Digital Culture

Reference as Help Desk

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few months as I worked through the website redesign at MPOW is how reference departments interact with patrons in the virtual world. In conjunction with the re-launch, we’re going live with our IM reference service, and re-visiting how we take virtual reference questions. As I think about how we do things, I realize I’m not happy with the overall way we’re dealing with email reference…it’s distributed, so there’s no single record that can be browsed for common questions. It’s not archived in a meaningfully searchable way. It’s not flexible. It requires us to manually forward emails and potentially miss a followup.

So in re-envisioning email reference in a new way, I realized that what I really wanted was a Help Desk/Trouble Ticket system. Is anyone out there using a formal Trouble Ticket system as a reference tool? Or, is anyone using one at all, in any capacity, and could recommend a good Open Source php/MySQL system?

I’m looking for something that presents a browser-based form for collection of issues, with a big plus if it also allows email reception into the system. Anyone got a favorite?

By griffey

Jason Griffey is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at NISO, where he works to identify new areas of the information ecosystem where standards expertise is useful and needed. Prior to joining NISO in 2019, Jason ran his own technology consulting company for libraries, has been both an Affiliate at metaLAB and a Fellow and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and was an academic librarian in roles ranging from reference and instruction to Head of IT at the University of TN at Chattanooga.

Jason has written extensively on technology and libraries, including multiple books and a series of full-periodical issues on technology topics, most recently AI & Machine Learning in Libraries and Library Spaces and Smart Buildings: Technology, Metrics, and Iterative Design from 2018. His newest book, co-authored with Jeffery Pomerantz, will be published by MIT Press in 2024.

He has spoken internationally on topics such as artificial intelligence & machine learning, the future of technology and libraries, decentralization and the Blockchain, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. A full list of his publications and presentations can be found on his CV.
He is one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries for the Measure the Future project (, an open hardware project designed to provide actionable use metrics for library spaces. He is also the creator and director of The LibraryBox Project (, an open source portable digital file distribution system.

Jason can be stalked obsessively online, and spends his free time with his daughter Eliza, reading, obsessing over gadgets, and preparing for the inevitable zombie uprising.

4 replies on “Reference as Help Desk”

Heh, bugzilla for reference. But that’s probably a little overkill.

Why not use WordPress? Every post is a ticket, and a comment is a response. Best of all it’s self-archiving, searchable, and every post gets a unique permalink (by id or post slug). And depending on how you set it up, you can actually decentralize responses by opening them up to the community.

The only technical challenge is adding some measure of authentication, so only UTC folks can post questions, possibly only as drafts, and then a librarian can approve “posts” and eventually provide a reply. Turning off comments would be synonomous with closing a ticket. And you could install a plugin so comments made by librarians are highligted (with your mugshots!).

Funny, I just blogged about our new free, open-source, web-based, password-protected, PHP/SQL reference database. We LOVE it, but you’d want to check it out and make sure that you could customize it for your needs. We haven’t implemented our “flag for follow-up” customization yet, but we’re planning to.

The trouble ticket thing sounds interesting. I used a product called IRM for a while, although not necessarily for this purpose. The nice thing about it was that it automatically generated a web accessible knowledgebase as trouble tickets were solved. It also automatically emails an admin who can assign the ticket to someone else to work on. It’ more geared toward managing computing resources, but it can probably be modified for your purposes. Look at for more information.

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