IM, Virtual Reference, and Podcasting Survey

While the details have yet to be ironed out, sometime this summer the Ohio University Libraries will have a pilot program of providing reference via Instant Messaging. We have been thinking about this for some time, and by now my colleagues are probably getting very tired of me forwarding links from Michael, Aaron, Bill, Sarah, and others.

To evaluate the need for the service, we used the same questions that were used by Sherri Vokey for the UNLV survey, plus added a few of our own. In one week’s time 302 people answered our survey, and the results are very similar to what Sherri found. By comparing our results with Sherri’s, one can definitely see the need for IM reference, and the need is the same in Ohio or Nevada or wherever.

Some highlights from our respondents:

75.8% indicated a status of undergraduate, 21.9% were graduate students
96.7% of all respondents use IM
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

In addition to inquiring about IM usage, I was also curious to explore other technology usage patterns:

59% own iPods or other mp3 players
6.3% (19 out of 302) had downloaded a podcast
60.3% (182 out of 302) wondered “what in the world is a podcast”
86.4% own cell phones
53.6% use cell phones to send text messages

I was not really surprised by any of the answers, with the exception of the responses to the question about podcasting. With all of the hype about podcasting in the blogosphere right now, I had thought that more of our students would have downloaded podcasts. I can definitely see the value in creating library content in the form of a podcast, but am concerned that if we create it, will anyone listen to it? On our campus, our library patrons will definitely need to be educated about the availability of podcast content. Perhaps this is an idea that will require further exploration this summer. One thing that I would like to know is download stats for libraries that are podcasting. Does anyone have any idea how much your library’s podcast is being used?

While the numbers may dictate that podcasting is not the most pressing need on our campus, IM reference definitely deserves a great deal of consideration. To prepare for our pilot program, I have been helping my colleagues set up accounts with Yahoo! and AIM. We are currently using Trillian to connect to both services through a common interface. We have been messing around in the office to practice using the software, adding buddies, and sending files. Thus far, most of my colleagues seem open to the idea, particularly when I show the results of the survey.

One thing that we have not addressed is whether to install the actual IM clients for AIM and Yahoo on our public computers. Currently the only option for users of IM in the library is for them to use the web versions of the clients. Our survey indicates that many would prefer “to download the actual instant messenger system on the computers because sometimes using the AIM express is a hassle and doesn’t always work.” The primary problem I see with using the desktop application is that patrons may forget to close and log out of the program. Another concern is the little box that you can check that tells the app to “remember my login information.” I would be interested to see if this is a problem with other libraries, or if they worry about it at all.

While most of the respondents seemed enthusiastic about the idea, there were a few who weren’t so keen on us using technology to expand services. One person writes:

I have no idea what this survey is about so how about instead of giving help via IM you just staff the library better so it’s easier to find qualified help in person.

Another voiced concern over IM reference forcing librarians out of a job:

I think that the instant messaging service sounds like a good idea. However, I’d probably just come to the desk and ask in person. (Also, creating an instant messenger service would, as I see it, lessen the need for face to face interaction with research help. or in other words, lessen the need for reference librarians. Not good. Especially for you guys. and I’m rambling… but seriously, watch out ’cause people nowadays don’t feel like they need librarians. they can just “get it off the internet”.)

I am not sure whom this person expects to answer the IM questions, but it raises the issue of educating folks about what we do. However, it does sort of give you a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that patrons actually care about our job security.

With these two comments and a few others aside, most agreed that IM would be a valuable service to add:

IM will be a better way to communicate with librarians. As students are more familiar with IM services than the current way. This will increase usage as people will not be intimidated or turned off by inability to use the current service. (sometimes the applet simply does not show up)

I’ll write more about our project as soon as we launch the service. The UNLV Libraries will be also be launching their service very soon, and I am sure that Sherri will report about their successes on at schwagbag.

7 thoughts on “IM, Virtual Reference, and Podcasting Survey

  1. Hello
    I am interested in hearing how your pilot project works out. I work at Binghamton University and we have also just started a pilot instant messaging reference service. Like you, we prepared librarians by setting them up with IM accounts (yahoo) and getting them to use Trillian.

    We do not allow patrons to download IM software to the library computers but we provide links to the web versions of the clients (

    I think one of our biggest challenges right now is figuring out how to staff the IM service along side the “in person”, phone, email and chat (we also use docteck) reference services. This is not a huge problem in the summer while traffic is light but it may become more difficult in the fall.


  2. great survey! more data to add to my presentation trying to convince colleagues that using IM for chat reference is a good idea. i think education and marketing for both the IM and potential podcasts are essential. drop me an email and i’ll give you some stats etc from my podcasting experiences. too lengthy to go into in comments.

  3. Chad, does your library currently have a virtual reference service, or will IM be *it*? I hope you keep reporting on how it goes!

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