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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > October 2012

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Vol. 32 No. 8 — October 2012
FEATURE
Your Guide to Meebo Options: Virtual Reference Summer Meltdown and Fall Shakeout
by William Breitbach

Competition in the virtual reference market got really hot this past summer. Recent developments in virtual reference offerings suggest the market is much more dynamic than most of us would have imagined a short time ago. With Google’s acquisition of Meebo and its subsequent decision to shut down the chat widget service, many libraries scrambled to replace this tool as their virtual reference engine.

As the person in my library who oversees reference, instruction, and research consultation services, my first thought was that Google would encourage Meebo users to use its own Google Talk Chat Badge since it offered similar functionality, but Google appears to have quietly discontinued support for this feature as well. I was unable to get it to work and found a fair amount of chatter on the web about the issue, although there has been no official Google announcement.

In any case, libraries and individual librarians have been using Meebo since at least 2007 to provide free virtual reference services, so Meebo’s demise sent them scurrying for a replacement. The good news was that other significant changes in the virtual reference marketplace were taking place, providing reference librarians with plenty of options.

Both Springshare and Mosio launched new synchronous live chat services this summer, putting them in direct competition with LibraryH3lp, QuestionPoint, and RefChatter for synchronous virtual reference. Also, jumping into the mix of new options for virtual reference is a company called ChiliFresh. ChiliFresh is known for helping libraries integrate book reviews and book jackets into their catalogs, but it is now providing a free chat service libraries can use for virtual reference. In addition to these new options for virtual reference, one of the founders of LibraryH3lp has partnered with another librarian to start after-hours support for LibraryH3lp via a separate company called Chatstaff. This article aims to highlight recent developments and compare and contrast the services to help libraries select the most appropriate service in this surprising dynamic virtual reference market.

What’s New?

Mosio’s Text a Librarian has expanded its virtual reference options to include live synchronous chat and email. Users access the service by clicking on a slide-out tab on the library website. They are then given three options to ask questions—text message, email, and synchronous chat. Users simply type their queries into a box and check the desired reply option. If users select text message or email, there is another field to enter the appropriate contact information where the reply will be sent. If the live web chat is selected, a chat box is automatically launched. The number of concurrent operators monitoring the service depends on the subscription level selected. This product is designed to work as what could be called a “traditional” virtual reference tool, in the sense that there are no individual chat widgets for profile pages or subject guides and only a single reference queue. From the librarian’s perspective, one nice thing about this service is that all three communication channels (text, email, and chat) can be monitored from a single dashboard. Another potentially appealing feature of Mosio’s chat solution is that it is offered at no additional charge beyond what the company charges for its text messaging service. Libraries essentially pay for the text service based on the number of librarian logins and monthly outbound texts (inbound texts are free), and they receive unlimited email and chat services for free. However, libraries that already have a LibAnswers subscription and are only looking for synchronous chat may find that LibraryH3lp or even LibChat are cheaper alternatives. That said, the highest subscription level is only about $2,400, so the service is not exceptionally expensive.

LibChat is Springshare’s synchronous virtual reference option. LibChat is an add-on module for Springshare’s LibAnswers product. This service is a fully functional virtual reference platform. Patrons access the service via an embedded chat widget that can appear on a webpage as a slide-out chat box, an embedded widget, or a button. Libraries can set up multiple reference queues based on subject or service point. Operators can monitor multiple queues, transfer patrons, and add transactions to RefAnalytics (Springshare’s reference statistics software) with the click of a button. The system also allows librarians to create scripts or canned messages for commonly asked questions. These communications can be easily entered into the chat box via a drop-down menu. In addition, librarians can create individual chat widgets to place on their personal pages or subject guides. The system statistics allow administrators to easily analyze chat traffic for staffing and planning. One unique feature about LibChat is the patron rating system and comments options. Upon the conclusion of each chat transaction, patrons are invited to rate the service by marking between one and 10 stars. Users are also invited to send comments about the service. None of the other options discussed in this article offer a patron feedback mechanism. Also, at the conclusion of the transaction, patrons are given the opportunity to email themselves a transcript. Another nice feature of LibChat is that when the service is offline, patrons are directed to the LibAnswers knowledgebase and question submission form. Libraries may find these asynchronous options to be nice alternatives to synchronous support when nobody is available or the library is closed.

Seamless integration with LibAnswers allows operators to monitor email, text messages, and LibChat from a single interface. Moreover, integration with other Springshare products will make this virtual reference option especially appealing to Springshare’s current customer base and will probably drive more customers to explore the entire Springshare product line. Again, LibChat is an add-on module for LibAnswers. Pricing for the module is modest and ranges from $499 to $1,099, depending on the number of concurrent operators. A base subscription to LibAnswers is based on the number of full-time students and ranges between $699 and $1,199.

LibraryH3lp is another great option for those still searching for a Meebo replacement or looking for alternative virtual reference service platforms. The big change for LibraryH3lp of late is that it partnered with another company called Chatstaff (http://chatstaff.us) to offer after-hours reference support services. Although originally conceived to offer support for LibraryH3lp customers, Chatstaff will offer after-hours support on any virtual reference platform. Even though LibraryH3lp’s system did not have any major upgrades this summer, it seems to always be making enhancements and is definitely worth discussing in the current context.

LibraryH3lp is another complete virtual reference platform. Libraries can set up multiple reference queues based on subject or service point. Librarians can also set up individual chat widgets for their personal pages and subject guides. Widgets can be designed to embed in a page, pop out into a separate window, or pop out and follow the user to different webpages. Chat widgets are fully customizable so they can be designed to match library websites. Widgets can also be designed to show online/offline status to let patrons know when librarians are available. In addition, text message reference can be integrated with the chat service for a modest price or for free using a Google Voice account. Patrons can be transferred to other operators who might be subject/service experts in a particular area and to facilitate shift changes. Usage statistics reports are easily generated and customized.

Four features set LibraryH3lp apart from some of the other services discussed here. First, LibraryH3lp can also function as an instant messaging (IM) aggregator, routing IM communications originating via AIM, Yahoo!, MSN, or GTalk through the LibraryH3lp system. This way, patrons establishing communication via their own IM providers are still managed within the same system (i.e., they are placed in the reference queue and can be transferred, marked for follow-up, etc.). Second, the operator side is very flexible. Operators can log in to a web interface and monitor the service on a mobile device or through an IM client such as Pidgin, Digsby, or Adium. Third, LibraryH3lp does not have a limit on the number of concurrent operators. This feature may make LibraryH3lp especially appealing for large institutions that want to have all staff logged in to their personal accounts. And fourth, LibraryH3lp can be set up to function as an in-house IM system, allowing all staff/librarians to communicate with each other using either the web interface or an IM client.

It would be difficult to beat LibraryH3lp’s pricing. It is based on the population of the community and ranges from $180 to $1,080.

ChiliFresh seemed to come out of nowhere in terms of offering virtual reference services. Previously, its services focused on placing patron reviews and book jacket covers and enabling patron communication via the online catalog. The launch of its new service seems to be a direct response to Meebo’s demise, while the other new services mentioned here were already launched or in development. What sets ChiliFresh apart from the other services discussed is that it is free. It is also much different from any of the free chat services libraries have been using over the past several years (Meebo, Chatango, Plugoo, and the like). It is free and has an embeddable widget, but that is where the similarities end. What makes this free service stand above what we have seen in the past with free virtual reference tools is that it is designed specifically for libraries. That means some of the challenges that libraries faced with free services, most notably only allowing a single operator to monitor the system, are no longer a factor.

Like LibraryH3lp and LibChat, ChiliFresh provides users with a customizable and embeddable chat widget so they can contact the library. Libraries can select color schemes to match their websites and customize online and offline messages that users see when they encounter the chat widget. Librarians are made aware of when a patron is online via a sound notification. These notifications can be set to repeat continuously until the patron is responded to or to play a single sound when the patron first enters the system. As stated earlier, one of the best things about this free chat service is that a library can have multiple operators logged in monitoring the virtual reference queue. Although what ChiliFresh offers is a step above Chatango, Plugoo, and similar services, it is hard to describe it as a complete virtual reference platform. Missing are some key features many libraries would like to have in a virtual reference system. For example, although the system can handle multiple operators, there is no way for operators to see who else is online monitoring the service. The service only has a single virtual reference channel. Therefore, libraries interested in creating department or subject-level communication would not be able to do so with a single ChiliFresh account. There are limited options in the administration panel as well. Administrators can create and customize widgets and add operators, but not much else. Furthermore, there is no way to view transcripts, track usage, transfer patrons, or mark transactions for follow-up. However, it should be remembered that this is a free service that beats the platforms many libraries formerly used for free, simply based on its ability to have multiple operators logged in and the fact that it is a very nice widget with customization features.

Zoho Chat is another decent option. Although this article has primarily focused on recent developments and changes in the virtual reference marketplace, this is another free option that is worth mentioning because it has some really nice features. This service was not designed for virtual reference, but it could easily be used for setting up a basic reference service. Zoho Chat, like Meebo, has an embeddable widget and functions as an IM network aggregator. There are other similar options (Chatango), but Zoho Chat is mentioned here because its branding is minimal and the embeddable widget is customizable and generally looks more professional than some of these other options. Another reason I recommend Zoho Chat over some of the other free embedded chat options is that the operator can send files and share the computer’s desktop. Sharing the computer desktop requires the patron to download a plug-in, and it takes about 3 minutes to set up such a meeting. Some libraries might find these features appealing, especially if they have no need for multiple operators. Librarians selecting this option should, however, remember its potential pitfall as a virtual reference tool. Most notably, the system is meant to work with a single operator or user. Therefore, librarians and patrons could get disconnected at shift changes when another operator logs in. Libraries staffing from a single location such as the reference desk will have less to worry about with disconnects if they use a single login.

What’s Best for You?

The best virtual reference solution will depend on the needs, and to some degree the budget, of each institution. The chart on page 22 [below] shows a summary of the key features offered by the virtual reference options discussed in the article. Some virtual reference features may be more important than others to some libraries. For example, smaller libraries may not have a need for multiple queues, but they may want flexible communication channels for patrons. In that case, Mosio’s suite of virtual reference services may be the best option. Larger libraries might want unlimited simultaneous users or mobile flexibility for the operators. These libraries would want to take a close look at LibraryH3lp because its services really stand out in these areas. For others, the free offerings from ChiliFresh or Zoho Chat may be adequate. With the less-than-desirable budget situation that many libraries currently find themselves in, one of the free options may be the only option to consider. In any case, libraries that are looking for new virtual reference services have some nice, affordable options to select from. Whichever system is selected, recent changes in the virtual reference marketplace have expanded options much more than most of us would have imagined a short time ago.

Virtual Reference Feature Comparison

William Breitbach (wbreitbach@fullerton.edu) is unit head of instruction and information services at California State University–Fullerton’s Pollak Library and is subject liaison to the nursing and social work departments. He oversees reference, instruction, and research consultation services.
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