More Chat in the Catalog

Remember my post on TSCPL’s Meebo chat widget embedded in our library catalog? Since then, we have stopped using the Meebo Me widget. It was great – it helped us start our IM reference service, and it was easy to embed pretty much wherever we wanted. But we grew out of it!

We discovered a few shortcomings, like not being able to send hotlinks through it, and our public services staff really wanted the ability to send an IM to someone else. So now, we’re using Libraryh3lp for our IM reference service. Libraryh3lp gives us those added benefits and more.

And we’re doing a few different things with the catalog embed, too. Here’s a pic of the keyword, No Records Found search:

New version of the Chat Reference service in the catalog

We’re trying to make instructions clear, friendly and attractive. If you click the Ask Now button, you get a tiny IM widget pop-up page. Why pop-up? With our Meebo widget, we discovered that a lot of people would start asking a question, then click something … and they’d be gone, because they had clicked away from the page with the embedded IM widget. Bumer! With our new pop-up version, that problem is solved. Users can click away all they want … and still interact with us.

But even cooler than that – Michael, our web designer (one of his many hats) discovered a way to embed a similar thing on the Search Results page:

Search Results page - Chat added!

This provides more opportunities for patrons to ask questions when they get stuck on a search – even if they’re finding things. Basically, they have access to us ON EVERY SEARCH they do.

And not just IM access – that’s provided via the Ask Now button. But we also include our phone number and a link to our email Ask a Librarian form.

We’re excited about this – should be fun to see if we get more catalog-related questions.

Ask-a-Librarian Services Need a Reboot

Hippie discriminationWhat would you say if I told you that some libraries discriminate against a certain type of customer? That some customers, because of the way they asked a question, were purposefully pushed to the back of the line, told to wait 2-3 days for an answer, and that they couldn’t get an answer to some of their burning questions … because they’re “that kind” of customer?

You’d be furious, right?

Well … believe it or not, many libraries are doing that RIGHT NOW – today, in fact. Take a peek at these email and chat reference policies for a sec, then come back and let’s talk:

  • Note – not picking on any particular library – there are MANY MORE examples out there…
  • New York Public Library: “We will make every effort to respond to your question within two working days
  • San Francisco Public Library: “In depth questions will be forwarded in e-mail format to subject specialists, who will try to get back to you within 2 days.” Their IM service – “The IM reference service works best for answering brief, factual questions.”
  • Hennepin County Library: “We can provide brief answers to questions or suggest locations and sources to answer your question. We will respond within 48 hours.”
  • San Diego Public Library: “If you are in a Library building, we highly recommend working with Library staff before using these online services” … “Library staff is able to provide short, factual answers.”
  • County of Los Angeles Public Library: “Send us an email or fill out the form below. Reference staff will respond to your question within 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays).
  • Houston Public Library: “You should get a response to your e-mail within 48-72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays … If you are working against a deadline, you may get a faster response by visiting or calling your local library …”
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: “Every reasonable attempt will be made by library staff to respond to reference questions within 48 hours.” … E-mail Reference Questions should be limited to those that have concise, factual answers … Individuals are limited to three Electronic Mail Reference Questions each week.” (check out this update)
  • Kansas City Public Library: “Questions sent to the Library by using this form will be answered by e-mail within 48 hours excluding holidays and weekends.” Their chat service – “AskNow! is a live, online reference service for questions that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources.”

Ouch! Now, let me ask you this. If I walked into any of these libraries and asked the same question in person:

  • Would I have to wait 48-72 hours for a response? No.
  • Could I ask the same question on a weekend? Most likely, assuming the library was open.
  • Would they limit my questions to THREE A WEEK??? I sure hope not!
  • Would I be limited to asking ONLY questions “that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources” as KCPL mentions? No.

Is this REALLY how you want to treat your customers? Especially that growing group of customers who are already using your digital branch and are taking advantage of your digital services? Please don’t tell me that you can somehow only serve those customers who actually walk into the library and up to your physical reference desk, but can’t get to the customers who call or email or IM or txt you in a timely fashion. I’m not buying that.

The problem isn’t the volume or the format of the question, but the way your reference services are arranged. Rearrange it. Now. Please.

In essence, you ARE discriminating. Discriminating against a growing, younger, web-savvy customer base. Customers who *almost* have all the tools in place to simply ignore you and your grad-degreed, professional information-retrieval services. Especially if they are treated like second class customers when they ask a question using their preferred, and handy, means of communication.

Does this make sense? Do you really want to be “that guy?” I think not. The libraries I mention above all want to do a great job, I’m sure, as do you. So let’s work on improving our online services … like now already!


To be fair, I checked out my library’s ask page too (and crossed my fingers, and said a little prayer before I clicked :-). We did great! Here’s what we do:

  • We mention how good we are (“provide quick, accurate answers”)
  • We mention that the phone is the fastest way to get a response, rather than forcing customers to visit in-person (“If you want to talk with someone immediately about a question you can call us…”)
  • Instead of giving some outlandish timeframe for a response (i.e., 24-48-72 hours), we say “We will help you as quickly as we can.”

And my personal favorite – for more complex questions, we direct customers … not to the physical desk, but to email! We don’t even mention the desk or having to visit the library in person on our Ask Us page.

Why? Because those customers are already in the library, using our Digital Branch. They need to get the same treatment as any other customer with any other question.

photo by Neubie