Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Article Note: Options for reference texting

Citation for the article:

Stahr, Beth. "SMS Library Reference Service Options." Library Hi Tech News Number 3/4 (2009): 13-15.

Read via Emerald.

This is a short piece that outlines some of the advantages and disadvantages of using a short message service (SMS) to provide reference service. It is a pretty light piece, but it caught my eye in part because the decision was made to add Meebo chat widgets to our Research Guides (run by LibGuides; actually, we have struggled with the terminology, is it a LibGuide or a Research Guide or what? In other words, the branding. But that could be a separate post). I think the best way to put it is a quote from Stahr's article: "a possible disadvantage for the library is the requirement for yet another 'virtual service point' to monitor, unless the library already monitors IM" (13). We did not previously monitor IM, but we do participate in the statewide UT System live chat. I will be honest: it seemed the "cool thing" to do, so we moved with it. Could have used a bit more thought, but that is my opinion, and it is a done deal. The point is that it does create yet another thing to monitor. This is also something that I think is not considered in general out in libraries, so this article, by at least mentioning it, opens the way to some discussion and thinking. However, the Meebo thing is not terribly intrusive, at least at this point, when compared to some of the options the article presents.

As I often do, let me make some notes and a comment or two.

  • "Libraries that yearn to reach users should consider text reference service to be as vital and necessary as telephone or email reference service" (13). I know I will probably get named persona non grata by some Mount Ubertech dweller out there, but I am not convinced this kind of service is absolutely vital. I think this is dependent on demographic, size and ability of each individual institution to handle it, and all the costs that can go with it monetary as well as staff labor. And given that Stahr does suggest that an option may be getting a dedicated cellphone for the service, it seems less vital.
  • "Firstly, such a service demonstrates that the library is one the cutting edge of technology, and that it is meeting the needs of all its users, including younger patrons who prefer to communicate via text" (13). I always worry about the equation of being on the cutting edge with meeting patrons needs. As if somehow we are being neglectful if we do not get in the latest bandwagon. This is the kind of thing I have pondered in one form or another for a while (for example, here, here, and over here and over there).
  • The article describes some vendors who will be happy to help you set up some texting service if needed (like these folks or these guys). For some libraries, this may be worth a look. Given you can do a lot with something like a Meebo widget, maybe not. However, with 2.0 online tools, you always have the issue of relying on some third party for the service your library provides. I just came across this post by Meredith Farkas on just that topic, which is worth a look and certainly is food for thought. I have had to deal at least once with 2.0 tools that have proven somewhat unreliable.
  • "Some have questioned whether it is possible to realistically answer library reference questions using short messages. Does the inherent small size of the communication message reduces the efficacy of the text message reference service? While the experience is limited, libraries which have adopted these services all report satisfaction?" (14). I would like to see an actual list or some specific libraries named that are reporting such satisfaction. The author does not provide names in this part of the article to illustrate satisfaction levels. And while there is a references list, is the implication then I have to go look the references up to see who was satisfied? Outside of the brief discussion after this quote about Southeastern Louisiana University's experience with SMS, which by the way is the author's institution, there is little other mention of anyone else. I want testimonials, and I want more than one. I also want to see who was not satisfied and why. Because in the library literature, we often get the success stories, but we rarely get the failures or the accounts of why some service was dropped after not working or meeting expectations. I am sceptical, and I want more evidence. However, I do understand that more substance is likely outside of the purview of the original article.
  • "Regardless of how text message reference service is implemented, marketing is essential to the success of an SMS reference service" (14). This is applicable to just about any new service your library implements, especially for an online service. Whether it is a Facebook library page or the fact you are using some SMS service, you do have to market it, and you have to promote it on every possible venue.
  • "Table tents, posters, online entries and library instruction sessions have all been used to promote such services" (14-15). And I have used every single one of them and some more not listed in the quote in the process. And I have learned a thing or two about marketing in the process as well. Maybe that will be a separate post, some lessons on library marketing I have learned.

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