Providing Reference Services through Instant Messaging and Text Messaging

Providing Reference Services through Instant Messaging and Text Messaging
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Traditional Reference Services

Reference services refers to helping library patrons with information needs by finding information and answering questions. Before the advent of computers and cell phones, library users needing reference services had to physically visit the reference desk and talk to a reference librarian in person. As the telephone become popular in the mid-twentieth century, many libraries also began offering telephone reference services. Finally, most libraries also started providing reference help through e-mail at the end of the 1990s in response to the increased use of electronic communications.

Just as libraries have striven to remain up to date in terms of providing access to electronic sources such as electronic journals and databases and eBooks, many libraries have also updated their reference services to include instant messaging and text messaging in an effort to meet the technological needs and preferences of contemporary library users.

IM Library Reference

In addition to providing traditional reference services, many libraries have also begun to serve patrons through instant messaging or IM reference. For example, Milner Library at Illinois State University recently launched the instant messaging system LibraryH3lp (pronounced as library help) as its primary IM reference service beginning in the fall 2009 semester. LibraryH3lp is an integrated web chat and IM platform designed especially for library reference services by Eric Sessoms, President of Nub Games, Inc., and Pam Sessoms, reference librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

To use the LibraryH3lp for reference questions, library patrons only need access to a computer with an Internet connection. At Milner Library, patrons simply click on the IM link on the homepage of the library website, which loads a pop-up window titled “IM a Milner Librarian.” The patrons then type their reference questions or other queries in the box with the message “Type here to chat. Press ENTER to send.” After pressing enter, the message is sent to the librarians at the reference desk who can then assist the patron through IM. In addition to standard text chatting, LibraryH3lp also allows file transfers between the librarian and the patron. At the end of the reference session, patrons can send transcripts of the reference sessions to themselves through e-mail.

Other popular software widely-used for IM library reference includes Meebo, Trillian, AOL Instant Messenger, Text a Librarian, Skype, and Windows Live Messenger.

Text Message Library Reference

In addition to IM reference, some libraries also offer reference services through text messaging from cell phones and other mobile devices. For example, on the homepage of the Milner Library website is a Text link that provides library users with the information for contacting Reference Services by text message. Patrons simply text their questions to the number provided, and a reference librarian will text back with a reply. Text reference is most useful for short questions with short answers. And although standard text messaging fees may apply for each message sent and received, many library users have unlimited text messaging plans, making text reference an invaluable service for the patron browsing in the stacks, sitting in class, or walking to the library.


By offering both instant messaging and text messaging reference services, modern libraries can meet the information needs of current patrons. Library users can therefore ask questions of reference libraries in person, on the phone, through e-mail, with instant messaging, and by text message.