IM Reference Update

It’s been a while since I’ve given any real updates on our Instant Messaging reference service, but I’m finally getting around to it. I am sure you all can sympathize, as LTB (life trumps blogging), or in my case, BSRQTB (Business Student Reference Questions Trump Blogging). This post will be a walk-through of how we got started with IM reference.

I first became interested about using IM in reference about a year ago. I started giving out my IM screenname to business students in the library instruction classes that I taught. In the course of one quarter (about 10 weeks) I got about 20 questions from business students. I thought that was pretty good, considering that I did not have any set hours that I would definitely be at my desk. IM was just another way to catch me.

In the spring of this year, I started paying more attention to some bloggers who were writing about IM in reference. In particular, Librarian in Black, Tame the Web, Schwagbag, and Walking Paper all provided good information on the topic. Based upon my experiences, and on the experiences of others, I started talking up the idea with some of my colleagues. My colleagues are all great and needed very little convincing.

We decided to do a little research to see if Instant Messaging was even a viable option for expanding our reference services. We put a link on our home page in big bold red lettering that simply asked, “Do you use IM?”. The link pointed folks to a survey, where we asked them about IM and web-chat usage. I contacted Sherri Volkey to see if she would mind if I stole used her questions from her survey at UNLV, and she agreed. In a week’s time, we had 302 people answer our survey. Some highlights of the results are:

  • 75.8% indicated a status of undergraduate, 21.9% were graduate students
  • 96.7% of all respondents use IM (Granted, the link on our home page asked them if they did.)
  • 84.8% use AOL, 24.5% use Yahoo!, 25.5% use MSN
  • 75.8% have NOT use our Chat Reference Service
  • 87.4% said they would contact a Librarian via IM

The last two numbers pretty much convinced us that we needed to at least try Instant Messaging as a reference service. To prepare and practice for the service, each of my colleagues created Yahoo! and AIM screennames and installed Trillian. We practiced for a few weeks in the office to get comfortable with Trillian and IM. Basically, we would just IM each other instead of hollering over the cubicle walls to communicate. Many of us practiced sending URL’s and sharing files over IM. After the exposure, many of my colleagues have begun using IM more for their personal communication, in addition to reference services.

We started our IM reference service began as a pilot in July of this year. We called it a “pilot” to give us a little wiggle room in case we failed miserably, but by August we were fully committed to using IM in our reference services. Our first method of marketing the service was through our first-year-student orientation. One of my colleagues had the fantastic idea that the library would serve lemonade to students during the orientation sessions. When students came through the library on their campus tours, we gave them some ice cold lemonade. This gave us some time to talk to them about library services, and we gave them all bookmarks that had our reference screennames on them. In addition to this method of marketing, we added an IM screenshot to our screensaver’s (discussed in a previous post), and we link to our IM and other reference services at the top of every single library web page.

I’ve compiled our virtual reference statistics for September and October, and thus far, we’ve had a good deal of business. We’re still staffing a web-based chat service as well, and the two service are working together quite nicely. We’re staffing IM reference 24 hours a day, five days a week, (which is the same hours as our Learning Commons), in addition to hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We’re staffing our web-based chat service from 9-9 Monday thru Thursday, 8-5 on Friday. Our stats are as follows:


  • 104 web-chat transactions
  • 242 IM transactions


  • 100 web-chat transactions
  • 271 IM transactions

We’ve been pretty busy, although not too terribly overwhelmed. We have one staff member monitoring both IM and chat each hour. Nights and weekends we monitor the service at the desk. Occasionally you might have two or three IM’s/chats going on at once, but usually it’s pretty manageable. The questions can be all over the map. In a typical hour, one might help a student find the hours to the writing center, help them renew a book, find an article on legalizing marijuana, or help with finding the Buying Power Index for Ohio cities.

We have not measured the quality of the service, and have not really thought about ways to do so. We can only assume that if patrons say “thanks,” then they are at least partly satisfied. I have noticed, however, a number of return users. Frequent customers will show up in your Recent Buddies list, so you can tell if you (or a colleague) has IMed with the person before. I used to work in retail, and in the business world, nothing measures customer satisfaction quite like repeat customers.

Overall, we’ve been very pleased with our first quarter of using Instant Messaging in reference, and we’re looking for additional ways to market and promote the service. Perhaps the most important thing that we can share from our experience is that if you set up and promote an IM service, you will have patrons who use the service. In other words, if you build it, they will come.

3 thoughts on “IM Reference Update

  1. Congrats on your great numbers! I find it really interesting that some of your colleagues started using IM in their personal lives after doing it for the library. Getting educated on the job is awesome.

  2. Hello Chad

    with great interest I have read your article on Instant Messaging. I myself am a librarian from Holland, I work in the public library of Assen.
    One of my colleagues has asked me to investigate the use IM might have for our library. We need to find out whether or not it would be a good idea for us to start using it. After reading your article, I think IM might be interesting for us. But have you encountered any negative effects ? I noticed that it has kept you busy, and that’s one of the reasons why my colleagues think it might not really work, because of all the time it will consume. Can you give some comments on that ? thank you very much !

    All the best from Holland !

    Jolanda, Public Library of Assen

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