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?

You’ve got to know when to fold ’em

You’ve got to know when to walk away, or know when to run….

I’ve worked with some interesting patrons lately.   As a reference librarian, I love to help people find answers to their questions, and I really love helping them with business research.   The thing I love most about business research is that there is no one place to look for business research questions.   I tell my students there is no Walmart for business information; you have to go shopping all over town.

Now this analogy can backfire, and I’ll tell you why.   With the thousands of dollars that we spend for business databases, books, and journals, there comes the inherent expectation that every single piece of knowledge about a company, industry, or product ought to be available somewhere (and it ought to be available online).   Most librarians will tell you that it’s impossible to have everything online, and most business folks should know that companies only disclose what they have to or what they want to.     This makes the search for business information a little tricky.   How long, deep, far do you look for information before you decide that the information you are looking for does not exist?   When do you decide that the information is impossible to find when you’ve tried and tried and you still haven’t found what you’re looking for?   (You can start humming U2 now if you wish 😉 ).

Last night I met with two students who were looking for information about donut, bagel, and pastry shops.   One thing they wanted to know was the sales mix of products for a typical Dunkin Donuts store.   Basically they wanted to know how many donuts, muffins, coffee, bagels, english muffins, etc were sold at each store, with a percentage of sales for each product.   You know who knows that?   Dunkin Donuts.   You know who else knows that? Yeah, me neither.   Fact of the matter is, Dunkin Donuts is likely to keep those cards pretty close to the chest, as it is not in the company’s best interest for other companies to know what their top sellers are.   Now occasionally you’ll find a press release or an article in a trade publication that mentions how sales have increased in a product category, but they’re not likely to give you information for the whole restaurant.

This is typically easy to explain to students, but sometimes they still don’t stop looking.   They’ve got it in their heads that their projects will not be complete without that one piece of information, and perhaps their argument or recommendations are based on finding that one needle in a haystack.   When I get questions such as the donuts sales mix, I will try my best with to work with the students to find what they are looking for, because I don’t know everything and occasionally the best report ever will be available in IbisWorld or Hoover’s or Business Source Complete.   However, most times I steer them toward the information that is available, while teaching them a bit about the nature of information, and why sometimes information is sacred.   It’s tough sometimes letting a student down, but part of doing tough research is knowing when to walk away.

So, dear readers, how far do you go before you decide the information you’re looking for is not generally available?   Do you have a checklist so you cover all of your bases?   Or do you simply spend a certain amount of time before you give up?   If you have tips that work, please leave a comment on this post and share your insight with others.

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