A lot of people are talking about instant messaging (IM) reference. Heck, we're two of them. The veteran in the arena of real-time online reference is Web-based chat. Many states or other library cooperatives have collaborative Web-based chat (sometimes called "virtual reference") initiatives that libraries can join. IM reference is still new. How do the two options truly compare? If your library is considering being available, live, to your users on the Web (and you ought to be), or switching from Web-based chat to IM, or even supplementing your Web-based chat program with an IM program, read on. We're taking a hard look at the important differences between IM and Web-based chat. We are ready to call both into the ring on their weaknesses. Let the grudge match begin!
SPEED OF INTERACTION
Instant messaging is by far the faster of the two forms of live reference chat. To connect with a librarian, the user only has to open an IM program, then type and send a message to the librarian--instant gratification. Little or no perceivable delay occurs between the time one person sends a message and when the other person receives it. The type of chat can often be less formal with IM, usually requiring fewer characters and thereby speeding up the process. For example, a greeting may simply be "Hi" instead of "Hello, this is the librarian. I am reading your question now."
Web-based chat is significantly slower, partially due to a typically long entry form that requests information from users before connecting them with a librarian. One entry form we've encountered requires one piece of information (ZIP code) to enter the service anonymously, but actually asks for eight different pieces of information. Once the entry form is complete and the user clicks on the button to connect to a librarian, there is typically a 5- to 10-second delay before the librarians staffing the service see that there is a patron waiting. After the librarian clicks on the button to pick up the patron, there is another 5- to 10-second delay before the two people are connected. Furthermore, Web-based chat will sometimes slow down the process because of software glitches or incompatibility with users' computer settings, such as browser settings, firewall, or pop-up blocker.
The winner: Instant messaging
There are a number of free instant messaging clients available for both users and librarians. Individual clients (such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and MSN Messenger) are free for both users and librarians. There are also free aggregator programs, such as Trillian and Jabber, which users and librarians can use to monitor several IM accounts through one interface. These have become increasingly popular with libraries providing IM reference. Commercial IM clients exist, at a nominal cost. Web-based chat software usually has a cost attached to it, and that cost is not low by any means.
Some library cooperatives, sponsored by grants from larger organizations (the California State Library sponsors California's AskNow), obviates the need for each library to pay individually. For libraries without these cooperative sponsorships, the cost can be staggering. Libraries can expect to pay thousands of dollars at the outset, followed by an annual maintenance fee.
The winner: Instant messaging
Through cooperation, it is easier to be available for more hours. This is the typical model for many existing Web-based chat cooperatives. By pooling funds and staff resources, cooperatives can sometimes even buy an after-hours service to extend their Web presence to 24-hour availability. A library may contribute 15 staff hours per week, but be able to provide access to their users around the clock.
Libraries providing IM reference can realistically be available only during normal library hours, as cooperatives do not yet exist for IM reference. …