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Digital Reference

Web Contact Centers

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

The software that powers web contact centers was created in response to the needs of online merchants who wanted to provide live customer service online. This class of software is sometimes referred to as "customer relationship management" software. One of the more well known businesses using web call center software on their web site is Land's End, which is using a product known as Webline but which now seems to be known as the Cisco Customer Interaction Suite. After several years, the software has evolved to offer a range of features, some of which are only available on the priciest products. All of the software packages allow the operator (i.e., the customer service rep or librarian) and the caller (the customer or library user) to exchange chat messages. Many of the software products also allow the operator/librarian to:

  • see what IP address the user is coming from
  • see what browser the user has
  • see what page the user is currently viewing
  • send a floating icon across the user's screen inviting them to chat
  • push web pages that will open up a new browser window on the user's screen (including pages from proprietary databases if users are given remote access)
  • fill out an online form (say a database search screen or an online ILL form) and push it onto the user's screen
  • sync up the librarian's browser with the user's so that every page the librarian goes to is also displayed on the user's screen
  • e-mail the entire chat transcript to the user at the end of the online interaction
  • pass on a user to another librarian (perhaps one at a member library in a consortium, which could include libraries in other countries and/or time zones)
  • keep an eye on the queue of user's waiting for online assistance and the amount of time they have been waiting
  • maintain logs of transactions that can be analyzed later to improve service
  • offer a contact center interface to the user that is in a language other than English

It's easy to see how libraries can take advantage of web contact center software to make their online communication with users more robust than possible with e-mail or simple chat programs. Not only can the librarian chat live with a user, the librarian can also show things online to the user (by pushing web pages), which is an approximation (albeit limited) of the way a librarian can demonstrate how to use a database or a web search to a user in a face-to-face encounter in the library.

Web Contact Center Software

Click & Care
This company is based in Switzerland and has, as far as I know, at least two libraries using their product (one in England, another in Germany).

eGain Interact
Two organizations have licensed this software and repackaged it for the library world. One organization is 24/7 Reference, a project of the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System. For more on the 24/7 Reference Project, see the separate listing for them on this page.

The other organization is a for-profit company, LSSI, which offers their version of eGain under the brand name of Virtual Reference ToolKit. For more on LSSI's Virtual Reference Desk, see the separate listing for their product on this page.

eGain Interact allows co-browsing, transfers of chats between operators, and many other useful features.

Libraries can also get eGain directly from the company, which is what the libraries at in the ReferenceNOW! consortium did (a group that includes Wesleyan University, Connecticut College, Wellesley College, Smith College, and Vassar College).

HumanClick Pro
In October 2000, HumanClick, the provider of a basic web contact center product, was acquired by another company, LivePerson. Following the merger, LivePerson seems to have updated their software so that it has all the features that HumanClick once exclusively had. As far as I can tell, you can't get a product called HumanClick Pro anymore; now, it's known as LivePerson Pro. The cost is still the same: $89.50 a month. The library where I work (the Newman Library at Baruch College) has been using this software since March 1, 2001, for its chat reference service. In the spring of 2002, I hope to add a page to this site detailing our experiences with HumanClick Pro.

For more details on the LivePerson family of products, see the entry below on this page. The following comments about HumanClick were written at the time that HumanClick had just been acquired and may no longer accurately describe the way that LivePerson Pro works.

One of the unique features of HumanClick is that the operator can tell when there is a visitor on the library's web site. When a user goes to a page on the library web site where the HumanClick icon is embedded, the operator's PC emits an audible chiming signal. The operator can then see the URLs of the pages that that visitor views (as long as each page has the HumanClick icon). At any point that the user is on the library's site, the operator/librarian can invite the user to initiate a chat. The operator does this by clicking a button on the operator software, which in turn sends a small icon floating across the user's screen asking them if they would like to speak to real person. If used with discretion, this feature can provide the librarian with the rough equivalent of roving reference service, whereby the librarian offers assistance to users at the point of need.

For those who might be interested in the mechanics of setting up the service for their library, here's what I did to set it up in the fall of 2000 for my web site (I cancelled my service for my personal web site once the company started charging for the product).

  1. Register for the service at HumanClick
  2. Download a small piece of software and install it on a computer that would be my operator's terminal (it's where I am notified that there is visitor on my site who wants to chat)
  3. Install the HTML for the HumanClick icon on any pages on my site that I wanted the service to be visible on (I chose to let HumanClick automatically add the HTML to all the pages in my site, but I could have done it myself)

The software that actually ran my HumanClick service is located on HumanClick's server; both I and any user I interacted with accessed the service via HumanClick. By providing the service via its computers, HumanClick is acting as an application service provider (ASP).

InstantService Chat
Offered for free to non-profits, this software is provided via an ASP.

Another ASP, LiveAssistance is currently being used by the University of Chicago's Business and Economics Resource Center.

Once free, this product now comes in three packages: Basic ($25 a month), Pro ($50 a month), and Corporate ($250 a month). The more expensive the package, the more features you get.

LivePerson acquired HumanClick (see above) in October 2000 and seems to have merged their product with HumanClick's. There are three versions available: LivePerson Pro (which is essentially the same product as the old HumanClick Pro) for $89.50 a month, LivePerson Corporate for $350 a month, and LivePerson Exchange for a whole lotta money (not quoted on the company web site).

The University of Pennsylvania's Lippincott Library of the Wharton School was one of the first libraries to use this software on its website, which you can read about in Linda Eichler and Michael Halperin's article in the online edition of EContent magazine.

Here's a recent article from Federal Computer Week about this software.

The company behind this product, eshare, was acquired by divine in October 2001. NetAgent is a full-featured product in the same class as eGain Interact and Convey's OnDemand.

OCLC chat software
This basic software product comes free to libraries who joing the QuestionPoint service.

Provided by Convey, this software is in the same class as eGain and NetAgent in terms of features. You can read a press release on the company's site about how the libraries for Pace University implemented the software.

ReferenceDesk Live
This is another full-featured product. Produced by HorizonLive, which has also provided free of charge numerous webcasts of interest to the library world (including one on chat reference).

RealTime Aide
I haven't had time yet to investigate this product, but it looks like it has a fair number of features at a reasonable price.

RightNow Live
This full-featured product is now being used at the University of South Florida.

24/7 Reference
This project of the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System (which serves greater Los Angeles) offers a repackaged version of eGain Interact (see the entry above for more on eGain). A library that chooses to get eGain from 24/7 Reference can use its own staff to monitor chat reference for part of the day and then have 24/7 Reference's staff cover additional hours.

The director of the project, Susan McGlamery, and Steve Coffman (who now works for LSSI on their Virtual Reference Desk software), wrote an interesting article about this project in the May 2000 issue of American Libraries, which has been reproduced on the 24/7 Reference Project web site. At the time the article was written, the 24/7 Reference Project had been considering going with a different software product from Webline, which was bought by Cisco and seems to have been repackaged as the Customer Interaction Suite.

A wide range of libraries have get eGain from 24-7 Reference. The first library to try it out was the Santa Monica Public Library. Since, then a broad mix of public and academic libraries--mostly in California but now also elsewhere around the country--have signed on.

Virtual Reference ToolKit
Library Systems and Services (LSSI) has taken the eGain Interact software and packaged it specially for library use. This is one of the biggest providers of software for chat reference services. Steve Coffman is the point person for this product and seems to be everywhere at once in his role as advocate for chat reference as well as pitchman for his company's software.

Like 24/7 Reference, LSSI can provide your chat reference service with its own librarians to cover off hours.

Webline was bought by Cisco in 1999 and seems to have been renamed as the Cisco Customer Interaction Suite.

Other Software Providing a High Level of Interaction*
Active Worlds
This software allows you to set up navigable, 3-D chat environments where you use an avatar to represent you in your chat engagements.
Made by ExpertCity, this product falls under the category of remote assistance software. It allows chatwhiteboarding, and the ability for the operator to take control of the user's PC.
Made by Microsoft, this product falls under the category of web conferencing software. It allows chat, videoconferencing, file transfer, and whiteboarding.
This open-source freeware from Rob Besson at Miami University Libraries seems to provide many of the features available in expensive web contact center software. To learn more about this, you can search the archives of the LiveReference list for "Rakim," as there are a number of interesting posts there on it.

* More than just chat.


Coffman, S. and McGlamery, S. (2000). The librarian and Mr. Jeeves. American Libraries, 31(5): 66-69. Available online:

Eichler, L. and Halperin, M. (2000). LivePerson: Keeping reference alive and clicking. EContent, 23(3). Available online:

Lindgren, Peter. (2002). Brief encounters in cyberspace. Scandanavian Public Library Quarterly, 35(2). Available online:

Sarkar, Dibya. (2002). Library encourages patrons to chat. Federal Computer Week. Available online:

Schneider, Karen G. (2000). The distributed librarian: Live, online, real-time reference. American Libraries, 31(11): 64-65. Available online:
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Last updated: August 27, 2002