Instant Messenger Or Virtual Reference?

I noted Aaron Schmidt‘s points on IM in libraries previously, but what I didn’t say then was how certain I was that popular instant messaging clients like AOL Instant Messenger or Yahoo!’s or Google’s are far superior to the so-called virtual reference products. Why? They’re free, our patrons are comfortable with them, and they work (three things that can’t be said about VR products). Ah, heck, just take a look at what Michael Stephens was saying about them last week (as quoted by Teresa Koltzenburg at ALA TechSource):

“Back in 2002, my library jumped into the virtual reference game, and we wrote a gigantic check to an unnamed VR company. We spent the summer doing intensive training. I was training at that time at my library, and I designed a four-session, four-hour-apiece training course to get people comfortable with this huge, scary thing that was virtual reference.”

According to Michael, after the large initial investment made by his library in the VR product, plus probably another $5,000 on the training, and the staff time spent promoting it, his library’s virtual reference service, via the vendor-supplied software, “fell flat on its face.” He explains, “After you pulled your users into this Java-enabled, chat queue, they got the message, something like, ‘Hold on. The library will be right with you.’ Then the whole thing would crash. What kind of message were we sending with that one?”

IM, for SJCPL, was meant to be a temporary VR fix, but as of today, says Michael, “It’s permanent. We cancelled that contract on the unnamed VR product, said ‘good-bye,’ and today we use IM. I can’t tell you enough how great it is.”

Perhaps I like this story because it gives me another chance to bang the drum on my not invented here story, but the point is that none of this need be expensive or complex. And while I’m tempted to suggest you ask the kids in the young adult section about it, the truth is that AIM is larger than that, it’s just another facet of our ballooning internet use.