Magazine article Online

Making Chat Widgets Work for Online Reference

Magazine article Online

Making Chat Widgets Work for Online Reference

Article excerpt

When our library began using chat widgets on Novanet Live Help instead of virtual reference (VR) software, our patrons had comments such as the following:

"Great idea and service, you can get help from wherever you are!"

"Having a ready-tool available ... is very helpful."

"These sites can be hard to navigate and having someone to ask a quick question and getting a real person and a real answer was awesome."

We were gratified to find such positive remarks about our Novanet Live Help online reference service. Not coincidentally, I'm sure, we have experienced a dramatic increase in use since introducing the chat widgets. Could it be that these simple, user-friendly chat widgets (just type your question in and click enter) are all this service needed to appeal to our patrons? Our experience using these chat widgets certainly supports this theory. Our patrons needed our online help all along--they just found the old online reference tools cumbersome to use, or they didn't notice the service icon on the webpages. (You have to admit, a ready-to-use chat box saying "A librarian is online" is much more engaging than a dull icon saying "Live Help.")

So if your library is still using VR software for your online reference service and it is not seeing significant use, don't assume that your service is not valuable--maybe you're just not using the right tools to engage your patrons.

Novanet Live Help (Novanet is a consortium of postsecondary institutions in Nova Scotia, Canada), like many online reference services, was originally supported by licensed VR software. While VR programs offer many librarian-valued features (such as automatic transcript and statistics reporting), they also embed barriers to patron usage (such as slow-responding messaging systems, patron login forms, and required browser settings). We found that by stripping these barriers away and employing ready-to-use chat widgets (boxes that you place in webpages that allow you to communicate with users in situ), we made our service more accessible to our patrons. We not only adopted chat widgets for online reference, we also experimented with the placement of these widgets in various online environments. In this article, I'll describe a few experiments we conducted with Meebo Me chat widgets and the consequences (good and bad). Perhaps our experiences will help you to revitalize your online reference service.


In the winter of 2008, after realizing that our low usage and troublesome VR software issues were typical of VR software-based services, Novanet Live Help piloted an instant messaging (IM) and chat widget-based service. We simultaneously staffed four commercial IM accounts (MSN Messenger, AIM, Google Talk, and Yahoo! Messenger) plus a Meebo Me chat widget (positioned in library contact pages) through Pidgin, a multiprotocol IM client that allows you to log in to various IM and chat widget accounts through one common interface. Due to the pilot's success, we decided to retain the IM and chat widget accounts for the following autumn's Live Help season and drop the VR software. The pilot project revealed some interesting results (see Bedwell, Linda; Rodrigues, Denyse; Duggan, Lawrence J.; and Orlov, Stanislav: "IM a Librarian: Extending Virtual Reference Services Through Instant Messaging and Chat Widgets," Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library Information Practice and Research, Vol. 3, No. 2 [2008]: pp. 1-17), but the most valuable revelations occurred after the autumn 2008 launch of Live Help.


In September 2008 the Live Help service returned, supported by the Meebo Me chat widget and four IM accounts, and was immediately greeted with more messages than usual--up to nine questions in 1 hour. (Up until this time, Live Help typically clocked less than one question per hour.) Despite this heavy use, however, we noted that none of our patrons were messaging us through the four IM services. …

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