"Ask Us Live!" is Live

hcl committees

HCL is piloting a program that will allow library patrons to ask reference questions online via instant messaging. Users can submit questions and "chat" with a reference librarian using the Meebo chat interface shown above.

HCL's reference librarians are used to handling questions from patrons in a variety of formats, whether in person, on the phone, or via email. Now a new pilot program gives patrons additional access to reference help online—and in real time—by introducing an instant messaging (IM) or "chat" function for reference services. Billed as "Ask Us Live!" the IM service is accessible from the HCL public website and will run from June 23 through August 15, the length of Harvard's summer session.

To use the service, patrons simply have to click the Ask Us Live! icon at the top of the HCL site. This will take them to a new page featuring a chat box where, from 3:00 pm to 10:00 pm Sunday through Thursday, they can submit their questions in real time to a reference librarian. Twenty-five HCL librarians from Cabot, Fine Arts, Loeb Music, SSP, and Widener have volunteered to monitor the online chat feature and answer questions during these hours. The pilot project is overseen by the IM Working Group of the Research, Education, and Outreach Committee.

The IM pilot employs the free, user-friendly software known as Meebo for web messaging. Meebo allows the user to have a live conversation with a reference librarian on the HCL site without having to download or install anything on his or her computer. Meebo is also compatible with a wide array of popular instant messaging networks like Yahoo!, MSN, Google Talk, AIM, ICQ, and Jabber.

Online reference is an integral part of reference services today, and instant messaging provides an easy way to extend reference service, especially to undergraduates. "IM and chat users tend to be a younger cohort," said Deborah Kelley-Millburn, Research Librarian in Widener Library.

By its very nature, online chatting lends itself to simpler, shorter queries. "It's somewhat analogous to what we handle over the phone," said Joe Bourneuf, Head of Reference and Interim Co-Head of Research Services, who chairs the IM Working Group. Those with more complicated questions will be asked to schedule a consultation or email the appropriate reference desk. Patrons trying to use the IM feature during off-hours will also be referred to email.

"We expect there is definitely a need for this," said Kelley-Millburn, who for the last five years has managed the growing number of comments and questions submitted via the HCL site, the Harvard Libraries site, and libref@fas.harvard.edu in HOLLIS—currently an average of about 750 messages each month.

Running the pilot during Harvard's summer session allows the working group to test the usefulness and sustainability of IM as part of reference services within a smaller and manageable population. While the IM service is open to the public, priority is given to Harvard students, faculty, and staff. "We anticipate pretty low traffic over the summer," said Kelley-Millburn. "It gives us a chance to try it out and to see if the software works."

The IM Working Group will be looking to see what kinds of questions are submitted, the frequency, and the ability of volunteer librarians to incorporate the additional reference function into their workload—the pilot requires a reasonably significant number of hours per day to adequately test the project. Although submitted questions are anonymous, the IM-Meebo web page also includes an optional survey designed to help to determine who uses the IM function, the difficulties they experience, and the likelihood they will use it again.

The HCL IM Working Group members are Bourneuf; Kelley-Milburn; George Clark, Environmental Research Librarian/ Government Information Services Manager in the Social Sciences Program; Spruill Harder, Visual Resources Librarian in the Fine Arts Library; Ann Robinson, Science Reference Librarian for the Cabot Science Library; and Dan Gregson, Computer Support Specialist in ITS. Michael Hemment, Head of Research and Learning Technology in Widener Library, is serving as advisor to the project.

The working group is also researching the viability of deploying more robust virtual reference products that offer statistical and tracking capabilities, like OCLC's QuestionPoint, for a longer term virtual reference capability.