Fellow Reference Librarians,
About a year ago, we began offering reference service via Instant Messaging services like AOL, MSN and Hotmail. This has proved to be a popular service, with teens and adults able to ask questions while they surf the web and get immediate responses. Recently, I have become aware of a tool that would help us offer our Instant Messaging service to more users in more places, as well as making the task of checking and responding to those messages easier for the reference staff.
Meebo is an online service that allows users to tap into all their Instant Messaging accounts at once. Messages from friends on Yahoo Messenger and AIM pop up in the same window. Not only that, but there is no need to download a program to run it. It operates directly in the browser window. Meebo also offers a few embeddable applications that can be placed on any blog or website, including MeeboMe, which places an IM box on a webpage. I believe that Meebo and MeeboMe could enhance library service in three ways.
First, we should recommend Meebo to patrons using library computers. Currently, settings on the library computers prohibit patrons from downloading or installing progr ams. This protects our computers from viruses, but also prevents patrons from being able to use traditional IM services which require a program be loaded on the computer. This is not an issue with Meebo. A public library in Vermont made these posters to encourage users to IM using meebo. Patrons who learn about Meebo at our library can also use the site to chat at other places were instant messaging is restricted, such as school or work.
Secondly, the reference staff can use Meebo to log into all of our IM accounts at once and respond to instant messages. There are many IM aggregators available, but Meebo is free and very easy to use. Many of the librarians who responded to this Meebo blog post use Meebo to control their virtual reference transactions. Recently, Firefox teamed up with Meebo to offer a Meebo Firefox add-on. This post by Aaron Schmidt, an expert on technology for librarians, discusses the benefits of using this add-on.
Third, we could use MeeboMe to install a virtual reference portal right on our webpage. Users who do not have an instant messaging account or those who stumble across us on the web could use the widget to contact a librarian during business hours. When the library is closed, the widget allows patrons to “leave a message” on the website for a librarian to respond to later. Many libraries are using a MeeboMe widget on their webpage, such as Park Ridge Public Library and Villa Park Public Library. Some libraries are even starting to use MeeboMe on the “no results” screen in the catalog. This is a great way to connect to users at their point of need.
Of course, all technologies or applications are fallible, and Meebo does have a few problems. This tutorial by California State University points out that Meebo does not allow the librarian and the user to look at the same site at the same time (called cobrowsing) or keep transcripts or statistics of reference transactions. Meebo is working to overcome some of these challenges, and transcripts are available for some of Meebo’s more recent applications. However, I believe that the benefits of Meebo (simple, universal and free) outweigh the downsides and that adding Meebo and MeeboMe to our arsenal of reference tools would help the library reach out to more users in more places.