Can U TXT the LBRY?

By Michael Stephens | In mid June the Mississippi State University Libraries hosted the Mississippi Library 2.0 Summit. Organized by the outstanding librarians of the MSU libraries, the day revolved around explorations of user-centered technologies. I was present to open the day with a talk about the Hyperlinked Library. Sessions on Second Life, Facebook, Library 2.0 and blogging rounded out the day, which also included a panel discussion by MSU librarians sharing details of their Library 2.0 journey, an outstanding presentation by the two Nashville Public Library teen librarians, and some informative poster presentations.

One of the many highlights of a full and rich day-long conference was the chance to sit in on a presentation by Angela Dunnington, Coordinator of Library Science, and Beth Stahr, Interim Head of Reference, from Southeastern Louisiana University. SELU is nestled between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and has a student population of 15,000. The library received a grant in 2005 to implement short messaging service for text reference.

We talk these days about going where the users are. What the librarians at SELU noted was the prevalence of students using text messaging to communicate with each other. Could the library have a place there? Should the library try? One thing is for sure, the experience is useful to consider as we look for more ways to reach our users and their information needs.

Net Gen Ref via SMSThe presentation offered an in-depth look at the service.  Angela covered the nuts and bolts. “The product is virtually very inexpensive,” she said.  For roughly $1100 to startup, the service provided by a vendor in Australia includes a phone number for the library and a bundle of 1000 messages per year. After two years of providing the service, the SELU library is going to renew the product.

Angela noted that “the 'Send by SMS' tool works with existing email systems and simplifies the creation of SMS/Chat abbreviations.” The text service was added to their Web page and was designed to “capture the attention of the users.” The text number (011-6142-898-7358) is an Australian number that students can text to with their questions.

How does it work? Here's a breakdown as described by Angela:
  • Student sends a message
  • Message goes to server in Australia
  • Text message is converted into an email message
  • Email message arrives in library's mailbox
  • Question is answered and the process reverses
Angela reported that the types of questions the library receives includes: short answer reference questions, non-serious questions, library questions, and sometimes more complex questions. She reiterated: “It was an easy thing to do – both to set up and to train staff.”

Many of the librarians learned to use text messaging in a time of crisis. After Katrina, when Beth was without a home phone for two months, she realized how easy it was to learn to text. It was the only communication option available to many of the SELU librarians at that time. “The librarians learned to text message when everything else was down,” she said.

Beth discussed the challenges and promotion of the service. She was honest about the drawbacks. Limitations include the fact that SMS is viewed as a less serious form of communication by students, the limit of 160 characters per message restricts its utility for reference communications, other more convenient reference options are available, and the Australian phone number may not work with some students' phones. The vendor in Australia is looking for a North American partner to offer North American numbers.

“Sometimes," she said, "there is a better way to get information than texting…”

Beth reported that usage of SMS reference has been low, especially when compared to other channels for reference in the library. In the 2005-2006 year, the usage rates were as follows: 

    SMS Questions: 84
    Email Questions: 489
    Chat 24/7 Questions: 1060

Text message a Ref Librarian todayEven with the low numbers, the librarians were positive about the service and believed it had a place in their library. They offered that the service needs to be marketed – and sustained and repeated as students come and go. Promotions of the text-a-librarian service include: information kiosk, the “Text a librarian/Taste of Australia” contest, campus media, business cards, library “scrap” note paper, table tents, mousepads, and posters. They incorporated texting into their suite of reference services branding. The information kiosk was located at the student union to promote the library and the service and included a laptop, marketing materials, etc.

Beth detailed other uses of text messaging that might be more successful, including library outreach, instruction/learning, ILL alerts, overdue material alerts, and the SMS broadcast of messages promoting special library events and tours. This, she noted, “Might be a better way to reach students who do not use their university email as often as we might expect.”

There are all sorts of good reasons to use this type of service. “It has been an easy, inexpensive service to offer to our students, we just need to market it more out there where they are.”

It was fascinating to get this glimpse of a service that only a few libraries may be offering or even considering. This is a pioneer field.  Trendspotting librarians might take note: what these brave folks are doing out on the edge of our market may pave the way for wider use of SMS for reference and information services.