information you need.

That must be so hard.  How can I help?

I'm glad you connected with me today.


Suicide Prevention

NOW AVAILABLE: IMAlive is a live online crisis network that uses instant messaging to respond to people in crisis. People need a safe place to go 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) Dedicated to suicide prevention, intervention and healing.

1-800-273-TALK (8255) A 24-hour, toll-free suicide prevention service available to anyone in suicidal crisis.


National Rape Crisis Hotline: 800-656-4673


Child Abuse/Neglect

National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-25-ABUSE The Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional crisis counselors who, through interpreters, can provide assistance in 140 languages. The Hotline offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources.

Missing Children

National Hotline for Missing and Exploited Children: 1-800-843-5678
Operates a hotline for reporting missing children and sightings of missing children. Offers assistance to law enforcement agents. Hours of operation are 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

National Runaway Switchboard: 1-800-621-4000
Provides crisis intervention and travel assistance to runaways. Provides information and local referrals to adolescents and families. Gives referrals to shelters nationwide. Also relays messages to, or sets up conference calls with, parents at the request of the child. Operates 24 hours, seven days a week.

Domestic & Family Violence

National Domestic Violence/Child Abuse/Sexual Abuse: 1-800-799-SAFE 1-800-942-6908 Spanish Speaking 24-hour-a-day hotline, Provides crisis intervention and referrals to local services and shelters for victims of partner or spousal abuse. English and Spanish speaking advocates are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Youth In Crisis

National Youth Crisis Hotline: 800-442-HOPE (4673) Provides counseling and referrals to local drug treatment centers, shelters, and counseling services. Responds to youth dealing with pregnancy, molestation, suicide, and child abuse. Operates 24 hours, seven days a week.

Boys Town Suicide and Crisis Line: 800-448-3000 Provides short-term crisis intervention and counseling and referrals to local community resources. Counsels on parent-child conflicts, marital and family issues, suicide, pregnancy, runaway youth, physical and sexual abuse, and other issues. Operates 24 hours, seven days a week.

Protecting Children from Sexual Offenders

Criminal Activity

Call the police immediately if you are witnessing a crime being committed, are the victim of a crime, particularly one in progress, or have knowledge of criminal activity.


Picking up your telephone and dialing 911 will connect you to your local county's 911 call center.  If you have knowledge of criminal activity or emergency in any other jurisdiction, your call can be transferred to the appropriate place, even across state lines.  For knowledge of criminal activity or emergencies abroad or in other countries, still start with your local 911 call center.

Local Police Departments throughout the Country This site provides you with a map of the U.S. on the main page. You can quickly click on the state in which you need assistance. Then, you have your choice of finding numbers for county Sheriff Departments, Town/City Police Departments, and Fire & Rescue Services. 

2018/2019 Maryland AskUsNow! Volunteer Chat Librarians

What is Maryland AskUsNow!?

Maryland AskUsNow! (AskUsNow!),, is a free, 24 hours a day/7 days a week, online library chat reference and information service.  AskUsNow! staffs over 200 chat hours/week, and has trained over 500 library staff and volunteers to provide the service since 2003.

Under the supervision of the Statewide Coordinator of Maryland AskUsNow!, volunteers experience the following opportunities:

Maryland residents, students in Maryland schools and institutions, and people outside of Maryland who find the service, ask questions anonymously or by identifying themselves with email addresses, with or without a library card, to get quick or in-depth, reference and information help in online conversations.  Maryland librarians, or librarians from other states and countries who back up the service, provide the reference and information help.  Customers may receive referrals to services related to their questions.  The customers may also get more reference and information help from a local librarian or subject specialist by email.  Let's chat at   


To participate as an AskUsNow! volunteer, an individual must:


Volunteers are expected to:


Prospective volunteers must complete and send to the Statewide Coordinator: 


To learn more about Maryland AskUsNow, try out chat at or get more in-depth information about the service at


Interested in volunteering?  Besides sending the application, background check form, and resume to the Statewide Coordinator, please contact Paul Chasen, Statewide Coordinator of Maryland AskUsNow!, directly at or 443-984-4955.


Revised and Updated on April 27, 2018