Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

So Text Me-Maybe: A Rubric Assessment of Librarian Behavior in SMS Reference Services

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

So Text Me-Maybe: A Rubric Assessment of Librarian Behavior in SMS Reference Services

Article excerpt

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project's "Smartphone Research," approximately half of all American adults (45%) and two-thirds of young adults own a smartphone, and as of May 2011, texting is one of the top uses of this technology. (1) Part of the recent change in librarians' best practices is to go where the students are, to reach out to them, and this is achieved in part by offering text reference services. With the introduction of any new service, the need arises to assess performance in providing that service. It is of particular importance for libraries to evaluate and report their effectiveness in order to demonstrate their value and receive continued funding and support from US policymakers and academic governing boards. (2)


Sam Houston State University (SHSU) is a Carnegie Doctoral Research University located in East Texas. The Newton Gresham Library (NGL) serves the SHSU campus where 178 students were enrolled in fall 2012. Currently NGL employs nineteen faculty librarians, twenty-eight staff members, and two administrative faculty librarians.

NGL has offered virtual reference services via live chat since 2004, and through email for even longer. In the fall of 2009, the reference department decided to expand reference services to provide help via SMS/text messages, and the library began subscribing to the Text a Librarian service from Mosio. Staff training was conducted in late 2009, and the new service was launched in January 2010.

Training focused predominantly on the technical workings of the system itself rather than on the ideal characteristics of reference transactions in the text medium. For instance, staff were taught to recognize alert sounds when a new message arrived, enter responses and watch how many characters remained, send messages to patrons, recognize follow-up comments and questions, and close a thread when a conversation ended.

During training, personnel were also given some reference material about understanding text-speak--such as the use of u to mean you or 2nite to mean tonight--and were reminded to practice concision in their text-based responses. In the preexisting live chat service, it was common for personnel to send a pre-scripted welcome message such as "Hello, and thank you for contacting SHSU Ask a Librarian," but such practices were discouraged in text messaging due to the constraints that the medium placed on message length. Beyond the one recommendation of concision, guidelines were not provided concerning how best to provide quality reference service in the unique context of this new medium.

The service was implemented so that text messages from patrons would be answered as they were received at the reference desk by the individual on rotation. One generic login account was used by all personnel, rather than individual usernames, so patrons did not know which individual responded to their question, and the library could not definitively attribute responses to a specific librarian, paraprofessional staff member, or student assistant.

At the end of the 2012 fall semester, with three full years of data collected, we evaluated the quality of the service being provided. Text messaging is a unique reference tool, due to characteristics such as the restrictions in message length--which renders traditional reference interviews difficult or impossible--and the dichotomy between the medium's inherent asynchronicity and the student expectation of near-immediate response. The researchers sought to determine how well a librarian's reference skills translate into this tool and how well librarians are serving customers in the manner which they expect.

We hope that a close evaluation of current performance will serve as a training tool, help to clarify and communicate expectations for text-based reference service, and lead to the development of guidelines and best practices which will improve overall staff performance in this service. …

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