Sunday, January 29, 2006

Implementing an instant message (IM) reference service

After a lot of discussion, the library faculty at my institution decided to offer instant messenging (IM) reference. We started at the beginning of spring semester.

It began when I occasionally forwarded articles about IM and virtual reference to the other librarians. I also brought the topic up in meetings, and we had many a lively discussion about offering reference services through this medium. One issue we discussed was, are IM reference questions less important than in-person questions? I think we ultimately came to the understanding that we cannot judge our users' questions or the means they seek information, but that we should provide the "highest level of service to all library users" and "courteous responses to all requests."

Eventually, the library faculty decided to entertain a proposal for IM reference. We used RUSA's Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference as a model for the proposal. In our discussions and during the drafting of the proposal, I leaned heavily on statistics about IM usage (such as from the Pew Internet & American Life Project) and my own experiences in my previous position.

Since many of the librarians had never IMed before, we all installed Gaim (an IM client that can interface with multipe IM networks) on our computers and practiced IMing among each other for several weeks. I then developed and taught a three-hour IM reference training program for the reference librarians before we went live.

Our IM service is staffed by the reference librarian currently at the reference desk and during the desk's open hours. So far, service has been light, but I believe this is because we have not heavily marketed it. I think eventually it will be heavily used, as it was at the institution I came from.

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