Professional Development

Launching a Text a Librarian Service: Cornell’s Experience with Text-a-Librarian

Friday, July 31, 2009 3:34 pm

I sat in on a couple of the concurrent sessions of the day-long “Hand-Held Librarian” online conference on July 30. I was particularly interested in hearing how a library system with the stature of Cornell University had implemented a service which we ourselves have in fact successfully launched already. The participants were Virginia Cole, Reference and Digital Services Librarian at Olin, Cornell University’s humanities and social sciences library Baseema Banoo Krkoska, Reference & Instruction Coordinator at Albert R. Mann Library for the Colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences & Human Ecology; and Gabriel Marcias, VP of Sales and Marketing of Mosio, the makers of Text a Librarian (TAL). Bearing in mind the 85-90% Americans-with-cellphones statistics, the Digital Reference Committee at Cornell University decided to launch a service that would reach students via their preferred mode of communication. They negotiated important privacy provisions with the service provider, Mosio, in order to disassociate student phone numbers from their queries, but do retain an archive of questions which can actually be searched to find earlier answers to repeat questions. Mosio offers a Q & A technology that has been at the cutting edge SMS, and it uses the same encryption that online bankers use. At Cornell, the service operates on a first come-first serve basis, and any staff can answer; there’s a built-in alert so anyone can see if a question is taken. They market via in-house promotional material, by distributing business cards that include the number for the service, and through library instruction sessions. In the future, they hope to have all librarians offering chat, with hourly shift changes. The types of questions typically cover hours, circulation policies, resources, course-related topics, or the inevitable complaints–an excellent way to preserve anonymity while venting regarding a problem. They began this with a “stealthy” launch, in one course only, in order to test the system and methods, so this totaled 26 texts from April 20 to July 29. A particular challenge, they noted, is the ambiguous question, although some people are savvy enough only to ask precise, specific questions that lend themselves well to this mode of communication. The librarians warned that one has to be prepared for the lack of the reference interview and the general lack of dialogue. They look forward to expanding the service in the coming school year. The Mosio representative, Gabriel, singled out security, privacy, dependability, and simplicity has attributes that their system has to offer. The statistics on texting are impressive; 3.5 billion per day in American in 2008, twice as many as phone calls. He showed the screen features with one- click access to favorite research tools, Web 2.0 sites, and social networks. The issue, he wryly pointed out, is teaching librarians to text, not students, except in the sense that students are not all using reference services. It’s a promising system, but with a price tag of $1199 per year, charges are daunting, and our impending Meebo and GoogleVoice services at the opposite end of the price range promise virtues of their own!

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