Presented at the 2010 TLA Annual Conference
Why instant messaging?
The UTC Library has provided reference service via instant messaging for the past 3 years. We knew when we adopted it as a communication tool that our students were already extremely comfortable with IM and we felt, like many academic libraries, that it was a natural fit for our service model. We used a popular open source chat aggregator called Meebo to run our service on the website and a local client called Pidgin to manage the chat conversations on our reference desk PC. We maintained IM accounts with all of the major services: AOL, MSN, Yahoo! and Google, and all of them ran through Meebo. We placed the chat box on our Ask A Librarian page, one of the most visited pages on our website. UTC students embraced the service immediately and it quickly rose to being one of the most popular means of contacting the librarians, second only to face to face transactions at the reference desk.
Figure 1. UTC Ask a Librarian page with Meebo widget
Our statistics showed that the service was growing steadily. By 2010 we were logging well over 1500 transactions a year via the Ask a Librarian page. Also, our librarians and service desk staff have become comfortable using it, so we are very pleased with the overall success of IM as an avenue for responding to the needs of our patron base.
A few of our librarians were aware of LibraryH3lp, a web chat/IM system that was developed by a librarian from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with her husband, a computer programmer. Some members of our staff had positive experiences working with the system before, and the potential benefits combined with the very low cost of the service led us to make the change.
While Meebo was an acceptable solution, we recognized the need to move to a more stable system. Meebo would often go down unexpectedly, leaving our chat offline without alerting us. Meebo and Pidgin did not always play well together, and one would occasionally cause the other to crash. The LibraryH3lp creators maintain a commitment to stability, trying hard to keep the system up even when making changes to the backend. Furthermore, the creators advocate transparency; in the event of a system problem, we were able to check the LibraryH3lp Twitter feed and immediately identify the issue and monitor their progress toward a fix.
This transparency is indicative of a larger model for systems and service in the open source community. LibraryH3lp is an open source product; while there is a small few for the service, the source code is readily available and can be manipulated and utilized by any interested party. Open source software developers strive to not only make their code available, but also to be a part of a community of users and developers who work together to make a better product. As a part of this model, LibraryH3lp is being constantly improved by the libraries who use it, and likewise by the creators who read feedback on their product and try to make requested improvements.
We also decided to make the switch to take advantage of some new features that LibraryH3lp offers. In particular, we were eager to implement a text messaging solution, after observing the popularity of texting with our student population. LibraryH3lp uses a Google Voice gateway to route SMS messages through the system so that a text message appears to the librarian in the same way as a chat or IM question. The only change to our workflow was to ask librarians to be aware of the queue name to identify SMS questions, and to limit responses to 160 characters in those cases. We installed a character counter on our Pidgin clients to make that process easier.
Figure 2. Screenshot of a transaction with a patron using our SMS service
How do we make it work?
Because we have always run the IM service from the reference desk, making the change to LibraryH3lp has been largely transparent to our desk staff. The normal pattern is for IM to be busiest in the late afternoons and evenings, particularly on Sunday-Wednesday when students are the most heavily engaged in their assignments and coursework. Since LibraryH3lp is more stable than the Meebo service we previously offered, we are finding that students are using it even more heavily.
Another advantage of LibraryH3lp is the built in functionality for monitoring system activity. The system settings allow for very detailed reports about how users access our chat system. We are even able to monitor the page where users found our chat widget. This is helpful as we start to place widgets not just on our Ask a Librarian page, but also in various point of need locations, based on where we think users may want to ask for more help. Looking at our current statistics, we can see that almost half of our users contacted us through a new widget on our Articles and Databases page.
Figure 3. Articles and Databases page with sidebar widget
By logging into the admin panel, librarians can view both statistics and also actual chat logs; with our Meebo solution, those two types of information were stored separately, and were difficult for typical librarian users to access and interpret. While LibraryH3lp offers detailed analytics in a downloadable Excel format, the system also generates quick data visualizations of system activity. Librarian users can tell at a glance when chat traffic is particularly high. This functionality will be increasingly important as our system grows in popularity and we must look to new staffing models.
Figure 4. Screenshot of LibraryH3lp built in statistics visualization
What comes next?
As we look toward future phases of implementation, we hope to take advantage of some of the other features of the LibraryH3lp system. LibraryH3lp employs queues (public facing service points) and users (library staff members) to create a system that allows for fine grained control and monitoring of how patrons access IM services and also how librarians manage their online presence. By further developing queues, we will be able to keep statistics on where patrons are contacting us from, and we will be able to design specific services to route IM questions to the appropriate library staff member(s). Likewise, we will add more users from each library department, so that the most qualified person will be contactable and assigned to the right queue. By fostering a culture of IM usage within our library, we hope to better facilitate effective both internal and external communications, and ultimately convey to our patrons that we are available and willing to help when and where they need us.
The implementation of LibraryH3lp at UTC has been a success. The combination of system stability, queues to direct IM traffic, and integrated text messaging make it an excellent choice for libraries looking to improve the virtual reference experience for the patron. With careful planning and training to insure staff are comfortable using the features of the service, LibraryH3lp can facilitate a robust chat/IM reference solution for academic libraries.
To view our presentation, please visit http://bit.ly/utclibraryh3lp.