Instant messaging. I remember when, at work, we first started really using the instant messaging system. Suddenly, it seemed like our lives were so much easier. We didn’t have to wonder if someone was available for a quick meeting – we could send an IM and find out. Instead of wandering around campus to get information that we needed, we could ask a quick question – and get an instant response – instead of having a lengthy email chain. Since then, it’s hard to imagine not having that capability. How many times a day to I opt for an IM for an instant answer to a question that doesn’t really warrant an email or a trip to another office? How much more connected do we feel as an organization being able to instantly converse with each other, even when we don’t have time for a break or a longer visit?
Instant messaging is not something that we currently use at my library, but I love the concept of it. I definitely see where it could become a real benefit for libraries. One of the biggest advantages to me is that it is in real-time. Yes, you can send an email and get a response, but sometimes it is easier to have that conversation take place on the spot. I’ve found that in my professional life, an IM can be an easy way to bounce ideas off someone else when I get stuck on a project. Instead of waiting for a response from email, I can get instant feedback. For librarians, I see this as particularly beneficial for the reference interview. If you are working via IM, you can check with the patron immediately to see if he or she is getting the information needed, or ask any number of questions to clarify what the real need is. With the instant messaging software that we use at work, I am able to share documents with my coworkers, send web links, or even share my screen. If libraries can offer these services as well, it opens up an entirely different dimension of remote reference and truly meeting patrons where they are at. And, after all, isn’t that what we do as librarians?
Of course, IM does have its disadvantages. It’s often more informal, I’ve found, and, like email, it’s harder to gauge the emotions and intent behind what is communicated. You don’t have the nonverbal cues to interpret what the other person is saying, so you have to be careful to convey your message appropriately and seek that feedback in other means. And, the expectation with IM is often an instant answer, but this is not always possible. Some questions require more time and research, and it can be frustrating to find that what you thought would give you immediate help doesn’t provide what you want. Or, if someone is not available to answer your question at the exact moment that you send it, there is the possibility of frustration. After all, you want an instant answer – why isn’t someone there to give it to you?
Overall, I think that IM is a great way to reach patrons at a different level. I think that, when implemented correctly, it provides another means of connecting with patrons, and introduces a different method of reference interaction that may be more comfortable for some users. As a librarian, I constantly look for ways to meet my patrons where they are at and in a manner that they find comfortable. Offering IM services is, I think, one way of doing this. Of course, there are considerations for staffing and availability – I envision a program that has dedicated hours for this service where questions will be answered and staff are clearly assigned responsibility for when they will handle virtual reference. But, I see this as a great way to embed the library into the lives of users and make library services more available. While it’s not a service that I am likely able to offer in the near future, it is definitely something that I will file away for potential development in the future.