Is virtual reference successful? Part III (Hint: yes it is)
In parts one and two I raised a series of objections to Pascal Lupien’s article in Online, “Virtual Reference in the Age of Pop-Up Blockers, Firewalls, and Service Pack 2“
In part three I’d like to address the end of the article where Lupien makes a case for using IM instead of standard VR software to do virtual reference. In fact, I agree with all of Lupien’s main points:
- IM is generally free.
- It is easy to use, from the patron’s perspective as well as on the library side
- Unlike VR software, IM works with most computers, operating systems, and connection speeds.
- It does not require the patron to download software or configure a browser.
- [IM is] faster, as patrons who already use an IM system can simply add the library service to their list of “buddies” and message a librarian when they require assistance.
Not only do I find IM to be a perfectly good tool for reference work, I think it is quickly becoming (has become?) a standard mode of communication that every library should consider offering as a point of contact for their customers. Libraries, get an AIM Screenname, get a yahoo ID, sign up for Meebo, (maybe add the MeeboMe widget to your webpage) and start chatting with your customers!
But why limit IM to reference? We don’t limit the phone to reference, do we? IM is just another way for our customers to contact us. Larger libraries can give each department their own IM identities, (i.e. “extensions”) and let the customer choose which department to connect with. If a session needs to be ‘tranfered’ to another department, library staff can invite the customer and someone from the correct department into a new chat room, and viola! the session has been tranfered. So many of our customers are on their computers all day (and night) it just makes good sense to give them a quick, convenient option for contacting us.
But back to the article. Although I agree with everything Lupien wrote about the benefits of using IM to do virtual reference, he doesn’t address the key reasons many VR services don’t use it. These reasons were brought up in a great discussion about “The Future of IM” that took place on the digref listserv last month. (follow the link, then scroll down to the ‘future of IM’ thread to read the whole megillah.)
Caleb Tucker-Raymond, who expertly manages Oregon’s VR service, started the thread and summed up some of the key points in this post, excerpted below:
- Sarah Houghton mentioned multiple librarians need to be able to monitor a single screen name.
- Jean Ferguson said that she that her campus enterprise IM software (Jabber) doesn’t talk to commercial IM networks (like AOL).
- Jean also mentioned the need for a solution for the patron without an account (such as, come in anonymously over the web)
All true, all true. But Sharon Morris, until recently the VR Coordinator for AskColorado (congrats on the new job Sharon!) hit the collaborative VR software nail squarely on its pointed little head when she wrote:
24/7 availability is essential to making libraries accessible anywhere, anytime on the Internet. IM at this point does not offer the extra staffing/cooperation model that makes VR such an amazing step forward for library services on the Internet. (emphasis is mine.)
VR software gives us the power to collaborate. That gives us the power to offer 24/7 service and THAT makes customers (and the press) sit up and take notice. It also gives regional and statewide VR collaboratives the ability to market a single, powerful, expectation-busting, W-O-W, library service. We don’t get opportunities like that every day. Bottom line: Beyond the fact that VR software gives us the power to offer convenient, relevant, 24/7 service, it gives us the power to change peoples’ perceptions about libraries. I would argue that we have done just that. In my book that far outweighs any of the downsides that Lupien raised about the bugginess and technical limitations of VR software. Perhaps I should say, far outweighs for now…
One final, more personal point before wrapping this up. I’m unhappy with the snarky tone I took in responding to Lupien’s article in part one, and I realize it was not productive to take such a tone. It came partly from writing much to late, while far too tired, and partly from my own deep wish for librarians to stay focused on the bigger picture of customer experience, and my perception that the article lacked that focus (whether it did or didn’t, dear reader, you may decide.) I am not trying to make excuses for my snarkiness, just offering a little self-reflection from a nascent blogger, tinged with a bit of regret. I will try to do better.
I am convinced that Pascal Lupien cares deeply about the vitality and relevance of libraries and the importance of customer experience. I recently found a copy of his presentation, (along with Lorna Rourke) Adding a Personal Touch to a Virtual World, presented at Computers in Libraries, 2006. This presentation gave me a fuller picture of Pascal Lupien’s attitudes, concerns, and values and I found myself nodding in almost constant appreciation and agreement with his work.
OK, that’s all I’ll be posting about VR for now. Back to customer service!