Technology and Libraries – Getting Started With Virtual Reference
Systems & Technology Librarian
Schaffer Library of Health Sciences
Albany Medical College
Getting Started With Virtual Reference
Lately there have been more choices, resulting in more libraries offering chat reference. Aggregate IM clients, such as Trillian or Meebo, permit people to be on multiple services (AOL, Yahoo, Google Chat, etc.) simultaneously. They are also free, which permits people to try them out without making a service commitment. Certain clients, such as Meebo, are web-based and do not require a download, which could be an advantage in libraries where downloads are restricted. Products can be embedded into web pages in some cases, enabling libraries to reach users wherever they might be. Patrons do not even have to download a product in many cases; they can simply type a message to librarians directly from the library’s web page.
Having used IM reference in two libraries, I have noticed some things that users might want to consider when getting started. These opinions are only mine, and would surely vary by individual.
First, does your library want to answer questions only from your patrons, or join a cooperative and share the job with fellow libraries? Joining with other libraries can expand the hours the service is offered to patrons, but might require answering questions on unfamiliar topics. Organization is required between the libraries, and chat policies might vary by institution.
Second, the technological considerations of your particular environment should be considered. Can staff download software? Are there firewalls in place that might make outside communication difficult? IM programs have gotten more flexible, with more web-based services than ever before. Also, how stable is the product? Internet research, journal literature, and asking colleagues at other libraries are good ways to ferret information out ahead of time.
Next, do you want a service that saves your questions? Some products (typically paid ones) are better at storing chat transcripts than others.
Other things to consider are training time/materials needed (paid services provide this, while free ones typically do not), what types of questions to answer (short versus more in-depth questions), and how to promote the service once the library goes live with it.
These are by no means all of the considerations or challenges that a library faces when implementing virtual reference, but some things to think about. It is a service in many ways similar to traditional face-to-face reference, but with different challenges. Today’s college students (and medical students) have grown up with this type of communication, and it is a good option for libraries to consider in their reference arsenal.