Aaron Schmidt got us started and I have joined him in using instant messaging to answer reference questions at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library. It was easier than I thought it would be. Practically anyone can do it, if they are willing to relax and be natural and follow normal reference interview techniques. Aaron has said quite a lot on his blog Walking Paper, but I would like to add a few thoughts.
1. No one has to be available all time. You do not even have to have posted hours. We just do it when we can, often late afternoon or the evening. Whenever we connect, our clients who have added us to their buddy list are notified that we are available. Sometimes, we get a question right away. With sporadic hours, we answered 38 questions in January and another 38 in February. I had 4 more Wednesday evening.
2. Do not expect a well-stated question right away. The client may just say “hi” to start and you should just say “hi” in reply. The folks who walk up to the reference desk are not always direct in asking a question. They sometimes want to ask you how you are first or comment on the weather. It is the same with instant messaging. The clients (often teens) need to chat a moment before entrusting you with a question.
3. Introduce yourself and say that you are from your library and are available to answer questions. The person who contacted you may have mistaken you for someone else. They might say “goodbye” right away if they were mistaken, or they may come up with a question. Even if you feel they just asking a question to test you, answer it. Even if it seems an unusual question, like “do you know any good jokes,” find an answer. Your respecting their question might impress them. You might turn a skeptic into a library user.
4. If you walk away from the computer and come back to find someone sent a message and closed when you did not respond, contact her/him with a new message. Her/his screen name is still in the IM window. You may still have a chance to reach them.
5. IMing clients are often multitasking. As long as you let them know you are working on their request, they will give you time. Send another “still working” message if you take more than two minutes.
6. You can paste answers or web addresses into the chat box. It is amazing how much you can pass along without typing much.
7. Do not be surprised if you get a gush of thank yous when you supply the great answer to your question. Also do not be too surprised if the client disappears as soon as she/he gets that answer. People who come to the desk display a wide range of behaviors, too.
I am passing these thoughts along because I only learned from my experience. I had been worried about a schedule and with being fast and efficient in replying to clients. It is working here at Thomas Ford. By the way, our screen name is thommyford. Message us.