Is virtual reference successful? Part III (Hint: yes it is)

August 16, 2006 at 9:44 pm 3 comments

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!

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  • 1. K.G. Schneider  |  August 17, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for Part III. I agree, your tone in this is nicer, and I like that. It’s far more persuasive.

    Having said that, I’m personally not convinced by your arguments. I’d need to believe that collaboration adn 24/7 presence were worth the trade-off in software that is one more tool for people to use and an expensive tool for libraries to buy.

    When I make an appointment with Comcast for new services, they point me to their own chat client. Dell does the same. But that’s because I’m already there. You’re hoping to bring people to the library website and then convince them to use the VR client, instead of taking a popular technology (IM) and infiltrating known spaces for people with that. Knowing what I know about lirbaries, I think that’s backwards.

    Also, I have had too many experiences with buggy library VR clients not to agree with the point about their technical unreliability.

    Still, a good series.

  • 2. caleb  |  August 18, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    A lot of people are saying blithely, “why don’t you just use IM?”, as if they can’t imagine a situation where IM wouldn’t work. What gives?

    I don’t really see “IM” and “VR” as different animals. It’s all about online communication, and for some of us, demand for our services are growing like crazy. For the others, it takes a lot more than software to make a new service a success, and it takes years.

    People have summarized this before, I know, but it’s a moving target.

    Using IM as a tool for chat service has strengths:

    * low training and technical support threshold
    * existing structure of commercial networks
    * personalized
    * people are familiar with the tools and networks are “open” in the sense that you can talk to whoever you want, not just librarians
    * presence notifications (so and so logged in/out/is away right now)

    Using library-vendor VR products as tools also has strengths:

    * resource-sharing
    * existing structures of collaboration, 24/7 service and or e-mail follow-up
    * statistical machinations

    IM has weaknesses

    * terrible patron privacy
    * not always allowed on school and library networks
    * non-IM users get no service (Yes I know about meebome)

    VR tools have weaknesses too

    * a web browser is not usually considered a tool for synchronous communication
    * See Pascal Lupien for a discussion of some apparant technical problems

    And each individual commercial IM or library VR tool also has it’s strengths and weaknesses.

    Will there soon be a tool that combines the best of each kind of tool and scraps the worst of them? Yes.

    Until then, libraries with different needs will make different choices regarding the right chat tool.

  • 3. Pascal Lupien  |  September 8, 2006 at 9:29 am

    I would like to repeat that I appreciate Peter Bromberg’s comments. I looked back at my first response and realized that it may also come across as rather “snarky”, which was not intended. His parts II and III are well written and thoughtful and allowed me to develop a much better understanding of the important points he was trying to make. In any case, it is clear that we are all on the same side when it comes to VR, although we may approach things differently.

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