international IM

This morning I signed in to the library’s MSN screen name for a little Q&A with Rob Coers and a classroom full of students in the Netherlands. We demonstrated how IM reference works, and then had a chance for questions about the process.

I wasn’t surprised that the second thing the students asked was “What do you do if you’re on an IM question and a person approaches you in the building?” This issue seems to be the number one concern every time I talk with librarians about using IM. Rob put it well when he said, “They see this as the only bear in the road.” I particularly like the question, in part because of the assumptions it makes.

Assumption 1: Library users will contact the library through IM.

Clearly being available via IM wouldn’t be a big deal if it wasn’t used, but the “too many patrons” scenario supposes that it will indeed be used. So when librarians ask the question it shows that they think that patrons at least could, or will contact the library via IM.

Assumption 2: We have a status quo, a routine. This new technology/opportunity/task will be disruptive. It might get in the way of providing good service to a patron, and they will possibly get mad that I’m playing on a computer. What gives?

This is a good a point to raise. It shows that we care about our users perceptions of the library, and that we want to make a good impression on them. Chances are that a library won’t face an unmanageable amount of traffic over IM. However, if that were to happen, shouldn’t a library be happy about it? Wouldn’t it indicate that the library is meeting a need that has been previously ignored? Clearly none of us have infinite resources, but it seems like if there was such a demand for IM availability it would be a no-brainer choice. So perhaps this aspect of the “too many patrons” scenario also highlights how defensive we can be about the way things are done. Like Michael and I mention in our IM article, librarians have integrated the telephone and email into reference work, IM is no different.

In practice, there have been a few occasions in which I’ve been simultaneous approached by more than one patrons in multiple formats. We have a first come, first served policy at my place of work, so I had a set guideline by which to operate. In fact, I have used these situations as an opportunity to explain to the meatspace patron about our IM availability. One or two people didn’t quite get it, but more than one have found it to be neat.

4 thoughts on “international IM”

  1. Those are both valid assumptions. Yet the “too many patrons” question is also valid, I think. @ my library, we do IM reference on the desk only when we are double-staffed, but even then, it can be problematic because it’s a very busy ref desk. It kinda stresses the need to have some sort of policy/procedure in place going in. I like your first come-first served policy—ours is meatspace patrons (aside: never did find that term derogatory, always considered it a fine distinction between real and cyber) take precedence over virtual patrons (that goes for IM and phone). So, it means depending on that “away” message a fair bit, which is less than ideal, but makes for manageable workflow.

    I think I’m going to rally for a first come – first served policy!

  2. We’re not using IM but we do have a virtual reference client. To try and avoid too many questions we are scheduled to monitor it at hours when we are not on the in-person&telephone reference desk.

    It works well because I’ve found IM/virtual inquiries can often take a lot longer than phone or in-person. Maybe that’s just the nature of questions we’re getting – we tend to not get quick n’ dirty questions like ‘what time are you open?’.

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