IM Versus Web-based Chat

There has been a great deal of chatter (pun intented) around the blogosphere about IM versus Web-based Chat. It began with Aaron at Walking Paper linking to an a blog post that analyzes an article that he co-authored with Sarah the LiB. Stephen Francoeur puts in his two cents here and links to another analysis here. My, how this stuff gets around. And on a Friday of all times.

There has been enough analysis of the article, so I’ll opt out on commenting too much on it. Overall, I think it was a good piece that briefly covers the two types of services. It is a good read for librarians looking to start a virtual reference service. Some have criticized the article as not being very deep, but, as Aaron mentioned, he and Sarah only had so much room to tell the story. Some critics are arguing against the either/or approach in support of using a combination of IM and web-based reference. Both services have their pros and cons, as the article clearly illustrates. For the time being, our library intends to try both services because at this time, it is our opinion that neither service delivers a true technical knockout.

Our library currently uses a web-base chat service as part of the OhioLINK consortia. We monitor a queue for our library, as well as take part in staffing the service for the state. The state service is staffed until 9 am-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 9-5 Friday, and 1-5 on Saturday. When the service is not in session, the patrons will roll over to the public library’s statewide Know-it-Now program, which is staffed 24/7. While both services are working great, the results of Sherri’s survey and my library’s survey indicate that there may be a need to compliment web-based chat with IM. The data indicates that some patrons might be more likely to IM a reference librarian, as IM is something that they use anyway. So in our case, it is not an “either/or” decision, but a “both”.

Another reason that we are going the IM route is to serve our own patrons when the OhioLINK service is closed. We have an information commons that is open 24/5, and our nightime staff will be monitoring the IM service. It should be interesting to see how much business we get in the wee hours of the evening, and it will be even more interesting to compare daytime usage of both services. I’ll be writing about this as soon as we get more into the IM program, which is due to launch in the middle of July.

I, like many, could blast our current third party web-based chat service. When we first started the service, the software had all kinds of options. Automessages, pushing pages, co-browsing, and emaling transcripts were all possible. Now, for incompatibilities with browsers, pop-up blockers, and operating systems, co-browsing is no longer an option, and success is sporadic when pushing pages. Basically, we are now reduced to an inflated version of IM. Granted, the software works to communicate text messages, but that is about it.

So how come we don’t just abandon it? Well, basically, despite it’s flaws, the client we are using still manages to get the job done. Patrons still continue to use the service, and we are able to help them with the information that they need. Not everyone uses IM, so web-based chat may be the only option for them to Ask-A-Librarian in the virtual world. Will this be the case in the years to come? Only time will tell. Will our IM service replace our web-based service? We’ll just have to wait and see. One thing is clear, is that libraries are starting to investigate other options for reaching their patrons. As stated in the article:

Web-based chat software designers are going to have to massively rethink their products over the next few years or they will quickly become obsolete as more and more lihrarians realize that other alternatives, of which IM is only the first, offer a much better reference environment for their users.

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One Response to IM Versus Web-based Chat

  1. Wade says:

    Hey Chad,
    Great discussion… I just read the _ONLINE_ article and, as you know, have been thinking about this myself in the OhioLINK context. Do you think we could make this the major focus of our August 19th WebRef meeting? Will you be able to be there?

    -Wade