Since early 2008, my library has been providing reference help though instant messaging. We set up IM accounts with a number of services, and connect to them all through the IM client, Pidgin. We also installed a MeeboMe widget on our ask a librarian page, so people can ask us a question without having an IM account. This is actually where the majority of our IM questions are coming from.
Recently though, because of some network connectivity issues, the Meebo widget has been displaying our status as being offline, even though the librarians were logged into IM. Not good.
To remedy the situation, I installed an AIM WIMZI widget on our site instead. The library already had an account through AIM, so this was an easy fix. The AIM widget also comes with a number of additional benefits.
In order to use MeeboMe with Pidgin, a plug-in is required, which automatically authorizes patrons to chat with you (more info available from the Library Voice blog). As I found out when troubleshooting our problem, this plug-in is no longer being updated. With the AIM widget however, no plug-in is needed. As long as you’re logged into AIM via Pidgin, any patrons using the widget do not need to be authorized.
Another problem with MeeboMe: if you are offline (i.e. when the library is closed) people are still able to send a message through the widget. We did see those messages the next time we logged in, but patrons would never leave a way for us to contact them. IM Fail.
But, if they try to send a message with the AIM widget when we’re offline, they’ll get a response that tells them we currently can’t receive messages. You can also set a custom message to be displayed when you’re offline, which is nice.
Our students definitely like this service. Since we began offering reference through IM, its usage has been steadily increasing. Last month, we had a record number of instant message questions.
I should also give a hat tip to Andy, a former colleague of mine, who first brought up the idea of providing IM reference. Good work Andy! We’re still going strong with it.