IM Reference at Carleton: A Low-Key Affair

Last year, sitting at our Research/IT desk, we started noticing that the SCIC workers sitting next to us were often engaged in lively conversation via IM. At about the same time, a few of us got started on Google Talk and it quickly spread through the rest of us as a way to ask quick questions of each other throughout the day without actually interrupting each other as completely as we had been by popping into each others’ offices. (Personally, I think this was mostly a strategy to keep me in my office because I was new and doing a lot of popping in to ask questions… but nobody’s admitting to that ulterior motive.)

We really took to this as a method of communication. We still do a lot of popping in, but now we have communication choices. Not only that, but every once in a while we’ll be fielding a tough question during the night or weekend desk shift and end up IMing a co-worker for help. This isn’t frequent, but I’ve benefited once and I’ve helped out once, and both times there’s no way the reference interaction could have been successful otherwise. We’re also keeping in social contact after work, which I really enjoy.

So after we’d played with this for one school year, we decided we wouldn’t mind creating AIM accounts to give out to students. We each have our own account, and we can each be online when we’re able to answer questions and offline or “Away” when we’d rather not answer questions, so we completely sidestepped all of the staffing and coverage issues that comes with “real” IM reference. On the other hand, this relies heavily on our liaison model, with students encouraged to meet with the librarian for their classes and major for anything more than general reference help. So in this sense, it’s more an extension of our individual consultation service than of our reference service. But it provided a no-risk method of trying a new service this term, so we decided to go this route.

So far, the response has been mixed. One of my co-workers has answered a couple of IM questions (and we all rejoiced), but the rest of us haven’t yet. [Update: It appears I’m wrong. One more of my co-workers has answered a couple of questions, and she is even one student’s very first IM buddy!} We’re also running up against a strong culture of face-to-face interaction here at Carleton, and some students have voiced the opinion that it’s “sad” when people can’t stand up, walk over, and ask us questions.

So I wouldn’t call our experience a rousing success if you look at it as a stand-alone service. And yet, there are three reasons that I’m glad we’re doing it and that we don’t have any plans to discontinue it.

First, it gives us a chance to experiment with a new “toy.” This is always valuable, especially when there’s no cost associated with that experimentation.

Second, it contributes to our efforts to not only BE approachable and accessible to students, but also to APPEAR to be approachable and accessible. I’ve been thinking a lot lately (as I experiment with vs. Google or worry that my laptop is dying and notice how that changes what I think about putting into it) about the appearance vs. the reality of usefulness and trustworthiness. And basically I’ve come to the conclusion that the appearance of trustworthiness is more important than the actuality. If I trust something, it takes a lot to get me to go back on that trust, and the converse is also true. In the same way, I think building the appearance of accessibility, expertise, and usefulness to our students is at least as important as actually providing accessible, expert, and useful assistance. And our new AIM handles are helping with this… I think.

Third, I don’t care if I only receive one IM question. That’s one question that may not have come to the desk. And it’s not costing me anything in time or money to have AIM running in the background on my desktop. Even with a culture of face-to-face interaction on campus, there will always be someone who is shy about approaching the desk, or simply communicates better through the written word than the spoken word. There are lots of students that I only hear from via email, and I can foresee a time when these students will make me a buddy rather than putting me into their email address book.

Of course, I’m still waiting for that first IM question… but it’ll come. I’m nothing if not optimistic.

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3 thoughts on “IM Reference at Carleton: A Low-Key Affair

  1. Your late paragraphs provide an extremely satisfactory response to a natural question: Given that IM reference doesn’t seem to get used much (2% of all reference transactions seems to be the reported level), is it worth doing? Under the circumstances you state–it didn’t replace anything else, you’re comfortable with it, the PC would be on anyway, and even rare usage might be new usage–I think the answer’s clearly “Yes.”

    For some other new ideas and services, the answer may not be that clear–but those are other ideas and services, needing their own analyses.

    Good post.

  2. Thank you, Walt. And you’re exactly right. We’re in a no-risk situation with this new service, as it is currently implemented. But in my admittedly limited experience, this is not the case for most new services. It’s fun when we can offer something new without too much agony, though. And it makes me wonder what other no-risk services are out there, and how many such services you can implement before the cost-benefit equation gets tricky.

  3. I started a very similar service at my university (although I’m the only librarian doing it) and in one academic year, I had about 3 IM questions. But many, many students told me it was “nice” or “cool” or whatever that I was available on IM (I told them about it in my instruction sections & put my IDs in my e-mail sig & listed my IDs on my subject pages). I agree that it’s a low-risk, low-overhead service to increase our appearance of accessibility, helpfulness, etc. as well as to actually help students.

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