Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Is virtual reference successful? Part III (Hint: yes it is)

In parts one and two I raised a series of objections to Pascal Lupien's article in Online, "Virtual Reference in the Age of Pop-Up Blockers, Firewalls, and Service Pack 2"

In part three I'd like to address the end of the article where Lupien makes a case for using IM instead of standard VR software to do virtual reference. In fact, I agree with all of Lupien's main points:
  • IM is generally free.
  • It is easy to use, from the patron’s perspective as well as on the library side
  • Unlike VR software, IM works with most computers, operating systems, and connection speeds.
  • It does not require the patron to download software or configure a browser.
  • [IM is] faster, as patrons who already use an IM system can simply add the library service to their list of “buddies” and message a librarian when they require assistance.
Not only do I find IM to be a perfectly good tool for reference work, I think it is quickly becoming (has become?) a standard mode of communication that every library should consider offering as a point of contact for their customers. Libraries, get an AIM Screenname, get a yahoo ID, sign up for Meebo, (maybe add the MeeboMe widget to your webpage) and start chatting with your customers!

But why limit IM to reference? We don't limit the phone to reference, do we? IM is just another way for our customers to contact us. Larger libraries can give each department their own IM identities, (i.e. "extensions") and let the customer choose which department to connect with. If a session needs to be 'tranfered' to another department, library staff can invite the customer and someone from the correct department into a new chat room, and viola! the session has been tranfered. So many of our customers are on their computers all day (and night) it just makes good sense to give them a quick, convenient option for contacting us.

But back to the article. Although I agree with everything Lupien wrote about the benefits of using IM to do virtual reference, he doesn't address the key reasons many VR services don't use it. These reasons were brought up in a great discussion about "The Future of IM" that took place on the digref listserv last month. (follow the link, then scroll down to the 'future of IM' thread to read the whole megillah.)

Caleb Tucker-Raymond, who expertly manages Oregon's VR service, started the thread and summed up some of the key points in this post, excerpted below:
  • Sarah Houghton mentioned multiple librarians need to be able to monitor a single screen name.
  • Jean Ferguson said that she that her campus enterprise IM software (Jabber) doesn't talk to commercial IM networks (like AOL).
  • Jean also mentioned the need for a solution for the patron without an account (such as, come in anonymously over the web)
All true, all true. But Sharon Morris, until recently the VR Coordinator for AskColorado (congrats on the new job Sharon!) hit the collaborative VR software nail squarely on its pointed little head when she wrote:
24/7 availability is essential to making libraries accessible anywhere, anytime on the Internet. IM at this point does not offer the extra staffing/cooperation model that makes VR such an amazing step forward for library services on the Internet. (emphasis is mine.)
VR software gives us the power to collaborate. That gives us the power to offer 24/7 service and THAT makes customers (and the press) sit up and take notice. It also gives regional and statewide VR collaboratives the ability to market a single, powerful, expectation-busting, W-O-W, library service. We don't get opportunities like that every day. Bottom line: Beyond the fact that VR software gives us the power to offer convenient, relevant, 24/7 service, it gives us the power to change peoples' perceptions about libraries. I would argue that we have done just that. In my book that far outweighs any of the downsides that Lupien raised about the bugginess and technical limitations of VR software. Perhaps I should say, far outweighs for now...

One final, more personal point before wrapping this up. I'm unhappy with the snarky tone I took in responding to Lupien's article in part one, and I realize it was not productive to take such a tone. It came partly from writing much to late, while far too tired, and partly from my own deep wish for librarians to stay focused on the bigger picture of customer experience, and my perception that the article lacked that focus (whether it did or didn't, dear reader, you may decide.) I am not trying to make excuses for my snarkiness, just offering a little self-reflection from a nascent blogger, tinged with a bit of regret. I will try to do better.

I am convinced that Pascal Lupien cares deeply about the vitality and relevance of libraries and the importance of customer experience. I recently found a copy of his presentation, (along with Lorna Rourke) Adding a Personal Touch to a Virtual World, presented at Computers in Libraries, 2006. This presentation gave me a fuller picture of Pascal Lupien's attitudes, concerns, and values and I found myself nodding in almost constant appreciation and agreement with his work.

OK, that's all I'll be posting about VR for now. Back to customer service!

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Check out: Ten Questions with Seth Godin

Guy Kawasaki, who blogs over at Signum sine tinnitu, has posted Ten Questions with Seth Godin. (one of my favorite non-librarian blogger/writers.)

Seth on books:

Books are the new t-shirts. We used to buy t-shirts as a way of covering our hard abs. Now, though, the purpose of the t-shirt is to be a souvenir, to give us a concrete way to remember something that mattered to us—and to give us an easy way to spread that idea to others.

Seth on how blogs help build brands:

...human beings respond to stories, and stories, the best ones, are personal.

Seth on five things that enabled him to be successful:

  1. No ulterior motive. I rarely do A as a calculated tactic to get B. I do A because I believe in A, or it excites me or it's the right thing to do. That’s it. No secret agendas.

  2. I don't think my audience owes me anything. It's always their turn.

  3. I'm in a hurry to make mistakes and get feedback and get that next idea out there. I'm not in a hurry, at all, to finish the "bigger" project, to get to the finish line.

  4. I do things where I actually think I'm right, as opposed to where I think succeeding will make me successful. When you think you're right, it's more fun and your passion shows through.

  5. I've tried to pare down my day so that the stuff I actually do is pretty well leveraged. That, and I show up. Showing up is underrated. (emphasis is
    mine -pb)

If you like what you read, check out the rest of the post here, then amble on over to Seth's blog.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Free AOL - How to convert your paid account

Heads up--we may be getting questions on this at the reference desk.

AOL is now giving away their service for free. If you're already an AOL subscriber, but don't rely on AOL to connect to the Internet, you can switch to the free plan. (If you rely on AOL for actual Internet access, then you'll still have to cough up some dough.)

Currently AOL is telling customers, "To change your current AOL plan, simply call Member Services at 1-800-984-6207 and select the Billing Option when prompted." I tried this, and after spending 20 minutes navigating their (gasp!) poorly designed voice-menu, I actually got through to a nice fellow who told me how to cancel. THIS IS BIG SO READ ON...

Although AOL is not really advertising it yet, subscribers can easily make the switch to the free plan by:
  1. Logging into AOL (log in through their software--sorry, this won't work through; at least not yet...)
  2. Choosing KEYWORD: Change plan
  3. Choosing the option for "Free Plan"

I've done it, and I'm here to tell you that it was that easy. A pleasant surprise, especially considering AOL's well-documented history of making it nigh impossible to discontinue service.

For the first time in many years I'm moved to say, Thank You AOL!

(cross-posted at my new work blog )