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.