For several years, the IUB Libraries have offered reference service using instant messaging and text messaging – staff at reference desks provide the great service and DUX manages the care and feeding of Libraryh3lp, the system we use to provide the service. Libraryh3lp is an awesome product, and an awesome project – started by Pam and Eric Sessoms four years ago, it has grown so successful that they’re now doing it full time (Pam previously worked as a librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill) and they recently hired a third full-time person to provide support. You can read more about the history of the project at their blog.
We get all sorts of questions, from ‘are you open?’ to ‘how do I do X in Y database?’ to very in-depth subject related questions … and there are lots of them, too – in the fall semester we averaged about 775 instant message transactions per month, peaking in November with 925 interactions. We have IM widgets in several places throughout our web site, including the Ask A Librarian page and the 404 (error) page. You can see an example widget below.
So how does it work for us? Well, library staff log into a web-based chat application, and the questions pop up in little windows, as illustrated below. We sort the questions out in three ways, based on where they initiate:
- Our website: questions from the Ask A Librarian page, or any other web-based widget. In the webchat interface, we see a red ‘REF’ icon.
- Text message questions: In the webchat interface, we see an image in the corner that looks like a phone for these.
- Ebsco databases: We added a chat widget that appears along the side of the search results in nearly all of our Ebsco databases, and in OneSearch@IU. In the webchat interface, we see an EBSCO image for questions from these locations.
Why do we bother to sort them? To make it easier to identify the point of initiation for each question, whether that’s a specific page in our website or a results page in one of our databases. The reference desks can get a bit hectic, with staff balancing in-person traffic, telephone calls, and the IM questions. The more we know about the context of the question, the better the answer we can provide – for IM, it’s easiest to do this with visual cues in the chat application.
We are also working with the Business/SPEA IC so that they can place a widget on resource pages they create to support the research in specific courses, and those questions can be funneled directly to those staff.
These changes have had very little practical impact on staff (that is – no disruptions!) and instead seem to be pretty popular with our users. We’ve already had several contacts from within the Ebsco interface in which people just wanted to tell us how happy they were that we were there to answer questions!
If you’re interested in knowing more about the partnership between reference and DUX to support virtual reference services, contact us, or check out the slides and other supporting materials from a talk I gave on the topic, titled UX + VR FTW, at last weekend’s ALA Midwinter meeting at http://bit.ly/vrdg-alamw12