Category Archives: IM, Meebo & Chat Reference

An IM Refererence Report

I received a nice e-mail from a librarian at met at CIL. Liesbeth Mantel from Erasmus University Library, Rotterdam, The Netherlands asked if we might discuss IM a bit. She blogs at I’ve heard from other colleagues in Europe that a lot of librarians are starting to talk about IM reference, which makes me happy. I asked Liesbeth if I could post this at TTW as well and she said yes.

Liesbeth sent a set of questions I’ll do my best to answer. IM Librarians: please comment or e-mail if you have more to add! I’d also point you to Sherri Vokey’s How Do You Track IM Reference Stats post for more on looking at IM statistically.

1. What do you think is the added value of chat (compared to telephone, email)? And in which situations would you prefer chat, or email?

I think the number one benefit of IM reference is the fact that via IM we put ourselves out in the fray where are users are working and playing online. Of course, we could also cite statistics and studies that tell us that for teens IM is the number one way the communicate or that business use of IM is skyrocketing. That’s good evidence to present when making the decision to offer the service.

It also puts the librarian as close as possible to the point of need of an information seeker – especially if the IM name is featured throughout your Web site and the online catalog, as well as on other Web sites in your community. It also needs to be publicized and promoted just like any library service or program. Sometimes I think we forget to promote our technology-related or Web-related initiatives because promotion seems to be inherant in the Web. Personally, I’d like to see a library put up a billboard or bus poster that says: “Have a Question? IM your Librarian” or some such!

Sometimes, I like to IM more than anything, even the phone. Maybe other folks feel the same way while others don’t like the medium at all. One thing for library users that’s a real benefit is through IM you can ask just about any question and remain rather anonymous. That takes away any feelings of embarrassment that a library user might feel asking about sensitive subjects.

It’s also rather easy to have intense conversations between co-workers. For “IM Me,” we talked to all kinds of librarians and asked how they used IM:

Karen Wenk, science digital initiatives librarian, Rutgers University, agrees that interoffice communication can be improved with IM. “We are able to talk about things that we would hesitate to say in an email,” she notes. “Office politics and more ‘feeling’ type of things are best said without the thought of an everlasting email trail.”

Is it possible to find out what the percentage –measured against the TOTAL service needs- is of how often chat is used in a beneficial way. Do you know the percentage of use of phone-email-chat? Maybe from the last month.

Because I am no longer at SJCPL, I IMed the Reference Desk and asked to take a look at some statistics. Sarah Hill, the Head of Reference, passed on some stats and I threw together a year’s overview of the state of IM at SJCPL’s Reference Desk. I don’t have the numbers for the other service points, but the AskSJCPL screename is the main entry point.

Here’s a breakdown of a year worth of IM reference at a medium-sized public library:
A Year's Worth of IM Reference

The steady increase in questions is a good thing. I hope it continues. It’s good to point out that this service is only promoted via the Web site and bookmarks that are distrubuted at service points. A promotional push, maybe highlighting IM but includeing all the methods of getting information from the library might improve these numbers. I wonder where they will be a year from now.

For now, these are very small numbers in the overall picture of reference transactions.

Here’s a breakdown of the percentage of IM of SJCPL’s total reference questions.
IM Reference %

And here is a chart Luke Rosenberger put together for me showing the percentage of IM reference in perspective with the total reference transactions for a year:
% of Total reference Transactions that are IM

What do you think? Seems like a very small percentage of overall transactions but the upswing is promising and the ROI (No cost except staff time and a bit of training) is healthy. IM will never overtake phone reference in libraries but the next incarnations of messaging and more and more users turning on to IM on their devices may push these numbers even higher.

I’d like to see some more statistical breakdowns for other libraries that IM BUT I’d also like to see the qualitative side as well: what stories are playing out between librarians and users via IM?

2. Does your library accept all questions, remarks etc. made through chat, or does the library refer to other channels, like email when the question is complex or if it’s a complaint?

I believe they take any and all questions but do have guidelines for forwarding questions or transferring to other mechanisms. It is not out of the question to ask an IMing patron to swing by the library at their convenience to pick up held materials or to do further research if that’s the best answer!

I asked Sarah Hill to answer this one as well:

When a question is too complex to answer over chat- say people want law questions answered, or they really need to be looking over a text to fully understand the information- we ask then to come in to the library and to look over the information themselves (if possible). It seems to me that patrons have been self monitoring question complexity- we do get some head scratchers via e-mail, rarely do we get IM questions which are more than ready reference. To this date, we have not gotten any complaints via IM.

3. What does chat mean for your business administration/type of management? For example: email. Employees can answer an email within half an hour and answer the phone in the mean time. How does your library organize this when chat is involved?

IM is integrated into the flow of reference services at the Main library reference desk. Two or three librarians staff the desk and answer questions in person, via the phone and via IM. E-mail reference is done in the workroom on a dedicated computer. I actually helped rewrite part of our policy manual during my final months at SJCPL and IM is included as a form of reference. It is third in the breakdown of how the librarians take questions: in person first, followed by phone, then IM.

4. Does your library hold higher standards for librarians who handle chat sessions? I mean, email allows the writer to think about the formulation, and to consult with other. In a chat session you need to react immediately.

All of the folks who work the Reference Desk have been trained to handle IM questions. It’s part of the flow of work during a shift. The same goes for all the other internal IM reference points: if you work the desk, you’ve had IM training. One of these days, it may even be spelled out like the 2.0 job descriptions we’ve noted around the Web.

5. Does your library use a closed system (with authorization) or an open channel (like MSN), and do you know what are the arguments for using one or the other are? Packets that ask for authorization usually contain modules that have management information. How does your library gather that information, if you use an open system? Open systems are susceptible for misuse by either customers or employees. Have you had problems with misuse, and how did you respond to that?

We use an open system. Three screen names for the three big services handled via the open source IM client for Macs called Fire. Every morning at 9am I see the screename for AskSJCPL and AskSJCPL AV come on for the day!

The biggest argument for me to advcoate for libraries to use open systems is the minute we offer up a closed system, we are adding another barrier to getting folks to what they want. It reminds me of the big old barriers that some virtual reference systems created: white screens, dropped patrons, confusing interfaces. IM, to sing that old familiar song, is what folks are using. Let’s meet them on their turf. SJCPL does not ask for a library card or anything. If they get an IM question, they answer it!

I haven’t heard of much misuse at all. Maybe there have been a few folks that start IMing the librarian inappropriately, but it’s easy to ignore them. Library staff use IM to communicate internally as well as with colleagues outside of the library system – or at least some do. The benefits of ease of use, just in time access and establishing presence really outweigh a few instances of a message popping up like “Are you a pretty lady librarian?”

6. What do the customers, employees and the management of the library think about chat?

Great question! I know some staff swear by the use of IM now. I haven’t heard much about customer reaction but that arena would be ripe for a survey or some research. Take a look at the IM survey post for more from library staff.


Via the Social Software Blog:

I.M. Generation Is Changing the Way Business Talks

Banks, insurance companies and other old-school businesses are using instant messaging to communicate with customers and quickly route queries, all within seconds. In the not-so-distant past, e-mail was considered state of the art, and responding within 24 hours was considered prompt. Those days seem quaint now; instant messaging is used in more than 80 percent of corporations, according to a report by Michael Osterman, an industry analyst.

This article details the many – and I mean MANY – benefits of IM in the business world. One point is IM is going more and more mainstream. Yet another reason to offer IM in your libraries.

Librarian: How Do You IM? A TTW Survey

I think IM in my public library is an example of the generation gap between staff members. We do not allow patrons to IM on library computers, and staff are not supposed to IM, either. However, many of the young professionals do have one or more IM programs downloaded onto their computers (inclduing the IT department), and we use IM at work. The staff that uses IM are more likely to want the IM and games ban dropped on public computers and want to start reference IM, a library blog, etc. So I see a direct correlation between librarians/library staff who IM and those who are forward thinking about library programs and technology. Survey Respondent

This is a companion report to a brief presentation I’m gave at Computers in Libraries on Wedenesday. It was a quickly created and mounted survey. Someday I hope to do a much more official one. Here’s what I found:

Are Staff Allowed to IM?

Here we see most of the respondents can use IM at their workstations.

Next, does your library do IM outreach or are there plans to do so:

Does your library offer IM Reference?

Plans to Launch IM?

My conclusion: Our Work is Not Yet Done

Many libraries might find that IM would work very well as an add on or as a replacement for virtual referebce, depending on their users.

The focus for my few minutes was on IM building community. Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches-Johnson came after me to share real world examples and insight.

Here’s what Howard Rheingold said about virtual community: “Social aggregators that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.” (Rheingold, 1993)

Survey Respondents said:

IM communication builds community between colleagues – 89% agree or somewhat agree

I feel like I’m part of the community of IMing librarians – 53% disagreed or somewhat disagreed

I have IM contacts in libraries throughout my country on my Buddy List – 66% disagree

I have IM contacts in libraries all over the world on my Buddy List – 84% disagree

The last two prompted me to say “I live in a bubble” because I IM with folks all over the world. I think folks like me are the exception.

Qualitative Data:

What are the benefits of IM:

It’s made it easier to communicate and to arrange meetings, carpools, etc.

I can discuss projects in real time with colleagues that are thousands of miles away or right down the road. It makes collaborating easier and opens up many doors.

IM has begun to build bridges across the traditional staff/faculty divide.

There is greater connection between us than before.

This comment was telling. Could it be about your library sytem? Do you have discouraged librarians in your system? Be careful or you may lose them! Here’s the comment:

Many librarians in my library system would like to use IM both for reference and for staff purposes. However, this library system is very reluctant to change and slow to respond to most new ideas. I feel very discouraged when I meet with professionals in other library systems that get to try new things.

I also got some feedback about barriers in some libraries that prevent the librarians from using IM. One type of barrier was the perceived intrusiveness of IM:

I don’t use it. email works just fine for me, without the intrusiveness of IM.

E-mail is much better, or the phone.

Another was time:

We are a small staff and don’t have time to be confined to the computer

Or IT barriers:

Our City IT has forbidden its use for security reasons, so we rely on email, phone, and face-to-face conversations to communicate and maintain relationships.

The most interesting to me was the perceived “digital divide” in many libraries.

Creates a digital divide, lots of LastGen librarians at MPOW who don’t use it and are out of the loop.

I think IM in my public library is an example of the generation gap between staff members. We do not allow patrons to IM on library computers, and staff are not supposed to IM, either.

So, again, our work is not yet done. Did you know that there are only 65 libraries doing IM reference listed on the LibSuccess wiki? Maybe in another year we’ll see a lot more — maybe even more school libraries!

Here are my suggestions for moving forward if you are interested in IM in Libraries:

More education
More case studies/ Let’s tell some stories of successful IM interaction
A guide to librarian’s IM names on a wiki (I think Meredith had the page done before I sat down)
More discussion with key players (IT, etc)
Examination of security issues

Librarians who IM

Add your name to the growing list! Click here!

AOL Opens AIM to Developers

AOL gets it that opening up their IM platform may prove very succesful as social networks grow. Will we see AIM built in to new Web 2.0 sites, services, etc?

“It’s a dramatic turnaround for AOL,” said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at Jupiter Research, who called the move shrewd and well timed.

AOL is “opening up to other companies, some of whom can create products to compete with AIM,” he added.

Communicating by typing messages, making phone calls or video-calls and the ability to see if recipients are online at the same time are seen as integral to successful future versions of Internet services, analysts said.

Librarians & IM: A TTW Survey

Please take just a few moments to complete this little survey about librarians and IM. I’m doing some background work for a brief talk at Computers in Libraries 2006 as well as collecting some data for my upcoming Library Technology Report “Web 2.0 & Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software.” I’m interested to see how many librarians are using IM at their desks to commiunicate with colleagues and as a reference point.

Click here to take survey

Thanks! :-)

TTW Mailbox: Those Teenies!

I got a note from a TTW reader from Europe, who’s excited about upcoming plans for IM in their libraries!

Don’t be surprised if the city’s libraries offer IM communication with the users from all 20+ libraries. The head of the libraries just said “Go do it!” Now, what remains is to convince our colleagues that it is a good idea. Do you have the same problem with convincing your collegues about that?

We sure have: “That’s stupid and just for young teenies who want to chat nonsense to each other”, “We don’t have time for that, emails and telephones are sufficient”, “IM? – can’t we have a little privacy here”
Do you recognize those phrases?

I do, reader, I do!

What I might suggest is offering those librarians an evidence-based session on user-centered services, highlighted by OCLC Perceptions, some IM in Libraries articles, and a tour of what some librarians have done with IM!

Get them in a training room and let them IM with each other. Sometimes just playing gets folks on board!

On the Radar: AIM Triton

Good review at the Social Software blog:

To say that AOL’s new AIM program is an instant messenger is to diminish it unacceptably. AIM Triton, as the program is now called, is an online communicator that bundles IM, email, voice chat, video chat, browsing, bookmarking, and RSS aggregation into a two-window interface. This whopping upgrade to previous AIM configurations adds welcome features, but also—disappointingly for a program now out of beta—still houses a couple of bugs…

LiB notes SMS Reference

This is huge and should not be ignored. Read Sarah’s excellent overview of South Eastern Louisiana University’s SMS Reference project.

Two Ultra-HOT bits of many:

He also noted that an ongoing issue is trying to limit your response to 160 characters. You can send the response in multiple messages, but librarians tend to try their hardest to fit it into one. The system auto-abbreviates some words (for-4, too-2).

What an excellent point and a big vote for librarians to really “get” the vernacular of chat. We can’t ignore it much longer if we are to be relevant to future SMS users in all of our libraries. Have a cell phone that can SMS? Find an SMS buddy at your library and practice!

This also speaks to one of our themes from CPL: The more we attempt to be perfect in everything we do (how many librarians do you know that wordsmith a simple proposal until everyone has lost sight of the prooject and/or timeline for the sake of grammar, spelling and the like), the more we fall behind. Do you think anyone sending a question via SMS would care there was a typo or abbreviated text?

R U crazy?

The system keeps track of the time and number of transactions, but not the actual transcripts of messages. [I think this is a good thing?I don?t want any records, and if the system automatically doesn?t keep them, all the better].
Students are asking a wide range of questions, but mostly short simple factual questions. He noted that they never get short simple questions through e-mail, phone, or web-based chat. As such, he believes they?re tapping whole new user needs with this service.


Oh LiB, thank you for this insight and your incredible blog!

University of Michigan Library pilots IM service

Via Sherri

I am tickled that they are piloting and being so up front:

“During Fall semester 2005, Ask Us Now! will pilot a new enhanced real-time reference component using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). If you do not have the AOL Instant Messenger installed on your computer, we recommend that you use the “classic” Ask Us Now! service.

Help us evaluate instant messaging with AOL’s IM software! The University Library is conducting a pilot of IM for answering your library- and research-related questions.”

I hope the students, staff and faculty use the service and the library reports out on their pilot. If you are pondering such a pilot — and you should be! — look at their informative pages for guidelines and inspiration.

I wonder how their “Ask Us Now” service will fare if IM takes off?