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Digital Reference

Basic Chat Technologies

[Note: For more recent ramblings on digital reference, please see my blog.]

Chat reference services using basic software only allow for a rapid exchange of text messages between user and librarian. There are three different technologies used for such pared down services: instant messaging software, web chat rooms, and chat software.

Instant Messaging Software

Requires both the user and the librarian have the software installed on to their computers. Most instant messaging software is free and can be easily downloaded from the web. The main benefits of doing chat this way is that many users are already familiar with the programs and are likely to have in their computers. If a user doesn't already have it on their computer, it's pretty easy to install. Such programs also don't require much bandwidth and run pretty quickly. A downside to this technology, though, is that two people using two different programs can't exchange messages. If a user is already familiar with one program but the library requires the use of a different one, then that creates a hurdle for the user.

Web Chat Rooms

This is probably the least attractive way to run a chat service. It requires that the library first register a room (usually at no charge) on the web site of company providing such a service. When a user wants to chat, they need to log on to the page of the service (which can be linked to from the library's web site). The few libraries that have chosen to go this route are using a number of different services:

Other Chat Software

Designed at Temple University expressly for the library's chat reference service. For more on this, see Sam Stormont's presentation at the 2000 Virtual Reference Desk conference or this page about the TalkNow service at Temple University.


Morris Messenger
This instant messaging program was created for the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University and is available for free download.

Virtual Reference Librarian
This software is sold as an add-on module for Docutek's DocuLib software. The core of DocuLib is the ERes software that allows to provide electronic reserves. From the company's web site, it's not clear if the Virtual Reference Librarian can do any more than allow librarian and user to chat online, so until I learn more about this product, I'm assuming it's simple chat software and web call center software.

For other software that provides a higher degree of interactivity, please see the web contact centers page.
Forms of Digital Reference

E-mail Reference

Chat Reference Collaborative Networks

Index of Chat Reference Services

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E-mail your comments or suggestions to Stephen Francoeur

Last updated: July 31, 2002