IM vs. Chat

Many libraries offer virtual reference using chat software such as Ask a Librarian. Often, libraries providing this service do so through library consortia or state libraries. However, instant messaging reference has found a place in libraries as well.

Why might libraries choose to use instant messaging (IM) instead of chat software?

Some librarians find chat software a hindrance to providing services. Since usually libraries partner to provide the service, the user may not be speaking with a local librarian. Technical problems can result due to a user’s firewall or pop-up blocker, both of which are nearly as common as water nowadays. The software can load slowly, present an unfriendly interface and fail to co-browse depending on the user’s connection (which, to me, is the real draw). 

IM, through Meebo for example, with a local librarian can then be seen as faster and more approachable. Users are fully capable of sending links and files. Plus, there is no need to purchase expensive chat software. Libraries can easily place a chat widget, such as MeeboMe, onto the library website. A quick, friendly, free service…who can argue with that?

Of course, to best serve library customers, the case could and should be made for using both J

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging (or just IM) is ancient compared to other web 2.0 technologies. The real-time nature of IM appeals to users desiring a fast and (nearly) free communication tool.

When I was in college, I used IM regularly. This was a fantastic way to keep in touch with friends during school breaks when we all scattered across the country. And, certainly a great way to avoid long distance fees. Often, our chats would turn into a phone call or vice versa. I must admit there were times when I would be on the phone with one friend and chatting with another online. Multitasking with technology = brilliant.

Since then, I have used IM intermittently for various uses. With IM, I have quickly compared wedding reception locations and shopped for a DJ. I have also used other libraries’ chat services, including Ohio’s KnowItNow. The convenience of IM is wonderful! 

As a reference librarian with the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library, I have staffed Ask a Librarian since January 2006.