Implementing a text messaging reference service on the cheap

Texting is a great way to answer reference questions, and it doesn't have to cost you a dime.

Many libraries now offer text-a-librarian services to extend reference service to patrons on their mobile phones.   If your library has pondered the idea of implementing a text messaging reference service, but couldn’t quite figure out a way to pay for the service, I hope you find this useful.   Our library has been running a text messaging reference service since September 1st, and it didn’t cost us a dime.   Here’s how we’re doing it, and how you can, too.

We have toyed with the idea of having a text message reference service for some time, but only got around to implementing it this summer.   My colleagues and I have attended webinars from companies that that offer a fee-based text-a-librarian service, and have read journal articles about libraries that have set up their own service with just a cell phone.   While I understood the   desire to offer reference services via text, I never quite saw the need.   After all, we already provide services via IM, meebo chat, Skype, email, phone, and in person, and survey results from two years ago suggested that patrons would be unlikely to ask their questions via text message.   I also couldn’t really justify the cost of paying a service or a cell phone bill, especially if we built the service an no one used it.   However, with the development of our mobile information site (to be discussed at another time) we began to see that a texting service was important. We also found a way to provide the service for absolutely free and we set the service up in a day.   If it didn’t cost us anything, why not try it and see what happens?   Here’s a step-by-step guide to the tools we used and how we set up the service.

Google Voice

The first thing we did was set up a Google Voice account, which is free.   Google Voice allows you to set up a number of your choosing, and then redirect calls to that number to your actual registered phone number.   When setting up your phone number, you can either try to get a number in your area code, or choose a vanity-style number.   We figured that we’d do something clever, so our number is (352) 354-2733 or (352) 3LI-BREF.   Our IM handle is OHIOLIBREF, so we wanted to remain somewhat consistent.   Unfortunately, there wasn’t a number in our area code that spelled out our handle, but it doesn’t really matter.   Cell phones (and our patrons) have no idea what long-distance is anyway.   Regardless, you’ll want to choose wisely, as Google will charge you 10 bucks if you ever want to change your number.

When we set our account up, we just redirected our new Google Voice number to our phone at the reference desk.   Note that because our reference desk phone is not a mobile phone, text messages cannot be sent to it.   However, as I will demonstrate later, you can receive and send text messages via the Google Voice interface in your web browser.


On the Google Voice settings page, you will want to select the option to send incoming text messages to your email.   We chose our Google email that we used to set up the service.     We use this email address exclusively for our texting service, and it is not made available to the public.   The way we have the service set up, we only want text messages coming to the email account, so as not to clutter our inbox with other messages.   Since Google Voice and Gmail are both Google services, I would strongly suggest that you use a Gmail address for this.   Otherwise, the transfer from Google Voice to another email system may slow the service (and your response) down.   The image below demonstrates the settings for the SMS/text to email in Google Voice.

Send-to-email settings in Google Voice


Trillian is a multi-protocol instant messaging client that allows you to connect to multiple IM accounts at one time.   However, we’re not using Trillian to connect to an IM service.   We are using Trillian to monitor our incoming email to the Gmail that are forwarded from Google Voice as incoming text messages are received. Yes, it sounds odd, I know, but bear with me here.   It will make more sense in a minute.   When you set up Trillian, you will want to use the Gmail account for a Google Talk account.   We won’t be chatting with our Google Talk account, but only using it as a way to get our Gmail notifications through Trillian.   Once you have the Google Talk account set up in Trillian, look at the Miscellaneous settings and make sure all boxes are checked as shown below.

Make sure you check the boxes on the Miscelaneous screen for your Gmail account


You can set up Trillian to check your email to certain accounts.   You can also customize the notification windows and sound alerts in Trillain. Since we are staffing our texting service at the reference desk, we needed an alert to notify us when an incoming text arrived.   In the advanced options of Trillian you can customize sound alerts and on-screen notifications.   Trillian will play any WAV file as a notification, so we chose the first 5 seconds of U2’s Mysterious Ways (it’s a cool service, so we needed a cool song) . Like I said before, we set the service up in a day; we’ll get more clever with our song choice down the road.   One colleague has suggested Help by the Beatles, and others have requested that we do a 12 Days of Christmas theme closer to the holidays.   It doesn’t matter what song you choose, as long as it’s loud enough to be heard and recognized above other distractions at the reference desk.   Regardless, choose a song that is fun!   I love getting text messages while helping other in-person patrons at the desk, as they inevitably ask “What’s That??!??”, and it’s a great opportunity to pitch the service to them.   The images below demonstrate how to set this up.

On the Advance Preferences screen, click on "Automation" and look for the New Mail Event

Check the box that says "Local File", then browse to the WAV file on your hard drive.

So how does all this work?

After all that convoluted setup, you’re probably wondering how in the world all this works.   Or, you’re likely willing to say “to heck with this” and pay some company $1200 a year for a text messaging reference service.     Don’t get your your checkbook yet.   Here is how it all works together.

1.   Patron sends a text message to our Google Voice number, which we have displayed on our website.

2.   Google Voice receives the text message and forwards it on to our Gmail email address.

3.   Trillian recognizes that a new email has arrived to our Gmail account, and notifies us with a desktop alert and by playing U2’s Mysterious Ways. (make sure your speakers are on!!!)

4.   Librarian goes to the Google Voice inbox via a web browser to retrieve and respond to the text message (sometimes this requires refreshing the page to see the most current message).   We have a tab in Firefox open to Google Voice at the reference desk all the time.

5.   If the patron responds back, the process goes back to step #1 .

Without Gmail, Trillian, and U2, the librarian would have to check the Google Voice account by refreshing the page to see if new texts had arrived.   How many times could we expect a staff member to do this each hour?   Likely, it would be forgotten, so instead, Gmail, Trillian, and U2 automatically notify us when a new text message arrives.   In other words, Google Voice is our text messaging device (or phone, if you will), Gmail is the service provider (much like At&T) , and Trillian and U2 are the ringer.

So does it work?

You bet it does!   In our first month of service (September 2010) we answered 54 questions with our brand new text message reference service.   This is compared to 110 email questions and 713 chat/IM questions.   Overall, text message questions comprised 1.2% of our total questions received by our Reference Department.     That may not seem like a lot, but we are quite pleased with the results.   That’s 54 more text messaging questions than we have ever answered before, and we didn’t have to spend any money to do it.   I’d say our initial return on investment is pretty good.   😉

See it in acton

If you still have your doubts, the video below demonstrates how the service works and how a librarian answers a question.

Yes, IM is still a great way for patrons to reach you

I work every Monday night. The business students all know that I work every Monday night, as my hours are posted on my Contact Page, and I tell them in every class I teach when I work. So here is what one Monday night looked like a few weeks ago, between 6:00 and 7:30.

Busy Night on IM

Yep, that’s a lot of IMs. My fingers were going crazy. I was in my office monitoring our general IM/chat reference service, but I also had my own IM open as well. You know what’s funny?   Nearly all of those students were in our group study rooms about 150 feet from my office. They could have just come to my office to ask a question, and actually a few other students did. But these students chose to contact me in a way that worked for them.   Wonder what would happen if I didn’t make myself available via IM?   I would bet that most of those questions would have gone unanswered, and I would have lost a valuable customer.   How are you making yourself available to your patrons?

Smartphone owners price-shop while in retail stores? Say it ain’t so!

This is likely not news to anyone who owns a smartphone such as a Palm Pre, Blackberry, Droid, or iPhone, but a recent study says that shoppers look at competitors’ prices while shopping in retail stores.

A survey from the researchers, covering the third quarter of 2009, suggested that 52% of smartphone owners use their handsets to check product descriptions, that 36% check rival retailers’ prices when deciding whether or not to buy a product, and that 34% used “m-commerce” channels to make purchases.

An analyst for eMarketer suggests, “A retailer’s best defense for maintaining customer loyalty is to develop a mobile offering that allows in-store shoppers access to customer reviews and other product information on its website.”

Actually, the best way to keep me as a customer is not so show me a flashy mobile website.   To keep me in the store, honor the competitor’s price that I find on the web.   While Christmas shopping in December, my wife and I went to Border’s to find the Julia Child cookbook for her mother.   While shopping in store, I pulled up the book on Amazon, who had the book priced at least 10 dollars cheaper.   I showed the price to a clerk, who simply shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Yeah, it’s cheaper there.”   We walked out empty handed.   Now I know not everyone can honor the deep discount pricing of Amazon, but give me something.   Maybe 20 percent off my next purchase, a free cup of coffee, something to entice me to buy your product when I find a better price, something to get me to come back to the store again.   My local bike shop is competitive on some things, but generally the bigger online retailers such as Nashbar and Performance beat them on price.   However, they make up for the price disparity with the service they provide.   They answer my questions, and if I ever have a problem with something I buy there, they take care of me. If I need a product they don’t stock, they’ll generally order it for me. They may not be able to match the prices, but they offer perks.   Other retailers should do the same thing, or the next time I find a better price on my phone, I’ll be leaving the store empty handed again.

So maybe this is why no one uses our Skype Reference Service

In his latest column in Time Magazine, Joel Stein writes why people don’t like video phones.

Even though Skype is the only one of all the cool gadgets that cartoons promised me would exist by 2010, people don’t seem nearly as excited as they should be. Only 34% of Skype calls even use video. And when Skype announced on Jan. 5 at the Consumer Electronics Show that we’ll soon have videophones on our televisions, everyone went right back to talking about which booths gave out the best key-chain lights.


OHIO Libraries Skype Reference

OHIO Libraries Skype Reference

We’ve been using Skype as a reference option for quite some time. At one point in time, people in library land were really hot about what we were doing with the service.  It had great potential, was free, and was easy enough for anyone to set up.  Despite the growth of Skype and its popularity on some television shows (Oprah and Who Wants to be a Millionaire) I can count on one hand the number of Skype calls we get each month.  The questions that we do get are almost always text/IM questions, which is something that can be handled by Meebo widgets and other popular IM services.  We almost never got questions with our Skype Kiosk, even after trying several different staffing models and user interfaces.  This past fall, we pulled the plug on our Skype Reference Kiosk, although we still offer Skype as an option for our general Ask-a-Librarian service. (Update 12/8/2011:  We no longer have Skype listed as a contact option on our website due to extremely low use).

In his article, Joel says that he likes to zone out or multitask when talking on the phone.  When you’re on the phone with someone, you can check your email, flip the TV channels, start up a video game, do the dishes, all while “listening” to what the other person has to say.  With video calling applications, you have to actually look at the person talking to you and actually pay attention.  This could be one reason why our Skype video reference service has not been popular.  It’s been my experience while helping students with IM questions is that they often take a while to respond after you have sent them a message or an answer.  It’s not that they are pondering what I have sent them with such deep thought that they are taking a long time to respond.  Generally they may be checking out the page that I sent them, while chatting with me, while answering a text, listening to music, checking out pictures on Facebook, IMing their non-librarian friends, and typing a paper.  Imagine dropping all of that fun stuff just to talk to a librarian face-to-face via video calling.  If our patrons wanted to call us with Skype video, they would have to change their communication styles.  In other words, they would have to be, like, attentive, or like, something, and like, do only one thing at once.  😉  Stein argues “as far as the full-contact listening that Skype requires, I don’t think we want that all that often from people who aren’t already in our house.”

Stein also mentions that people have shifted away from using the phone to even talk to each other.  “People are not only uninterested in Skype, we’re also not interested in talking on the regular phone. We want to TiVo our lives, avoiding real time by texting or e-mailing people when we feel like it.”  In other words, you text or email people because you don’t necessarily have to talk to a person right away, nor do you expect an answer right away.  Likewise, texting and  emailing puts you in control of when you respond, allowing you to shift the time of the conversation, to “talk” when you want.

I see people using Skype on a daily basis in our Learning Commons.  They’re usually, though not always, international students checking in with the folks back home.  They use the built-in camera on their laptops and headphone/mics to talk to friends an relatives. It’s a great way to check in with people, to let them know how you are doing, and to let them see you in person.  It’s the perfect way for your mom to tell you that “it looks like you’re not eating enough or getting enough sleep” without actually being in the same room.  It’s also a great way to check out your sister’s new haircut or to connect with a BFF at another school.  However, as much as we try, librarians are not going to be BFFs with our patrons, and maybe they don’t really want to see us when they talk to us.  I thought for a long time that maybe our service was ahead of the bleeding edge and that our patrons would eventually catch up as they adopted new technologies.  But even as much as Oprah, Ellen, or Meredith use the Skype video service and  promote it, and as much as Skype grows in popularity, our patrons may never be comfortable enough to want to call us face-to-face.

In many circles, our experiment with Skype video reference might be considered a failure.  At my library, we tend to try something while studying it, rather than study it for ages before attempting something new.  While we didn’t get the results we expected with our video kiosk experiment, setting up the service cost us almost nothing.  In the process, we learned about video calling software options, how to configure pages to close automatically with javascript,  discovered how flaky wireless connections and computer applications can be, and much more.  We also learned to be flexible, patient, and try different things to improve the service.   I’m sure others have learned through our experience as well, as my former colleague Char Booth has shared our Skype reference story through numerous presentations and publications.  I believe our experiences with the service have prepared us well for our next technology/reference endeavor (whatever that may be), and you can’t put a price on that knowledge.  Did the service fail?  It all depends on how you measure your return on investment.

Watch your Flip videos in your living room

Flipshare TV: Flip Videos on Your  TV

Flipshare TV: Flip Videos on Your TV

I got an email last week announcing a new gadget/service from Flip called Flipshare TV.   The new gadget, retailing for $149.99 , allows you to stream your videos from your computer to your TV, without the need for setting up a streaming media server or a wireless network.   A move like this for Flip makes a lot of sense, particularly after being acquired by Cisco this year.

Tech enthusiasts may say, “So what, I can already do that.”   As a matter of fact, I can stream videos off my home computer to my TV with my Xbox 360.   The PS3 can also do this. However, Flip’s M.O. has always been making video easy, and this is another step in that direction.

What I think is particularly cool about the gadget is that it will allow users to share video with friends and family who also have the device.   Of course you can also do this with YouTube or a family blog, but that tethers the viewers to the computer screen.   FlipShare TV would allow the grandparents to simply launch the device and watch the latest videos of the kids on the big screen.

While many may still argue that the video and sound quality of the Flip cameras are “not that great”, I still believe the cameras really make it easy for normal folks to create quick videos easily.   I’ve owned a MiniDV camcorder for 5.5 years, and I’ve only used about 11 hours of tape with the camera.   Since getting my Flip Mino 18 months ago, I’ve shot a lot more video and shared a lot more movies.   The ease of use, plus the simple to learn software, make the Flip a great tool for sharing video.   And now, with the Flip TV gadget, sharing video will only get easier.   I’m curious to see how Flip/Cisco will market the device and how well it will be received.

Disclosure:   The email I received from Flip was to sell me the service.   I have not yet tried the service, and have received nothing from Flip to write this post.   I merely think the service/gadget looks promising, and will likely enhance Flip’s camcorder offerings.

Update:   I just found a nice review with an actual test of the product on All Things Digital.   If you’re curious as to how the Flipshare TV works, definitely check it out.