This was my first experience with an IM reference service, and it left me with an excellent impression. My key take-aways:
- IM does not mean instant answers, but users may expect that. Libraries offering such services should manage user's expectations accordingly. Could be as simple as informing the user how long they would get the answer they want.
- IM reference offers strategic value to libraries. The logic as follows: Teens take to IM easily, more so (I suspect) than walk-in reference questions for the initial question. Offering IM is in effect cultivating future users and supporters of libraries.
- I think generally only users familiar with IM itself would use the IM reference service (I speak for myself, and I'm confirming this as I learn more). Which is why adults are slower to use IM.So libraries trying to start IM reference either targets at Teens primarily, or offer User Education sessions to adults.
I had the pleasure of conversing with Patty Higgins, the Head of Reference and the Assistant Director of Lansing PL. Here's the transcript of the chat session (posted with permission):
ramblinglibrarian: Hi - just checking if anyone is there. I'm from Singapore.
asklpladult: Sorry for the long delay in response.....I didn't notice the IM notice at first. I'm working the Reference Desk and doing a report on the computer and was too focused on what I was doing.
[P.S. I'm thinking, "We're thousands of miles away... What delay?" ~ RamblingLibrarian]
ramblinglibrarian: Hello there! No problem at all. I'm curious -- what day & time is it over there? It's... 11.31pm, Sat May 14 here (I'm at home right now).
asklpladult: It is Saturday morning....about 10:30 a.m. at the moment.
ramblinglibrarian: Hope I'm not distracting you from work or readers. If you can spare the time, would you mind answering a few questions?
asklpladult: It is quiet and there are others at the desk to take care of the patrons. We are kind of new at the IM concept. What questions do you have?
ramblinglibrarian: I've interviewed Kelli (via email) about the IM service. So since I'm talking to you (an actual "operator"), I thought it would be good to get your perspective, if that's ok.
asklpladult: Ok. We only get a few messages a week at the adult reference desk. I understand it is busier in the Teen and Youth sections of the library.
ramblinglibrarian: How do staff answering the IM service feel about it?
asklpladult: It is still so new... I've had a couple of good exchanges with patrons, and then a few "crank" messages. The "I hate all of you--do you ever READ a book" kind of message. No response when I responded.
ramblinglibrarian: What's your take then? Do you see it as a good thing to provide to your users?
asklpladult: I think it is a good thing -- or it will be when it catches on more. As I said, the teens and youth seem to use it more. Adults seem a little slower to embrace new technology. The one extensive back-and-forth exchange I had with a patron was actually a teen. I think it will be a good service once it catches on.
ramblinglibrarian: Here's a reference question -- What's the distance between Lansing PL and Singapore? (I'm asking partly to see how your IM ref works, as well as posting the info for my blog).
asklpladult: Let me look that up....might take me a few minutes....
ramblinglibrarian: ok, i'll wait.
[About 5 minutes later]
asklpladult: According to World Almanac, air miles between Chicago and Singapore is 9,372 miles (We are a suburb of Chicago). I try to name the source when I answer a question.
ramblinglibrarian: Very cool! Now I'm hooked on IM reference... ... How do you market the IM ref service to adults?
asklpladult: We market it on our website and with small brochures in the library. It's marketed heavily to the schools, especially the high school. It is easy to reach the students -- they are all in one place at school. With adults, it is trickier. We have also mentioned it in the newsletter that is mailed to every household in Lansing.
ramblinglibrarian: I understand you service both the IM ref service and for walk-in users too. Isn't that distracting?
asklpladult: It can be... today is fine because there are other staff here. One time I had two IMs coming in at the same time while I happened to be alone at the reference desk during a supper hour. One patron got kind of snotty about my response time with the IM. Turns out she doesn't even live in Lansing. She was from a town considerably outside out service area. From some of her comments I think she had other issues than just me not jumping fast enough for her. Other people are understanding that I have to respond to the LIVE, standing in front of my desk patrons first.
ramblinglibrarian: Which brings to mind -- what kind of training do staff receive to handle such situations?
asklpladult: It hasn't come up very often. I'm the only one who ran into the situation. We are all veteran staff, so I think we will handle it the same as we do when others get irate over the telephone or other situations. You do the best you can and explain as best you can. Most people are reasonable. We haven't done any special training.
ramblinglibrarian: So you don't think IM ref is any different from "traditional" ref?
asklpladult: Not really. I tend to be wordy, which will probably be a problem if people are in a situation where they prefer short, rapid answers.
ramblinglibrarian: Just curious -- does your chat-handling software queue the IM chat requests?
asklpladult: I don't know....the time I had two, both windows were open at the same time. I just juggled them as best I could. I don't think it indicates who was first.
ramblinglibrarian: What about training to deal with the IM environment? Was this part of your preparation?
asklpladult: It was pretty brief -- it isn't very complicated. It is more of a "getting used to it". I use IM in my personal life and at least one other staff member has used it, so we are fairly comfortable. I'm not sure about the others. I'll ask.....
ramblinglibrarian: (aside -- how are you asking? IMing them?)
asklpladult: No, very low tech. I turned around and ask the other two people on the desk with me. Neither of them have ever handled an IM question yet. Michael commented that a lot of what we do requires time, which doesn't lend itself to "instant" responses.
ramblinglibrarian: LOL (I meant the low-tech bit). The statement about expectations about IM and the time taken to handle ref questions is very real. So how do you all manage user's expectations?
asklpladult: It is hard to judge yet. There haven't been a lot of IM questions at this desk. The longest exchange I had was a student looking for several novels, and she had a question about a book she had been waiting for which was long overdue. She wanted to know what she could do about getting it from another library. It was sort of a text exchange of what could have just as easily been a telephone call.
ramblinglibrarian: OK, last few questions... Where do you see your IM ref service heading or developing?
asklpladult: I suppose as students become "adult" patrons or have more reference related questions instead of readers' advisory we will probably see more. I think this is going to be a "wait and see" situation.
ramblinglibrarian: What's your advice/ suggestions for a library deciding to go for IM ref?
asklpladult: I would suggest some mock situations where everyone gets a chance to try it to see how the interface works. Here I actually have two staff members who have never used the IM method. We have the software running, but there just hasn't been much traffic. I would suggest librarians treat it as just another way to interact with patrons. We do everything over the telephone if patrons call and this is no different (except spelling counts). I cringe when I realize I've sent a message with typos.
ramblinglibrarian: What would you advise your users who want to use IM?
asklpladult: I would suggest users just try it. We still have people who come in person and won't call on the telephone.
ramblinglibrarian: OK, that's all my questions! You've been really helpful. May I know who I've had the pleasure of chatting?
asklpladult: I'm Patty Higgins, the Head of Reference and the Assistant Director.
Thanks again to Patty. BTW, I'd love to learn more from librarians or even users who've had experience with IM reference.
[Tag: chat reference, IM reference, rambling librarian interview]