Digital Reference Services in 2009

2009 will probably be remembered by those of us who follow digital reference services as the year that mobile reference services really took off. Between Twitter and text message reference services, there were tons of blog posts, articles, presentations, discussion threads on mailing lists and social networking sites, in which library staff explored how they could embrace (or were already embracing) mobile technology for reference services. In an article in Library Journal this October, Ellyssa Kroski noted the same upward trend in activity around text message reference services. From my perspective, the high point of activity was the first Handheld Librarian Online Conference, which was held in July and, according to the home page of the conference, attracted over 2000 attendees. I was able to listen to only a few presentations on the day of the event, but I found myself taking in many more in the following weeks from the archives of the presentations (a hugely helpful resource!)

Although libraries have actually been using text messages for reference services since 2004, this was the year that the conversation about it grew dramatically. One of the more interesting discussions about text message reference services was whether it was feasible to offer it within a collaborative service. My InfoQuest, a pilot project of the Alliance Library System that allows a group of public and academic libraries to share an account from Altarama’s SMSreference service, was the first example I’d heard of where libraries can band together to share the workload for a text message service. Recently, Tom Peters blogged about the unexpected pleasures he’s found as a librarian answering questions on the service. Just this past week, Sarah Houghton-Jan broke the news that Mosio’s Text a Librarian service would begin offering a service for library cooperatives, too.

As someone who has been deeply involved with a cooperative chat reference service since 2003, I have to admit to being sold on the concept of collaborative reference service and believe that we can provide good service to patrons from each other’s libraries with this caveat: there must be systems in place that make it easy for questions to be referred back to the patron’s “home library” for immediate followup. The most common objection I hear about collaborative reference services is that it must be impossible to offer quality service to patrons who aren’t from your library. In my experience, I’ve found that the majority of my library’s chat reference patrons are satisfied with the service they get from librarians at other colleges in the cooperative we’re part of. I don’t know how referral works in My InfoQuest or the Mosio service, but if they can make the process of passing questions along for followup seamless (as it mostly is in QuestionPoint), then these new collaborative services may have a chance of attracting a wider customer base. (It is worth disclosing here that I am on the 24/7 Reference Cooperative Advisory Board for QuestionPoint.)

Another newsworthy aspect of mobile reference services is the effort to integrate questions received from patrons on their phones into the digital reference tools that libraries may already have. The innovative folks behind the Library H3lp suite of digital reference tools launched a couple of ways that the service’s customers could bring text message questions into the reference workflow:

  1. a SMS gateway that requires the library have a phone running Google Android and a carrier providing wireless services on that phone
  2. a Google Voice gateway for sending and receiving text messages
From Library H3lp’s features documentation, it appears that regardless of which option a library chooses to use, SMS messages appear in the same interface that librarians use to have IM sessions with patrons.

QuestionPoint has been thinking about how to make connections with mobile users too. This summer, QuestionPoint announced that it was mapping out how subscribing libraries that have institutional Twitter accounts could have questions flow via Twitter into the QuestionPoint system. I’ve heard from Susan McGlamery and Jeff Penka at QuestionPoint that the questions received via Twitter would not appear in the same space that chat transcripts and email questions appear in, which would require the librarian to then open up a separate question list in the QuestionPoint interface just to see those tweeted questions.

It is arguable whether Twitter is a useful or viable way to connect up with mobile users, as there are plenty of users (wish I had the stats at the ready here) who send and receive tweets via non-mobile devices (i.e., desktop and laptop computers). QuestionPoint is not alone in looking at how Twitter can feed into question-asking services. LibAnswers, a product from Springshare launched this fall that provides libraries with a hosted question-and-answer web service (patrons ask questions, which get posted to a web page hosted on Springshare’s servers, where the answers are then publicly displayed), has a feature allowing a library’s Twitter account to hook into it. From what I can tell, LibAnswers can be used as a Twitter client by libraries, who can view tweets or direct messages from patrons who follow the library’s Twitter account and post them to the LibAnswers page for that library.

The reference services page for the science library at Yale University advertises its Twitter account that patrons can send questions to as direct messages or as “at messages” (@yalescilib). Joe Murphy at Yale has mentioned that they do get questions via this channel, but I don’t have a sense of the actual numbers involved.

Regardless of the channel used for digital reference (Twitter, email, instant messaging, web chat, text messages), there is an opportunity to take the traces of those reference interactions and repurpose them. In the past year, there have been some notable developments in this area. The Reference Extract project released in 2009 a series of three videos that explained in greater detail how this idea, first made public in late 2008, might work (introduction, architecture, details). David Lankes and Mike Eisenberg, who are the minds behind the Reference Extract project, have their eyes on the rich trove of reference interactions from the QuestionPoint service. It will be interesting to see if in 2010 something comes of this innovative project.

A few libraries started using an open source piece of software, KnowledgebasePublisher, to build a publicly searchable database of FAQs. Those questions entered into the system can come from ones that are turning up not just at the reference desk but also in digital reference services. Char Booth at the UC Berkeley Libraries wrote about her library’s experience setting up an FAQ using this software. It’s notable that when the patron’s search of the FAQ system results in a null search, the patron is offered a page with an IM widget for the library’s ask a librarian service. As noted in the comments from Booth’s blog post and from personal conversations I’ve had with Chad Boeninger at Ohio University Libraries, Ohio University uses this same software. I may have this garbled a bit, but I believe that the librarians at Ohio go to their installed LibStats software to record questions; then the more notable questions get cherry picked and fed into the FAQ system at Ohio University powered by KnowledgebasePublisher.

In another example of reference interactions been reused, QuestionPoint announced in February 2009 that the knowledgebase its subscribers may submit question/answer pairs to now had 20,000 entries in it. You can search this knowledgebase yourself here to get a sense of what it’s like. I’m afraid that I can’t talk about QuestionPoint’s successes with its knowledgebase and its interesting Twitter plans without also mentioning the troubles they had with the chat software for several months this year. As referred to obliquely by Julie Strange on the Maryland AskUsNow! Staff Blog, many librarians on the QuestionPoint chat reference service were finding themselves frozen out of chat sessions they were in the middle of. By the fall, those problems seem to have been resolved, but not without a residue of frustration being left in the minds of many librarians whose libraries subscribe to the QuestionPoint service.

Finally, 2009 must also be remembered as the year that Google Wave launched a beta version to a limited number of users. Shortly after Google Wave was announced this spring, Jason Griffey was one who wondered early if it might have some place in the digital reference toolbox. In July, a blogger at Nature caught the attention of many with his demo of a robot that could be added to a Google Wave that would make it possible for writers to quickly draw upon citations they’ve been gathering as they compose in the Google Wave interface. When many of us finally got our invites and started fooling around with Wave, the most common reaction was to be let down, to feel that the product had been overhyped and was not ready for primetime, let alone be capable of powering a reference service (see for example Michelle Kraft’s reaction).

I think the potential of Google Wave for reference services can’t really be discerned until accounts are widely available and until libraries can begin setting up their own Wave servers (or sharing one). It’s my understanding that once you install the code on your own server, you can retool it, customize it, and rebrand it so it fits in more with your other web services. I have no idea what is possible in the way of customization and local control of Wave set up on your servers, but I’m hopeful that it will allow us to really tinker with the software and figure out how to hook it into our digital reference tools we have now and our workflows for receiving and responding to digital reference questions. Perhaps I’ve bought into too much of the hype in Howard Greenstein’s blog post from Mashable about the possibilities for Wave; call me a techno-optimist (particularly one who is very eager to see what 2010 brings to the world of digital reference services).

Did I miss something notable in this analysis? Did I get something wrong? Please let me know in the comments.


Adie, Euan. “Igor: A Google Wave Robot to Manage Your References.” Nascent, 26 July 2009. Web.

Altarama Information Systems. “SMSreference.” Altarama. 2009. Web.

Booth, Char. “Out of Context.” info-mational, 13 May 2009. Web.

Greenstein, Howard. “Google Wave’s Massive Potential for Business Users.” Mashable, 18 December 2009. Web.

Griffey, Jason. “Catching the Wave.” Pattern Recognition, 30 May 2009. Web.

Handheld Librarian Online Conference. 2009. Web.

“HHL1 Recordings.” Handheld Librarian Online Conference. 2009. Web.

Houghton-Jan, Sarah. “Mosio’s Text a Librarian Now Offers Cooperatives!” Librarian in Black, 16 December 2009. Web.

Joe Murphy. Facebook. 2009. Web.

KnowledgebasePublisher. SourceForge. 2009. Web.

Kraft, Michelle. “What Is Google Wave and Why Should I Care?” The Krafty Librarian, 1 December 2009. Web.

Kroski, Ellyssa. “Text Message Reference: Is It Effective?” Library Journal, 15 October 2009. Web.

Lankes, R. David. “Reference Extract: Call for Support.” vimeo. 2009. Web.

Lankes, R. David. “Reference Extract: Concept.” vimeo. 2009. Web.

Lankes, R. David. “Reference Extract in 4 Minutes.” vimeo. 2009. Web.

Library H3lp. “LibraryH3lp_Features.” libraryh3lp. 2009. Web.

Library H3lp. “SMS Gateway: Android Phone.” Library H3lp. 2009. Web.

Mosio. “Text Message Solutions for Library Reference Co-ops.” Text a Librarian.15 December 2009. Web.

MyInfoQuest. MyInfoQuest. 2009. Web.

Ohio University Libraries. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Ohio University Libraries. 2009. Web.

QuestionPoint. “Did You Know….” QuestionPoint: 24/7 Reference Services, 19 February 2009. Web.

QuestionPoint. “User Group Meeting, In Person and Virtual.” QuestionPoint: 24/7 Reference Services, 20 August 2009. Web.

QuestionPoint. “Search KB.” QuestionPoint. 2009. Web.

Peters, Tom. “The Joy of Text.” ALA TechSource, 17 December 2009. Web.

Sessoms, Pam. “Google Voice SMS Gateway.” Library H3lp, 3 August 2009. Web.

Springshare. “LibAnswers.” Springshare. 2009. Web.

Strange, Julie. “A Word about QuestionPoint Service Interruptions.” Maryland AskUsNow! Staff Blog, 22 October 2009. Web.

University of California Berkeley Library. “UC Berkeley Library FAQ.” University of California Berkeley Library. 2009. Web.






5 responses to “Digital Reference Services in 2009”

  1. stevenb Avatar

    Hey Stephen. Thought you might like to know we will be launching our text reference service here at Temple U when the spring semester begins. Back in August at Princeton when we gathered for you talk we were just in the planning stages. We are using Library H3lp's digital reference software, and from what I've seen of it so far it looks like it will get the job done well. I think we'll be doing more of a soft launch until everyone develops a comfort level with text reference. It definitely looks to require an adaptation to a new mode of communication with the user community.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    This is a wonderful review, thank you, Stephen. I wholeheartedly agree about the benefits of collaboration, and appreciate the strength of the world-wide network of libraries now participating in the 24/7 Reference Service cooperative and using QP software. I'd like to add that September's QP software issues were due in large part to the change in software architecture. Perhaps if we had been notified earlier of that fact, we might have better withstood the difficulties. Thanks, and Happy New Year!

    RCN (another 24/7 Ref Advisory Board Member)

  3. Slaven Zivkovic Avatar

    Hi Stephen, thanks much for mentioning our LibAnswers system.
    Besides reiterating what you said i.e. that LibAnswers has full Twitter integration (you can receive questions asked via Twitter and post any answers on Twitter as well, all thru the same LibAnswers interface), the system also gives a breakdown of how many questions were received via Twitter vs via other means. Our statistics reporting capability and the details provided are unparalleled.

    In addition, LibAnswers also has a full FAQ system functionality built in (in my humble opinion, a better alternative than the open source product you mentioned 😉 One of the advantages is that the FAQs are fully integrated (and in the same system) with "real" questions asked by patrons, thereby making LibAnswers a true knowledge base resource, searchable by anyone. And if the answer is not found, the patron can submit their question/query with just a couple of clicks.

    Lastly, we are looking for ways to integrate SMS reference into LibAnswers as well so you can soon expect LibAnswers to become a one-stop shop for answering any type of reference questions, regardless of the ways/methods the questions are asked.

    Happy New Year to you and your faithful blog readers!

    -Slaven Zivkovic

  4. Stephen Francoeur Avatar

    Steven: Good luck with the new text reference service. I hope our library can get a pilot up and running this year. I'm not sure what service we'll use to support it, though. Slaven: thanks for the tip about plans to integrate SMS into LibAnswers; now if you'd just find a way to also support chat/IM in the same interface! I'm very much interested in a single tool that will integrate all the channels in one place for the librarians.

  5. calebtr Avatar

    Hey Stephen I finally got around to reading this, it is a very helpful summary.

    I think coupled with your recent article ("The IM Cometh") you are growing a monopoly on the brief history of virtual reference.