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IM a Librarian: Establishing a Virtual Reference Service with Little Cost or Technical Skill

By Bonnie Shucha, Published on August 27, 2007

The Internet has revolutionized the way that we communicate. From the beginning, the ability to publish Web pages and send email communications changed our expectations on the ease and speed of which information is exchanged. Early on, librarians recognized the potential of Internet as a way to connect with our patrons, and email reference quickly became a standard library service.

But soon technology brought us systems that enabled us to chat with patrons in real-time. These early virtual reference systems varied in price and features, although most were quite expensive and fairly complex. Like many bleeding-edge technologies, only a few libraries could afford the cost or time to implement them and only a handful of patrons were tech-savvy enough to care. The potential was there, but the technology wasn't ready.

Fast forward a few years and a new Web generation has emerged. Central to the concept of Web 2.0, scores of free, easy-to-use tools have been developed to facilitate the rapid exchange of information - strangely-named tools such as Blogger, YouTube, Flickr and Del.icio.us where users post content, as well as real-time communication tools, such as Trillian, Meebo and Plugoo. And it's not just teenagers who use them. Real-time communication via the Internet is increasingly becoming a preferred communication method for many business professionals, too.

Librarians can take advantage of these real-time communications tools also. No longer must virtual reference systems be expensive or complex. With today's real-time communication tools, librarians can establish a virtual reference service with relatively little expense or technical expertise. In the article, I'll demonstrate how by exploring the pros and cons of real-time communication; explaining how real-time communication works in a library setting; and introducing two free, easy-to-use applications for virtual reference.

Pros & Cons of Real-Time Communication

It's widely known that real-time communication is immensely popular with young people. According to an Instant Messaging Trends Study conducted by the Associated Press and America Online, nearly one-third of youth polled say they can't imagine living without instant messaging (IM). Interestingly, though, the survey also revealed that IM is gaining momentum with adults. More than half of adults surveyed send instant messages daily. The survey also revealed that over 27 percent of IM users communicate via instant messaging at work, a 71 percent increase from an earlier study.1

These users have come to realize that real-time communication offers several advantages over other methods:

Quick and efficient communication - Peter Alexander of Entrepreneur.com explains how real-time communication, specifically IM, is beneficial in the workplace: "Along with eliminating the lag in e-mail response time, IM cuts out the necessary 'chit chat' of a phone call and often lets you avoid the tiresome game of voicemail tag."

Improved customer service - According to Alexander, "presence awareness, a common IM feature, gives you a quick view of who among your chosen correspondents is logged onto the IM service at any given time. … In business, presence awareness is often used as a quick way to find the right person to handle an urgent matter."2 Figure one illustrates presence awareness in a typical IM service.

Figure 1, Presence Awareness Indicators
Note how online contact s have bright icons and those that are not logged in are grayed out

Inexpensive - Many of the real-time communication applications available today are free or extremely low-cost.

Like any technology, however, there are several problems of which to be aware:

IM Systems Don't Talk to Each Other - Just as there are many email systems (Outlook, Thunderbird, Hotmail, etc.), there are also many IM systems (AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, etc). Unlike email, however, most IM systems don't allow users to communicate with anyone outside their system. As a result, many IM users sign up for multiple services. Fortunately, though, there are some free tools, like Trillian or Meebo, which allow you monitor multiple IM accounts from one application.

Privacy & Security - Like email, real-time communication applications are vulnerable to hackers and spammers. Therefore, it's important that you watch what you say (and which links you click on) and know that your conversations may be saved on your computer.

How Does Virtual Reference Work?

Although some virtual reference applications have more bells and whistles than others, they all based on the real-time exchange of typed text. Two types which librarians can use to establish a basic virtual reference service with little cost or technical skill: instant messaging and embedded chat.3

Here's how they work: With instant messaging, the patron logs into her IM account, chooses the librarian from her contact list, types a quick message and sends it. In a few seconds, the message pops up in the librarian's IM window where he can immediately reply. It's really not that much different from email, except that it happens in real-time. Figure 2 illustrates a patron/librarian interaction via IM.


Figure 2, Patron Question via IM

Although IM may be second nature for some, not all of your patrons will be comfortable with it. Fortunately, they don't have to be. Using embedded chat, a patron can still communicate with a librarian in real-time by using a chat box embedded on the library's Web page. She simply types her message in the box and sends it. The message is then directed to the librarian's IM account where he can reply in real-time. Figure 3 illustrates a patron initiating a call via embedded chat.


Figure 3, Patron Question via Embedded Chat

Unlike instant messaging in which both the patron and librarian must have an IM account, with embedded chat only the librarian needs to have one. Patrons don't even need to know what IM is. Communicating via embedded chat requires the sender to have no more technical skill than filling out a simple Web form.

Free Virtual Reference Options

Once you've decided that you want to establish a virtual reference service, the first step is to register for an instant messaging account on behalf of the library. Fortunately, most IM systems allow you to create accounts at no cost. There are several factors to consider in establishing an IM account:

Establish Accounts in Multiple Systems - Since IM systems aren't interoperable, it's beneficial to establish accounts in several systems. That way, no matter what system your patrons are using, they'll be able to reach you. Some of the more common systems include AIM, Yahoo, ICQ, MSN and GoogleTalk.4

Naming - When establishing an IM account, you'll need to choose a buddy name, also known as a screen name. This becomes your IM address which patrons will add to their contact list. Therefore, you'll want to choose a name that is descriptive of you or your library. To reduce confusion, consider choosing the same name in each IM system.

Monitoring IM Accounts in One Place - As mentioned earlier, fortunately, there are some free tools, like Trillian and Meebo, which allow you monitor multiple IM accounts from one application. Trillian is a software application which you download and install, whereas Meebo is a Web application which requires no installation.

To monitor multiple IM accounts in Meebo,5 simply go to the Meebo Web site and log in to all of your library IM accounts. Or, you can create a Meebo account which will remember your buddy names and passwords for all your IM accounts. Then, in the future, you only need to log in to your Meebo account. (see figure four).

Figure 4, Logging into Meebo

Monitoring multiple IM accounts with Trillian6 is similar. After installing the software, add each IM account in the "Identities & Connections" menu and hit "connect" (see figure five). You'll only need to do this once since the next time you log in, it will remember your connections. You may also consider adding Trillian to your start-up menu to remind you to log in every day.

Figure 5, Adding IM Accounts in Trillian

The major difference between Meebo and Trillian is your method of access. Meebo is a Web application which makes it attractive to many librarians because they don't have to download anything. This is ideal for situations in which downloading applications is discouraged or prohibited. Others prefer to download and install an application like Trillian. This too offers several advantages, such as not having to keep an extra browser window open and risk accidentally closing the window - and the virtual reference service along with it. And using an installed software application like Trillian can help the librarian remember to log in each day because it can be added to the start up menu and automatically opened when the librarian starts up her computer.

That's pretty much it to establishing your virtual reference service using instant messaging. If you wish to add embedded chat, though, a few more steps and a small knowledge of HTML are required. First you'll need to create a chat box using a free tool such as MeeboMe or Plugoo, then add it to your web site.

If you are a Meebo user, using MeeboMe7 is an obvious choice. Simply go to the MeeboMe web site, decide how you want your chat box to look and enter your Meebo log in information. You will be presented with a small section of code that you need to insert on your Web page. You'll need to know enough about HTML to recognize where to paste the code so that it will appear where you want it on your Web page. Figure 6 shows the first step of the chat box creation process in MeeboMe. Note that the chat box on the right is a representation of how it will look on your site.

Figure 6, Creating an Embedded Chat Box with MeeboMe

Another free service which allows you to create an embedded chat box is Plugoo.8 The process of creating a chat box is similar to MeeboMe. Simply go to the Plugoo web site, enter the log in information for one of your IM accounts and decide how you want your chat box to look. You will be presented with a small section of code which you need to insert on your Web page. Plugoo allows you to customize the messages that patrons will see when you are online, away and off line.

Again, you'll need to know enough about HTML to recognize where to paste the Plugoo code so that it will appear where you want it on your Web page. Figure 7 shows the chat box creation process in Plugoo. Note that the chat box on the right is a representation of how it will look on your site.

Figure 7, Creating an Embedded Chat Box with Plugoo

There are some additional differences between MeeboMe and Plugoo. Which tool you choose depends on your needs of those of your patrons.

Multiple Simultaneous Chats - If more than one patron tries to contact you at the same time, do you want the ability to have multiple sessions open at once? MeeboMe allows this where as Plugoo can only handle one chat at a time.

IM Monitoring Compatibility - What service do you use to monitor your IM accounts? It's important to know that MeeboMe only works with Meebo. With Plugoo, you can use Meebo, Trillian or any other IM service to monitor your IM accounts.

Offline Contacts - Both MeeboMe and Plugoo allow patrons to contact you when you are offline. In MeeboMe, your off line messages will pop up in Meebo the next time you log in. With Plugoo, you can elect to have the messages pop up in your IM service the next time you log in, or you can have messages sent to an email account.

Message Customization - Plugoo allows you to customize the on screen messages for patrons (see figure seven). MeeboMe does not offer this kind of customization.

Is Virtual Reference Right for You?

Let's review what we've learned:

Despite these facts, relatively few librarians have embraced virtual reference as a method of communicating with patrons. Maybe they believe that it would be too expensive, or that they lack the technical skills to set it up. We've seen that, in reality, the opposite is true. Today's real-time communication tools, such as instant messaging and embedded chat, are freely available and fairly easy to use.

Perhaps librarians feel that not enough people would use virtual reference to make it worth their while. This one is a bit more difficult to address because it is partially true: patrons are not going to come flocking to the service just because it's available. But some will come - some that you can serve more quickly than you could through email or voice mail - some that may never have contacted you before because coming to the reference desk was too time consuming or intimidating. And that number is likely to grow as more patrons embrace real-time communication. So even if you only reach a handful of patrons with virtual reference right away, does that mean that it isn't worth your while, especially knowing that virtual reference tools are so to easy to use?

Technology has indeed revolutionized the way we communicate. More information is being exchanged faster than ever before. And as information experts, librarians should have a central role in that revolution. Combined with more traditional methods of reference such as in person, phone and email, virtual reference opens up new avenues of communication and enables us to connect with a new generation of Web 2.0 patrons.

[1] New AP-AOL Instant Messaging Trends Survey Find a Majority of Teens Send More Instant Messages than Emails, AOL News and Broadcast Center, Dec. 07, 2006, http://press.aol.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=1138&section_id=15 and Peter Alexander, Should Your Business Use Instant Messaging?, Entrepreneur.com, November 14, 2005, http://www.entrepreneur.com/technology/techtrendscolumnistpeteralexander/article81050.html

[2] Peter Alexander, Should Your Business Use Instant Messaging?, Entrepreneur.com, November 14, 2005, http://www.entrepreneur.com/technology/techtrendscolumnistpeteralexander/article81050.html

[3] Although librarians can establish a good, basic virtual reference service with free IM and embedded chat tools, there is an important limitation of which to be aware: only one librarian can be logged in to an IM account at the same time. If multiple calls are received simultaneously, the librarian cannot transfer a call to someone else. Those libraries that anticipate a high volume of calls should consider using a fee based virtual reference product which allows multiple librarians to simultaneously staff the service.

[4] For a directory of instant messaging systems, see the DMOZ Open Directory Project's Instant Messaging page at http://www.dmoz.org/Computers/Internet/Chat/Instant_Messaging/.

[5] Meebo is available at http://www.meebo.com/.

[6] Trillian is available at http://www.ceruleanstudios.com/.

[7] MeeboMe is available at http://www.meebome.com/.

[8] Plugoo is available at http://www.plugoo.com/.