The Joy of Text

By Tom Peters |

As I enter the homestretch of my 23rd year as a librarian, I find myself thinking about my settled likes and dislikes.  The negative side the ledger contains the usual suspects.  Interminable meetings are frustrating, whether they are held in person, via conference call, online via webconferencing, or in a virtual world such as Second Life.  Despite the fact that I have not directly worked in a physical library for the past six years, I have not been liberated from the tedium of meetings.  Annual performance appraisals, either as the appraiser or the recipient, are near the top of my dislikes list, too.  There has to be a better way to encourage and enable people to do their best.

For years, book selection has been on my short-list of professional likes.  I love to read reviews, select titles, analyze collections and their usage, and eke out the maximum benefit to a community of readers who are often surviving on meager collections budgets.  Currently, I get to satisfy this professional passion by selecting new audio books for the Unabridged downloadable digital audio book service (, which serves blind and low-vision users in seven states. 

Surprisingly, the newest item on my likes list is providing SMS-based text reference service to mobile phone users.  For the past six months, I have been one of many volunteer service providers for the Info Quest (IQ) collaborative reference service (  When I first signed up to be a service provider, my hunch was that actually providing the service would gradually drift onto my dislikes list.  I have been pleasantly surprised by the joy of text. 

Let me describe my new professional love.  For a couple of hours each week I log into a Gmail account used by the Info Quest service providers.  Whenever a mobile phone user texts a reference question to the IQ phone number (309.222.7740), his or her question appears as an incoming email message.  I research the answer, primarily using  web-based resources, then respond by composing a text message of less than 160 or 320 characters (i.e., one or two text messages) that are then delivered back to the inquirer’s mobile phone.  Our goal is to have an average response time of less than 10 minutes.

My love of providing SMS-based reference service is real.  I’m sure of that.  But I’m pondering why I love it so much.  Let me count the ways:

  1. Young Users.  Although the service is available to everyone who uses a cell phone for text messaging (which seems like just about everyone these days) and although I have no direct knowledge of the age of the users, based on the topics and compositional style of the questions IQ receives, most of the early adopters appear to be teens and young adults – middle schoolers, high schoolers, and undergraduates.  On many levels it’s heartwarming to be part of a library service that appeals to this demographic.
  2. Interesting Questions.  Believe or not, IQ users ask some very interesting questions.  One user appeared to be riding (hopefully not driving) down a famous American thoroughfare and wanted to know at which side street the public library was located.  A quick comparison of the address on the library’s website with Google Maps let me answer that question.  Another user appeared to be entering a smallish Southern town on business or pleasure and wanted to know if any free wi-fi hot spots were available.  There were indeed several such spots in that Southern town.  Just today a question came in asking if a public school district was closed because of inclement weather.  Hats off to the webmaster at that school district, because the information was up on the site front and center.  My favorite set of questions to date seemed to come from an undergraduate student attending a college lecture.  The student kept asking questions about the topic of the lecture.  The nature of the questions indicated to me that the student was not taking a test, and thus not using IQ as a clandestine cheat sheet, but was listening to the lecture and asking IQ questions to help better understand the material being covered without interrupting the lecturer or bothering fellow students.  How cool is that? 
  3. Imagining the Context of the IQ Questions.  This ain’t your grandparents’ reference interview.  All you see is the question couched as a text message and the mobile phone number of the sender.  It can be fun, but also dangerous, to let your professional imagination try to construct the context of the question and the life-situation of the asker.  For example, one evening I received a series of questions asking about the most popular girls name of 1996, followed by a request for the most popular boys name, followed by the most popular girls name of 1997, followed by the most popular boys name of 1997.  You get the pattern.  I ended up constructing a mental image of a bunch of early teen-aged girls at a sleepover.  The messages kept coming until the pizza arrived, I imagined.  As a service provider, however, you have to be careful that these imaginings don’t cloud your response.  At first glance, some questions seem frivolous, almost jokes.  The IQ service providers have discussed this and decided to treat all incoming questions as serious inquiries, regardless of the topic or tone. 
  4. The Rules and Limits Imposed.  Robert Frost once said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”  Nets and boundaries engender zest for the game.  My love for text flourishes within the constraints imposed by the technology and the rules by which the IQ reference providers have agreed to play.  While some reference providers may rail against the 160/320 character limit, I relish it.  I once pared down a pie crust recipe to under 160 characters.  I wonder to this day how that pie turned out.  I love the goal of responding in less than 10 minutes.  If ChaCha and Vark can do it, by golly so can I.   

I'm not sure if my love for text will last, but right now, this service has me hooked.