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.

14 thoughts on “Implementing a text messaging reference service on the cheap

  1. Chad, this is an excellent writeup! I had been working on my own writeup for using Google Voice for text reference, but the inclusion of Trillian is an excellent way to keep on top of incoming texts (and a way better way than I could think of). While I’m sad to scrap my own work on this, your writeup is absolutely perfect for implementation and use for the idea.

    Kudos to you and your library for doing this!

  2. Use Thunderbird! That’s what we did at my library. This way, you don’t have to log into Google Voice every time to read your messages! You also get that little BONK notification every time you get a new message. All we’re dealing with here are email messages. Why reinvent the wheel? Thunderbird will keep track of the threads and allow you to read and respond without having to bother with steps 3 and 4. Also, stored contacts? Can you say free text messaging marketing!?

  3. @Mark Lesniak
    Thanks for stopping by, Mark. One of the advantages to using Google Voice to respond is the built-in character count. Because GV counts each character typed, you are guaranteed to get your response to the person in 160 character chunks. However, as you and your library show, there is definitely more than one way to do this. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us.

  4. @Chad
    True, true. It’s definitely better than telling my staff to “keep it short!” Hah! But one thing I’ve noticed is that if you go beyond the 160 character limit, the email client way of doing this just continues in subsequent text messages.

    You know, it amazes me that more libraries aren’t doing this. I think this took me all of about fifteen minutes to set up. And you really don’t even have to understand much of anything. I’m gonna have to check back with you to see if you come up with any other sweet ideas. And hey, if you can find a free way to get a mobile site to generate an SMS message by clicking a phone number, let me know! I’ve been tooling around with that to no avail. And I’m not buying an SMS gateway!

  5. I agree that it is best not to invest much money into this service. I am hesitant to go with Google Voice though. I’ve heard a lot of libraries complain that there are long delays as the message travels from the patron to the library and vice versa when using Google Voice. One library indicated that they were tracking delays of up to 13 minutes between messages. What is your experience with this and how do you feel the patron will feel about such a delayed response rate?

  6. @Casey Long
    Hi Casey, We haven’t had any issues with delays thus far. Since we are routing the Google Voice through a Gmail account (as opposed to a separate account like Yahoo, or the reference email) the response seems to be very quick. We recently had a patron who texted back and forth with us with 67 separate text messages, almost as if it was an IM exchange. I’m assuming that is there was a delay, he would not have been so patient as to text us 67 times. Having said that, it’s very much a pilot project, so we’ll see how it goes. Sometimes with “free”, you get what you pay for. I’m hoping the service holds up, but only time will tell. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  7. Chad, what a write-up! We are looking to implement this service at our library, and have been tinkering around with the process you describe.

    One question has come up, though, that we don’t seem to be able to answer on our own. Is routing texts from Google Voice to GMail (or any other e-mail client) necessary? In our limited experiments, we seem to be able to do everything necessary directly from Google Voice–send and respond to texts. And Trillian is a great notifier. Are we missing something?

  8. Sheepish me…read to the bottom and saw that you already answered our question directly in your text. So thorough! Too bad the comments don’t have a “delete” button 🙂

  9. Congrats on the great summary, Chad! I’m going to cite in my forthcoming book, since it’s the clearest explanation of frugal service, and I’m tired of hearing “we can’t afford it” or “it’s too high tech”.

  10. Thanks for explaining this Chad. I’ve already set it up for our libraray. Have you found any way to send an auto-reply to texts when your library is closed? I’d love to be able to send a message like “sorry, we can’t answer your text right now because we are closed” but I haven’t been able to figure it out.

  11. @Wendy Good
    Hi Wendy, I haven’t tried this yet, so take it for what it’s worth. What if you set up an auto-repy “we’re closed” email in Gmail. In theory (again, untested) Gmail would reply back to the SMS number with the auto message when someone texts your library service. Try this, and please let us know if it works.

  12. Great stuff.
    Any reason you couldn’t monitor text messages/emails with Meebo along with IMs? Perhaps you wanted to keep texts separate to more easily tally stats? Or maybe Trillian settings are better for this?

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