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Getting the Word Out

I am finishing up a practicum at Capital Newspapers, publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times. For one of my final projects there, I again implemented instant messaging. This time I implemented it into the news library’s intranet: “The Library Files.” I was comfortable enough with it from my experience at Edgewood and thought myself quite clever for using it in a news library setting.

I thought it would be a big hit or at least a mild hit. I know if I was a reporter I would use it to contact the library. It is simple. I wouldn’t have to leave my desk. I wouldn’t have to stop what I was doing. It would be quicker than an e-mail. It would be great!

Unfortunately it hasn’t really caught on. It has been used a couple of times right away but now it is languishing. It is similar to watching your own child get picked last for the stickball team. Now, I am not going to complain about it not catching on. I will simply analyze why it is not popular yet.

It was only introduced about three and a half weeks ago so maybe people aren’t sure about it yet. Also many of the reporters are over 30 and may not be as comfortable with IM as, say, college students. In addition there was not much promotion of the new feature. It was displayed at a decently attended training session, but other than that it is simply sitting on the intranet page waiting for people to find it.

This is, as I see it, one of the main problems of librarianship: informing people that you have really useful services. Actually informing them isn’t that hard, getting them to understand is. People may attend a training session in which they learn that there is this new service that would be useful to them, but until they actually try it out they will not actually understand its usefulness. For example: I “know” that heroin is really addictive, but not having tried it I do not “understand” the concept. How then can we get people to understand the usefulness of library services? By getting them to try it and have a good experience with it. I tried this great soup the other day. I was wary about it because there was no meat in it, and Information Tyrannosaurs need their protein. But I had a great experience with it, so I’ll keep coming back for more.

How then can we get library patrons to try the soup? Well we can’t force it into their mouths, so our only option is to keep telling them that the soup is here and its really delicious. I in fact created a poster today touting the utility of this new IM feature on the local intranet. I cannot make people use my new feature. And if they try it a couple times and don’t find it useful I won’t care and I may have to reevaluate it. I can though, keep trying to alert them to new useful tools though…or at least until I am done with my practicum.

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The Technical Side of IM

Choosing the right technology for your library and what you want to accomplish is important. It could be the difference between success and failure. That is why it took multiple meetings and testings for Jonathan and I to decide which IM service to use in our library.

We finally decided on using Meebo because it has a number of excellent advantages. First, it is a cross-platform service and interacts with all the major IM providers including AIM, MSN, and Yahoo. Next, it is web based so users do not have to download any client software if they do not want to. Finally, it offers “Meebo Me” widgets, which are basically windows embedded into a browser page where you can type and get answers.

It is not without its problems though. It does not provide enough of an alert for monitoring it at the reference desk, unless all the librarians download Firefox (which they should have already, being Information Tyrannosaurs) and then download the Meebo add-on.

We were stumped on what to do for this until we came across a great blog post by Chad Boeninger. It shows you how to hack Meebo together with Pidgin, a piece of IM client software. Pidgin is pretty customizable and adaptable to your needs. It also has excellent options for monitoring IM conversations, so it seemed like the best option for us.

After creating all the IM accounts, testing, and working out all the bugs I think we are at a point where we can actually begin implementing it and rolling out a pilot project. We have a reference meeting after Thanksgiving where Jonathan and I will demonstrating how it works. I am excited to see the staff’s reactions to it.

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The Practical Side of IM

Technology needs are an important factor when implementing any new program, but they are rarely the most important. Planning is key to success when undertaking a new project.

This is what took up a great deal of my time when I started to implement IM reference at Edgewood. If one thinks only about the new technology and how cool it is, the project will fall flat. Something will be overlooked and you’ll be scrambling to fix it, or you’ll quickly turn patrons or staff off of the new technology.

The first thing I did was a Google search for literature about IM in libraries. I found a number of good resources that got me thinking including: IM Me, How do you IM?, Library Success, and the RUSA Virtual Reference Guide. I always find it helpful reviewing literature or blogs on a topic, because a lot of other people have done this already and have had some of the same problems you will have. You might as well benefit from other people’s knowledge and experience on the subject to make your own life easier.

Next, Jonathan and I started playing with the technology. I find it is always helpful to simply jump into the technology and start playing with it. Once you get in and mess around it is a lot easier to understand.

After we had a better understanding of what we were dealing with we gave our proposal to the head of reference. It gave some reasons about why we should do it, backed up with statistics. Then it addressed how the service would work including: technolgy, staffing, policies, training, promotion, and evaluation.

I also wrote up a draft that had some preliminary policies and best practices when IMing. We will be having a reference meeting on December 5th, and Jonathan and I will demonstrate it to the staff. We’ll do some training over winter break and roll out the pilot project starting in the spring semester.