Instant Messenger Or Virtual Reference?

I noted Aaron Schmidt‘s points on IM in libraries previously, but what I didn’t say then was how certain I was that popular instant messaging clients like AOL Instant Messenger or Yahoo!’s or Google’s are far superior to the so-called virtual reference products. Why? They’re free, our patrons are comfortable with them, and they work (three things that can’t be said about VR products). Ah, heck, just take a look at what Michael Stephens was saying about them last week (as quoted by Teresa Koltzenburg at ALA TechSource):

“Back in 2002, my library jumped into the virtual reference game, and we wrote a gigantic check to an unnamed VR company. We spent the summer doing intensive training. I was training at that time at my library, and I designed a four-session, four-hour-apiece training course to get people comfortable with this huge, scary thing that was virtual reference.”

According to Michael, after the large initial investment made by his library in the VR product, plus probably another $5,000 on the training, and the staff time spent promoting it, his library’s virtual reference service, via the vendor-supplied software, “fell flat on its face.” He explains, “After you pulled your users into this Java-enabled, chat queue, they got the message, something like, ‘Hold on. The library will be right with you.’ Then the whole thing would crash. What kind of message were we sending with that one?”

IM, for SJCPL, was meant to be a temporary VR fix, but as of today, says Michael, “It’s permanent. We cancelled that contract on the unnamed VR product, said ‘good-bye,’ and today we use IM. I can’t tell you enough how great it is.”

Perhaps I like this story because it gives me another chance to bang the drum on my not invented here story, but the point is that none of this need be expensive or complex. And while I’m tempted to suggest you ask the kids in the young adult section about it, the truth is that AIM is larger than that, it’s just another facet of our ballooning internet use.

AIM, aol instant messenger, change, changing modes of communication, communication, communication technology, im, instant messaging, modes of communication, aim, virtual reference, library, libraries, reference desk, reference, future libraries, library 2.0, lib20

4 thoughts on “Instant Messenger Or Virtual Reference?

  1. Pingback: Standards Cage Match «

  2. Casey, I love it when you make my library technology fantasies into reality, but not so much that I won’t call you out here.

    There is no doubt there is a huge opportunity to reach out to instant-messaging using patrons. Web-based chat offers a greater opportunity to reach out to the rest of the internet users – if the reason to offer IM services is because people are already using those tools, there are more than twice as many people with web browsers than there are with screen names (

    I think the failure of some libraries to successfully implement web-based chat reference services is an example of libraries taking a wrong approach to technology and online services, not that web-based chat (vis a vis IM) is a mistake.

    Failed services may have been poorly managed to begin with. Some libraries may not have had any experience implementing web-based services at all. What went wrong? Was there staff buy-in? Did they look at server logs to see how many of their patrons would have compatible browsers? How about focus groups to see who was interested? Was the service piloted? Did the library market the service? What was the criteria for success? yadda-yadda.

    Embracing and implementing services that rely on decaying technological conditions (co-browsing! works great with Netscape 4.7 on Windows 95!) was one of the bigger mistakes, but it certainly isn’t one exclusive to co-browsing applications.

    Not that it’s an ideal approach, but I think libraries as a whole are doing a much better job letting patrons know about requirements for downloading audio books than we ever did warning them about browser requirements for web-based chat.

    In contrast, I think IM has been successful in libraries because it doesn’t *need* a whole lot of management, other than being diligent about setting the away message.

    Insofar as things that work in libraries are easy for staff to implement, IM doesn’t have to suck on human resources the way web-based chat can, tying librarians to desks, contracting for 24/7 service.

    Yet, with all of web-based chat’s failures, IM services haven’t come close to their successes. Or else, show me an IM service that took on 100,000 questions in it’s first year (not us, we took only got about 5,000).

    I’m a fan of IM for reference service, and am encouraging local libraries to offer it, but the insistence that IM is the right and only way to offer chat virtual reference has got to stop.

    p.s. my thesaurus:

    virtual reference
    used for digital reference
    narrower term chat reference
    narrower term web-based chat
    narrower term instant messaging reference
    narrower term text-messaging reference
    narrower term e-mail reference
    narrower term blog-based reference
    broader term reference
    broader term public service
    related term co-browsing

  3. iyahh use all okiieh
    eeverythin is blcoked
    ARGHHHHH tell me summert for msn
    and my syt is defo not finished

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