Mobile Reference in a Changing Library

The use of texting is increasing. How do libraries leverage this technology successfully? Librarians need to seriously think about starting to offer text reference service for their users.

My Info Quest
by Ann Ownes, Sacramento Public Library

My Info Quest was started by a grant and is run by librarians–it is collaborative. Texting is increasing in use, while talking on cell phones is decreasing. Goal is to be 24/7 but right now open for text reference about 65 hours a week.

How does it work?
Users send a text, Altarama translates into an email and send it to Gmail, and then send an email that is translated into a text for the user. Do not answer legal or medical questions. Gmail account for the texting service looks exactly like a regular Gmail account.

Sacramento Public Library used a QR Code on the website that users could scan and it would add the phone number for the texting service to their phone’s contacts list. (This is a fantastic use of QR Codes.)

Have created a Google Group that is active to share information among the librarians and an iGoogle Reference Workspace. Great feature of the workspace is the character counter that librarians can use to make sure that their messages are not longer than 160 characters. Also they make use of link shorteners. Use Google Calendar to see who is assigned to which shifts.

Is it being used?
Yes. Answered over 8,400 questions since launch in July 2009. Largest user group is from Oklahoma City (Sacramento is second).

What we learned

  • Text reference has the same problems as a physical library
  • we can’t assume users’ phones are web-enabled
  • it takes talent to craft a good answer in 160 characters
  • text reference fills a need and many participants will remain on a paying basis in 2011: going with a different vendor (Text a Librarian) in 2011

SMS Landscape
by Ann Schoenenberger, Kenton County Public Library

Text messaging is second most popular thing to do on a cell phone (taking a photo is the most popular), from Pew Internet study.

Businesses are creating services around texting: ChaCha, kgb (charges $1/question), Google SMS, etc.

Library options: Text a Librarian, QuestionPoint, twilio, AltaRama, Agent511, Microsoft Outlook SMS.

People want answers, not instructions or keyword searching, in mobile reference (especially with text reference).

Lots of research is coming out now on text reference. Dr. Lili Luo from SJSU is doing research into text reference so be on the look out for her articles.

People ask questions via IM and text reference that they wouldn’t ask in person. Sometimes you get goofy questions (just like at the reference desk) or rude questions. Favorite goofy question: “If a taco and a hot dog got in a fight, who would win?”

Action steps:

  • Try it for yourself (309-222-7740 for My Info Quest)
  • Help put libraries in people’s pockets
  • Encourage people to use text reference services
  • Tell your story

You can go to @smsbib to get articles referenced in the talk.


Why changing from AltaRama to Text a Librarian?
Had a vendor fair in July and listened to presentations, libraries discussed it and had a vote. They liked the interface a lot and there was the cost issue–got a great discount.

Who staffs the texting service?
Has to be someone who is not on the physical reference desk. Having a collaborative allows even smaller libraries to have a text referencing service.

Having texting reference service allows librarians to tap into an existing workflow for many young people. The use of texting is increasing so much that it would be foolish for librarians to not at least consider implementing text reference.