From November 2006 to June 2007, I was lucky enough to project manage a trial IM reference service at my former POW, which ran in conjunction with National and State Libraries Australia’s AskNow virtual reference service. An article on the trial was published in the May 2007 issue of Australian Library Journal, and you can check out a pre-print on the NLA website.
The trial was a great opportunity to really test the viability of the concept of IM reference, and to nut out the logistics of operating IM reference in a geographically dispersed collaborative. We collected quite a significant body of data related to user and staff experiences as well as usage trends. During the trial, we interacted with users in more than 1400 sessions, and we conducted in-depth analysis of over 600 of those transcripts.
The result? We proved that there is absolutely a demand for IM reference and that the ‘presence’ characteristic of IM can lead to increased repeat usage and can facilitate true point-of-need assistance. What we also proved, though, was that it’s not feasible to operate a large scale, high usage virtual reference service without some of the functionality we’re used to seeing in proprietary chat reference tools, such as queuing or routing of users and the ability to have multiple librarians servicing incoming sessions.
So, where to next? Well, as part of the trial, we developed a system architecture for collaborative IM reference. Part of this architecture needs to be built, while open source solutions are available for other components (like a Jabber IM server). NLA developers are currently working on developing the routing module that forms the core component of the architecture.
Stay tuned for an update on the status of the NLA project at VALA 2008.
Have other libraries had similar experiences with IM? I’d love to hear about the challenges and triumphs other libraries have encountered. Leave your thoughts in the comments or drop me an email.