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Instant Messaging and Librarians

From a flurry of good articles about a recent talk by Stephen Abrams (who is doing a terrific service to LibraryLand by playing Resident Scold on All Issues Technological), I winnow out this Abramism caught by Tame the Web: “Everyone under 25 has an IM account but most librarians over 30 don’t. This needs to change.”

Yesterday, as Alice among the Academics, I spent the day on AOL instant messaging, in a group where the mean age had to be at least 40. Not only do many librarians not have instant messaging–which makes them unfamiliar with a key form of social software–but many library IT departments block instant messaging for patrons and staff alike. I can (but won’t) name one sleek library in the Bay Area where I spent a highly unproductive afternoon thinking I could use their wifi connection to work away from home, only to find I couldn’t IM my team. If it doesn’t bother Starbucks, why does it bother you?

(I was also disturbed by this “critique” of IM: “I also think they chat amongst themselves without the boss overhearing.” I hope librarians talk among themselves. Must every conversation include the boss?)

One key justification for using virtual reference software rather than instant messaging software, shared with me at the state conference last week, is that many city IT departments don’t allow IM software. Which leads me to conclude:

1. Many city IT departments are too godlike,
2. Many libraries are unable to effectively work with IT departments (and will go to great lengths to avoid engaging with IT), and
3. We are all too good at shooting ourselves in the foot.

I am fully aware of all the additional functionality found in virtual reference products, and I celebrate the librarians who pioneered VR, which is the embodiment of all Anne Lipow stood for: closing the gap between librarian and user–as Anne often said, it is the librarian, not the patron, that is remote. All that notwithstanding, even if you use custom VR software for some specialized purposes, it’s not a substitute for instant messaging. Furthermore, insisting that VR software is necessary for virtual reference places an artificial obstacle to providing virtual reference in the first place.

Sarah Houghton and her camp followers are right. Plain old instant messaging software is what your patrons use and how they will find you, and is a tool you should be familiar with at home as well as work, and make available on every computer in the library.

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