20 Jun 2012

Which Virtual Reference platform for IM?

Meebo has been taken over by Google; key services will be pulled by 11th July, 2012.
This is an unwelcome development for library and information services that are comfortable with Meebo as their virtual reference platform.

What does Virtual Reference mean? The Reference and User Services Association (a division of the ALA) defines VR as follows:
Virtual reference is reference service initiated electronically, often in real-time, where patrons employ computers or other Internet technology to communicate with reference staff, without being physically present. Communication channels used frequently in virtual reference include chat, videoconferencing, Voice over IP, co-browsing, e-mail, and instant messaging (RUSA, 2009).
Meebo Me is an example of the real-time variety, i.e. instant messaging. Library patrons navigate to a webpage (e.g. library home page) and enter text into an embedded widget monitored by library staff. Typically, the widget will inform the user about the availability of real-time reference services.

Which alternative is suitable for your library and information service now that Meebo is no more? This depends on the size of your user base, related staffing requirements and available budget. I have listed below two alternatives (there’s more out there) that meet your IM reference service commitment. The choice depends on your needs and available resources.

… is designed with libraries in mind and arguably the most sophisticated and powerful IM ref service out there. It offers real-time chat widgets, flexible librarian staffing (multiple staff accounts), security and privacy, built-in collaboration tools and more. It’s affordable, straight forward to implement and the solution we use. See summary of key features and the article LibraryH3lp: A New Flexible Chat Reference System by Pam Sessoms for more information.

Pluugo (free)
... provides a widget (plugoo) which visitors on your website can use to communicate with you in real time. However, Plugoo limits simultaneous chat to five different visitors at a time. This solution might therefore not be a suitable option if your audiences are keen on IM. See FAQ for more details about Plugoo. A good thing here is that you can operate Plugoo with different messenger clients (e.g. Google Talk and various other clients using the XMPP protocol)

Use of VR chat in libraries
Research in this area is still limited (please correct me if I'm mistaken). Below is an overview of the main research findings into an embedded IM service based on a case study conducted at CSUF some time ago (Breitbach et al., 2008).

Frequency of reference questions
  • Since the introduction of virtual web chat, reference queries have increased considerably (overall increase of 49% through Meebo and QuestionPoint (proprietary IM service offered at CSFU)).
Question types
  • High frequency of professional-type questions (i.e. answers involving in-depth knowledge of library resources/research techniques) = 80% of all web chat queries.
  • Only 3.7% of questions were directional in nature.
Transaction time
  • Over 80% of questions answered using embedded IM took ten minutes or less to answer.
  • Questions asked by walk-in library patrons at the reference desk were answered the quickest (94% answered in ten minutes or less).
  • Statistically, only a marginal time difference was discovered in answering questions between embedded IM and the in-person reference desk.
Patron benefits
  • Easy to use (simply enter query into widget and wait for response)
  • Web reference-chat can encourage inhibited library patrons to avail of the library’s reference service due to its inherent anonymity (positive effect on library anxiety)
  • Increased choice of channels to access a library’s reference service (telephone, email, reference desk, web chat)
Library Service benefits
  • IM places reference services where the library patrons are (potential enhancement of library reference service)
  • Implementation is cost efficient
Library Service challenges
  • Library staff may experience difficulty with multi-tasking (extra workload)
  • High expectations on behalf of library patron with regard to response time and quality of reference solutions provided
  • Preference for face-to-face interaction
  • Handling complicated questions in an effective manner can be challenging
  • Extended length of time to answer questions adequately
  • Lost internet connections
  • Library patrons disconnecting before receiving complete answers
  • Busy services require more than one member of staff at a time to answer reference queries
Breitbach, W, 2008. Using Meebo’s embedded IM for academic reference services. Reference Services Review, 37, 15.
Dennie, D, 2011. Using Meebo’s embedded IM for academic reference services. Chat widgets as student/librarian communication tools. Library Hi Tech News, 28, 6.
Reference and User Services Association. 2004. Definition of Virtual Reference. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/virtrefguidelines. [Accessed 12 June 12].

1 comment:

  1. Timely post Alex - the 'alternatives to Meebo' dilemma seems to be doing the List-serv rounds. A lot of good feedback for LibraryH3lp it seems - users saying that it is worth paying for as the support and functionality is incomparable with Meebo. I see there is also a new product, LibChat (not quite #irelibchat!) on the way too, so it seems VR tools are not going away. Interesting.