IM = FASTER Virtual Reference on the Cheap! 2

Remember the wave of virtual reference talk a few years back? Remember how virtual reference services were supposed to change the very foundations of what we do? Remember how some librarians discovered that those systems required users to navigate into a slowly loading chat queue inside their browsers so you could send, or “push,” pages to them? Remember the price tag to participate in this type of service–let alone the money spent on training and promotion?

Well, guess what? Libraries can use a newer method with the same results–any library, of any size, and for a very low cost that can result in a high return on investment. Many libraries (check out the growing list at the Library Success wiki) have jumped on the instant messaging (IM) train. They are taking what I like to call a “FASTER” ride to effective virtual reference on the cheap.

This service–using the standard IM apps that most folks already have on their PCs and Macs–can give you a snazzy virtual reference presence for a fraction of the cost. Instant messaging, of course, simply involves using any of the three big chat clients to talk in real time through an Internet connection. These major clients are AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), YAHOO! Messenger (YM), and Microsoft Network Messenger.

FASTER IM Reference

Why did I come up with the acronym “FASTER”? Let’s go through the steps in setting up your own service, and you’ll see what you need to do to launch IM reference in your own library. Don’t worry; it will be a smooth ride.

F is for Flow. Go with the IM flow! You won’t be overwhelmed. Your work flow won’t suffer at all if you incorporate an IM application on one of your reference area computers; IM simply becomes part of the reference staff duties. Here at the St. Joseph County Public Library, we’ve been instant messaging with each other and with our patrons for more than a year, with roughly 70-80 IM questions a month from our users. The AskSJCPL service is staffed by the same librarians who work the telephone and public reference desk. Speakers on the reference computer allow them to hear the “ping!” of an incoming message.

Setup was easy: SJCPL registered the screen name AskSJCPL at all three big IM clients online at the chat clients’ respective sites. Just input some basic information and create a name in each one by following the step-by-step directions online. This step is free! Once we had the names, we promoted them on our Web site, on bookmarks, and in a press release to the local media. (Other librarians have used stickers with various “IM a Librarian” slogans for students to stick on their notebooks.)

Do not worry! You will not be inundated by hundreds of messages when you turn on your service. The pace can be anywhere from one or two questions an hour in the morning to five or more after school. SJCPL librarians report that they have never been overwhelmed. If it ever does get super busy, they have extra screen names to transfer questions to waiting reference folks at other service points.

Your work flow will be enhanced, too, if most desks and folks in your libraries can have an individual IM name and be logged on during the work day. You can use IM to efficiently handle quick questions, on-the-spot tech training, and more.

A is for Asking Questions. Remember, IM reference is still reference. Our interview skills still apply: We may need to ask open-ended or clarifying questions. The medium is different, but the skills are the same–with a twist. Because of the virtual nature of IM, we can’t see each other, so we must rely on our words to be open and welcoming.

It’s easy to prepare this type of interaction by using some predefined questions or statements. Ponder these helpful IM scripts for your service:

“I’m going to check some resources. It may take just a few minutes, but I’ll be back…”

“Can you tell me more about how you will use the information you need?”

“I believe your question might be better answered via the telephone or in person. Would it be possible for you to call or stop by the library?”

S is for Software. To really make your virtual IM reference project speed along, use one of the applications that connect to all three (or more!) IM services at once. Instead of opening and logging into three different programs, certain applications allow you to keep multiple accounts open and active through just one interface. Here are some popular choices:

• Trillian–A Windows-based application that supports multiple types of chat. Comes as a basic, free download or as a “pro” version for a fee, includes file transfers, group chats, and chat rooms.

• Gaim–An open source software choice that runs on Windows, Macs, and more, and sports similar features as Trillian.

• Fire–An open source Macintosh application used by SJCPL for virtual reference, with many of the same features as the above.


Any application you choose offers a free or inexpensive way to access all of your IM screen names at once, plus transfer files to users, open multiple-person chats, and even use audio chat, if you have a microphone and speakers.

T is for Training. FASTER IM is a simple service to start, and training time does not have to be extensive. It is important, however, to give all of the participating librarians a chance to practice first. This can take as little as 45 minutes. Although, before “class,” the trainer might want to spend some time learning how the IM application works (experimenting with “sending a file” and copying and pasting items from a browser window to a chat window).

Then, in the classroom, have each student log in and get them talking to each other via chat. Demonstrate how to send a message, paste in text or a URL, and transfer a file, such as a PDF tax form or other document. I use two sets of training questions of the type they might get at the reference desk. Here are some to get you started:

What happened to the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner?

What is Dilantin?

Who is the ultimate parent of Abercrombie & Fitch? What’s their ticker symbol?

How many Borders bookstores are there in the United States?

These will test your librarians’ skills in Web searching as well as in sharing information about the library. These questions and handouts for IM training are available to you on my blog. We certainly don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to launching IM reference!

Want more free IM training resources? Check the sites listed in the sidebar.


E is for Easy. In the case of IM, “easy” simply means making it easy for our users to find us and ask questions. Surveys such as the Pew report on IM use and OCLC’s recent Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources offer evidence that people, especially young people, are using IM every day. Pew reported that 12 percent of U.S. adults use IM on a typical day and about 80 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 use IM at least occasionally. That’s a great reason to test IM reference, especially in academic and public library settings.

It’s also easy in the sense that training is a breeze, plus IM makes it easy for staff to communicate internally. One librarian noted that IM saves toll phone calls in a wide-area library system.

R is for ROI. I think you’ll find a pretty good return on investment for your IM buck. With the software being free, we only need to devote resources to training and promotion. While some librarians see in-person reference desk visits dropping, and others note a decline in phone reference, IM gets librarians out into the busy, busy online world where their patrons are.

Rewards of the Ride

There are so many benefits to doing this! IM offers your staff members a way to communicate electronically from wherever they happen to log on. An IM-savvy staff is prepared for the next wave of technology-based library outreach service. Finally, we are serving our users where they are, for little or no cost. I can’t think of a better–or FASTER-way to reach users!

IM Resources


AskSJCPL Page:

MSN Messenger:

YAHOO! Messenger:

Extra Links:

IM Resources: In the April 2006 issue of Computers in Libraries, my “Tech Tips” piece is all about FASTER IM! Here are the links mentioned in the article. Happy IMing!


AskSJCPL Page:

Edifice Ref’s Trillian Training:


Fire Training:



IM Training at Tame the Web:

Library Success Wiki – Virtual Reference and IM:

MSN Messenger:

OCLC Perceptions:

Pew Report on Instant Messaging:

Sherri Vokey’s IM at UNLV Post:

Sherri Vokey’s Training Modules:


YAHOO! Messenger:


This article originally appeared in Computers in Libraries magazine April 2006, published by Information Today Inc.

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