Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Having a Phone: IM Reference

Having a Phone: IM Reference

So, it turns out that IM is everywhere.

What is IM? It's a short way of saying Instant Messaging, which is a way of communicating online in real time.

Who uses IM? A lot of people, mostly kids, teens, pre-teens, college kids, gen-x and y-ers, but also Librarians!

During this session we heard from Aaron Schmidt who is the director of North Plains Library in Oregon (which is a pretty library, check it out online here). Aaron has revolutionized an IM reference/library communication program at his library and also publishes a website

Aaron discussed the fact that IM is the main mode of communication for many young people and some older people (older =30+) and that not having IM in your library is like not having a phone in your library.

He pointed out that as much as technology has changed and increased over the past 30 or so years, it's only going to continue to change and expand and that we need to expand along with it. As Aaron said, things are only going to get crazier.

Because IM connects people in real time, using it shows that the library is filled with humans and it's a way to connect with our users that is almost the equivalent of face-to-face conversations.

Right now AOL says that there are approximately 80 million people using their instant messaging service, AOL Instant Messenger. Aaron pointed out a few other statistics from studies he recommended checking out from PEW/Internet Group: How Americans Use IM, which states that 53 million adults are currently using IM and Teens and Technology which states that 75% of teens use IM on a regular basis and that teens see email as a way to communicate with “old people” (again, 30+?)

So why use IM?

For one thing, the information scene has changed. Can we expect people now to be willing to come to the library for reference when they just want to use (or think they can use) Google? People are looking for different paths to get to the information they want. IM is fast, it's in real time and eliminates the need to wait for a response (which exists with email reference).

Aaron demoed the way he uses IM by showing his iChat (a Mac program) and talked about all the other IM programs out there, like Yahoo Messenger, MSN, Gchat (gmail chat) and programs like Meebo which is web-based and allows you to contact people using all different IM programs at once.

Aaron discussed a little about the kinds of questions he gets over IM and the kinds of people who IM him at work. Basically, it's the same questions you'd get at the desk and he says that you get them from the same kinds of people that come into the library, but you also hear from a lot more students, teens, college students, stay at home parents and people who might not be as likely to come into the library.

Aaron's Best Practices:
  • Advertise, advertise, advertise, get the word out there. Hand out business cards with screen name.
  • Send out fliers to school- but stagger them so not all the kids sign on at the same time.
  • Use your away messages (Stepped away from my desk, helping a patron, away, etc.) so patrons know where you are and don't get frustrated or think you're ignoring them
  • Be ready to answer an important question from kids: Are you real or are you a robot?
  • Be prepared for “Chatty Kathy” people will contact you because they just want to talk. Have found that face to face its older people who want to talk, on IM- younger people
  • Be prepared for IM lingo (you can search for it on a search engine and it will help you)
  • Speed over professionalism in typing- if you make a mistake its okay. Type phrases, have a back and forth, no need for letters and paragraphs while you chat- all you're doing is chatting...
  • Put up a buddy icon- something fun.
  • Don't freak out: don't let the speed of the service interrupt the quality of the service you're giving. People on IM are multi tasking, they're doing other things and they'll wait for you to get the response.
and remember: IM is QUICK, CHEAP AND EASY


Emily Center Remer - YA librarian at Framingham Library- has been using IM in her business and personal life for nine years. Her Blog.

Emily started in the children's room and when she moved up to YA, began to use IM a lot with patrons.

She started with Trillium, a multi-platform IMing service. She stopped trillium when discovered Meebo and Meebo Widgets (trillium saves records and becomes privacy issues). Meebo has a Firefox add-on that allows it to be open all the time. Meebo widget created onto Framingham Library page- can be personalized, colors, ideas, etc. Meebo widgets make it so patrons don't have to have an IM account anywhere, they can chat through the webpage.

Emily also uses Twitter which allows you to update people, status messages, etc. (great for when you're computers go down because it says it right there)

About IM: Teenagers love it- they talk a lot about what they want to do, become interested in the library and IMing after teen programs, etc. Can chat with multiple people at once.

Facebook for your library allows you to chat there as well
Sara Marks is the Instruction Service Librarian Fitchburg State College

“Ask A Library @ Fitchburg State College”

Sara got into IM with friends after college as a way to stay in contact. When she got to FS, knew they wanted to get into virtual reference, but ran into some issues: lack of money and lack of interest from colleagues.

She found that her students inherently trust people and that IM helps because it allows the students not to have to learn about new tools. They react better when we reach them where they are, they don't want to have to come to us.

At her library, they went with IM because there was no money and its free. They chose Meebo for similar reasons that Emily and Aaron mentioned. She said that Meebo's not on the main page yet, but will be soon. They have Meebo in their Live Guides, on their Facebook page, and more.

Sara used magnets for advertising and business cards as advertising. They ordered "Meebo Me" buttons from, but ended up not using as much because they didn't use that lingo and found the buttons to be cumbersome)
Cathy AlvesMass Trial Court Libraries (Lowell)

At the Mass Trial Court Libraries, they began email reference in 1999. Now all 17 law libraries involved and they use email and chat and everyone has a shift of 2-2 1/2 hours at a time.

Cathy said that they get a lot of questions- many that wouldn't be asked in person (about criminal records, child support and sex) and that they find IM conversations to be pretty much the same as working with patrons in person, except that patrons are actually more patient on IM.

Cathy's Stats: email 254 question/month (last year 239) IM 283/month (last year 238)

Much easier to help patrons get what they want, because you can instantly send information and links. Easier than the phone and people aren't as opposed to contacting that way because it's less “scary” and they know they'll get what they want.

When you're IMing, is it as the librarian or as a person?
Pretty much as the librarian, some of them have their own AIM addressed that students/patrons can directly communicate with them via.

Does IMing go on after hours?
If you can do it, definitely do it, but if not, put an away message up. Overnight- set an away message asking to leave a questions with an email address. Can still be IMed by meebo even when not online. Way to extend library hours without more staffing.

-Sarah C.

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