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TL v57 n1 Email is So Five Minutes Ago: Implementing IM Reference at UTC Lupton Library
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 57 Number 1



E-mail is SO Five Minutes Ago:

Implementing IM Reference at UTC Lupton

Virginia Cairns
Head of Reference and Instruction

Beverly Simmons
Reference and Instruction Librarian

University of Tennessee, Chattanooga



Like most academic libraries, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s (UTC) Lupton Library answers reference questions in person, by telephone, and by e-mail. In the fall of 2006 we began to consider adding another virtual option such as chat software or instant messaging. Our dean asked us to evaluate both chat reference software and reference service via instant messaging (IM) and prepare a white paper. As a result of this research, and talking with other academic libraries that had tried both chat and IM reference, we chose IM as our virtual reference vehicle. This paper describes how we planned for and implemented IM reference at UTC.

One of our major considerations in selecting IM for reference was the characteristics and habits of our current generation of students. To encourage the use of reference services, we wanted a way to meet students where they’re most comfortable.

“Generation Next” and Technology

According to a report from the Pew Research Center (2007) , technology and the Internet help the members of “Generation Next” (ages 18-25) stay in constant contact with friends. Many use text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, and/or social networking sites on a daily basis. Although e-mail reference was already implemented at UTC, Lenhart et al. (2005) maintain that although e-mail is still a fixture in teens’ lives, they prefer instant messaging (IM). “Teens … said that they view email as something you use to talk to ‘old people,’ institutions, or to send complex instructions to large groups.”

Advantages of IM Reference

Instant messaging reference offers a number of advantages:

  • IM is easy to use
  • IM is free
  • Students already use IM regularly
  • IM is easily integrated into existing Reference Desk service and hours
  • IM is also useful for internal library communication

One very big advantage is that a large percentage of our student population already uses IM on a regular basis. In 2005, the Pew Research Center published a report about teens and technology where they surveyed young people ages 12-17. (Two years later the upper range of this age group falls into our college-age population.) The report notes that two-thirds of all teenagers use instant messaging as compared with 42% of online adults. Of the teens who use instant messaging, 48% exchange IMs at least once every day (Lenhart et al., 2005, p. iii) . Using IM as a reference medium is an easy and familiar fit for students with little or no learning curve for most of them.

IM is easy to learn and to use, even for people who are new to the technology. Many of our librarians were new to instant messaging but had no difficulty learning the basics with a little help.

IM is also free to use. This was not the primary consideration, but certainly it was a welcome feature!

IM Reference here we come!

Once we knew for sure that IM was the vehicle we wanted to use to reach students for virtual reference, we had to develop a plan for how to actually get ourselves there. A small group of reference librarians met to discuss what steps we would need to take to achieve the goal. The initial plans we developed included the following components:

  • Select software
  • Develop policies and procedures
  • Create a training plan
  • Allow time for practice
  • Decide on a launch date
  • Develop plans to market the service

The selection of software proved to be especially easy for us because one of our librarians had already investigated the available options. We knew we wanted an open source product due to the low cost and active user base. We also wanted an aggregator service that would allow the students to use the IM client of their choice to chat with us. The product that met all of our requirements was GAIM (the name has since been changed to Pidgin). We installed the service on the Reference Desk PC, and created a master account called UTCRef that included profiles on all of the “big 4” instant messenger services: AOL, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger and Google Talk. Then we created GAIM accounts for each reference librarian on their office PCs. Figure 1 shows the page on the library website where students can connect to the new IM reference service for the first time. Note that students can also see whether the reference desk is open or closed based on the Status indicator.

Figure 1 . IM page on library website showing 4 different IM services

Next we tackled policy and procedure. We agreed to offer IM Reference service during all the hours the Reference Desk was open each day. We decided that IM would be handled by the Reference librarian on duty just as phone and email are handled alongside traditional face-to-face reference service. Because we are a relatively small department (7 professionals) we felt this was the best solution, rather than trying to run a separate IM reference schedule in addition to the desk. Research had shown us that even the busiest libraries only average about 7 IM questions per day, so we felt this would be manageable give current workloads at our desk. We set our GAIM account to automatically log UTCRef onto the system whenever our Front Desk PC was turned on for the day. When we close for the evening and the desk PC is shut down, our account logs off and anyone sending an IM after hours receives a message asking them to email their questions so that we can respond in the morning.

We then set about writing up guidelines for dealing with IM situations. We had already agreed to prioritize IM questions just as we do phone and face-to-face interactions. We discussed how to handle questions that are simply too complex for IM (suggest they give us their phone number or email address for further contact, or suggest they come in if they are close by on campus). We came up with some short, canned answers to inappropriate language so we would all be prepared in the event we received an off-color message. We also discussed statistics and how we were going to collect them. GAIM has a setting to automatically save log files and we opted to go that route, using our own home grown software to track questions by date and time, user account, type of question, etc.

Once we had ironed out some of these basic management issues, we felt we were ready to roll out GAIM to our fellow librarians and see how they might take to it.

Training sessions for faculty

Unlike our students, many of our librarians were not already using IM. To facilitate their use and comfort with IM, we devised a training plan which covered:

  • the mechanics of sending and receiving instant messages
  • acronyms and IM culture/customs
  • policies
  • handling abusive or inappropriate messages

Before the first training session, we installed GAIM on each person’s computer. We created an AOL IM account for each librarian where each person’s account name began with “utcref” and ended with their first name. (For example, the authors’ AIM names are utcrefBeverly and utcrefVirginia.) Figure 2 shows the “Buddy List” at the UTC Reference Desk.

Figure 2 . Buddy List in GAIM software

With the software and account names in place, we did an initial training session at our regular library faculty meeting. We went through the basics of sending and receiving instant messages. We discussed the use of acronyms, which left us all LOL (laughing out loud). We talked about IM culture and encouraged librarians to be more informal in their use of punctuation and capitalization. We emphasized the need to respond quickly to an IM, even if you are busy helping other patrons. The general guidance is to answer quickly to let the patron know that you received the message. Students are usually quite understanding and willing to wait for your attention – they’re accustomed to juggling multiple conversations themselves through IM, cell phones, text messaging, and in person, and so are not disconcerted by pauses in your attention.

We discussed the mechanics of using IM for reference (logging on, knowing when a message has arrived, pasting links into messages, etc.) Since we handle IM reference at the Reference Desk (along with in person questions and telephone questions) we talked about how to prioritize work. We advised librarians to handle IM questions just as they would handle telephone calls. Typing a quick “hold on a moment” or “I’ll be right with you” is generally enough to let the patron know that you saw their message and will be with them soon.

There are some questions that are simply to complex to handle well by IM. When we receive such questions, our advice was to suggest that the patron come in for a consultation or ask them to call the reference desk. A third option is to ask for an e-mail address that you can use to send an answer later when you have time to do the necessary research.

Our training session included a discussion of how to handle abusive or inappropriate messages. We suggested that the librarian respond with something like “If you have a question, please rephrase it with more appropriate language.” Or, “Your language is inappropriate for this situation. Goodbye.” (To date, we’ve not had any incidents of inappropriate or abusive language.) Although we have not yet had to use this feature, IM software also makes it possible to block users who are persistently inappropriate.

As part of our training session, we gave each librarian a handout that summarized our session. On the back we listed commonly used IM acronyms and their meanings.

After familiarizing the librarians with the basics of IM reference, we introduced our “Library Buddies” plan. In preparation for the roll-out, reference librarians had been practicing using IM on a daily basis to communicate with each other. Each one of the reference librarians was then assigned a “Library Buddy” from another department. For the next week, reference librarians would initiate IM conversations with their library buddies each day to help them get comfortable with the process of sending and receiving instant messages.

We were ready to launch IM Reference! Our approach to selecting a launch date was fairly unscientific. What we did was choose the first Monday in the semester where everyone was in town and at work and there were no other big events scheduled. We prepared our advertising campaign (more on that to follow in a moment) and readied our website so that we could flip the switch Monday morning when we got into the office.

Advertising is the key

We decided our advertising campaign had to be many-faceted, with ads in a variety of formats to be sure we reached all groups. Our first step was to create buzz once we had decided to move forward with IM reference. We ran a brief mention of the service in the Library newsletter during the semester before we launched, so the idea would be planted in people’s minds. Our library instructors began talking about the upcoming IM reference service in library classes. Then we prepared a banner ad for our website, to be launched the morning we flipped the switch on the service (see Figure 3.)

Figure 3. UTC Lupton Library Website with IM banner ad at top

We ran an article about the new IM reference service in The University Echo, the student newspaper (Adkins, 2007) .

Article in student newspaper

Figure 4 . Article in student newspaper

The Chattanooga Times Free Press published an article about the new service, complete with pictures – great publicity! (Cooper, 2007)

Article in Chattanooga Times Free Press

Figure 5 . Article in Chattanooga Times Free Press about IM service

Even though our research told us that teens view e-mail as a way to communicate with “old people”, they certainly seem to read their university e-mail! Within hours of an e-mail sent via the university listserv, we had many students asking to add us to their buddy list.

Initial usage statistics

To date, we have had 187 different users take advantage of our IM reference service. Many of those users have asked multiple questions over the first 3+ months. Of the four difference IM services, we have more users on AIM than any other.

In the first 3+ months of IM reference service, we have averaged 70 questions per month – second only to in-person reference questions at the Reference Desk. The average duration of an IM reference question and answer exchange is 6 minutes.

Figure 6 . IM traffic by day of the week

Figure 6 shows the number of IM reference questions received by day of the week. We found it interesting (and puzzling!) that Tuesdays were so popular.

Analysis of questions

We analyzed 33 session log files (from AIM users only) in order to determine frequencies and types of questions. We found that technical questions about logins or database access errors represented 6% of the total. A typical “technical question” exchange might look like this (UTCRef is the reference librarian):

IM User: Hi,

UTCRef: hi

IM User: I am trying to log into ebsco from home and it won't let me do I need to be there?

UTCRef: Let me try

Policy questions about library hours, circulation policies, interlibrary loan, etc., represented 24% of the questions we received in these 33 AIM log files. An example:

IM User: how long can dvd's be checked out for?

UTCRef: If you're a student they can be checked out for 3 days

IM User: ok thanks!

UTCRef: Anytime....

Reference questions about known items (“do you have…”), database questions (“I’m searching Lexis-Nexis and…”), or topical questions (“I need sources on…”) made up 70% of our total from the 33 AIM logs. A typical reference question by IM is:

IM User: Hello, I'm writing a paper for Eng. 122. Which library database will allow me to find Scholarly Journals?

UTCRef: hi - what's your topic?

IM User: haha, it's The Death Penalty. I have to have at least 3 sources showing different views of it.

UTCRef: ok, i'd suggest InfoTrac OneFile or OmniFile. both are under "beginning research" when you click on Find Articles. both will let you find articles from scholarly journals. hold on a minute and I'll give you more specific guidance for InfoTrac.

IM User: Great!

UTCRef: hang on - I'm helping someone at the desk. back in a minute

IM User: Not a prob, I'm here...


Even in the first three months of service, instant messaging has more than tripled the number of questions we received by e-mail only. Because students are already so immersed in this world of instant communication, making library reference services available via IM makes the library very approachable and easy to access. We feel that we are developing improved relationships with our student body and giving the library a higher level of visibility on campus. Taken along with our new and ever-changing website, upcoming pod casting services, and redesigned library classes, IM reference helps promote the idea that a lot is going on at the library!


Adkins, J. (2007, Feb. 22, 2007). Library offers IM service. The University Echo Online.

Cooper, C. (2007, March 6, 2007). UTC library offering new instant- messaging service for students with questions. Chattanooga Times Free Press, p. E1.

Lenhart, A., Hitlin, P., & Madden, M. (2005). Teens and technology: Youth are leading the transition to a fully wired and mobile nation: Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (2007). A portrait of "Generation Next": How young people view their lives, futures and politics (Report): The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

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