Got a resource question? Text a librarian

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by Matthew Dembicki, Editor Community College Times

Originally posted October 11, 2011

Students, faculty and staff at Arizona Western College (AWC) can now text questions to the college’s librarians and expect answers within a few minutes.

The new feature, which the college shares with Northern Arizona University along with a campus and library, will allow library users to text general library questions or to book a study room.

AWC added the feature mainly to accommodate students who had “on-the-go questions” but don’t at the time have access to a computer, said Jocelyn Bates, an information technology librarian at the college.

“We knew that since they had smart phones, they had to be texting,” she said, noting a campus survey that indicated most students on campus owned smart phones.

Most community college libraries offer some type of texting feature, said Sarah Raley, director of the Community College Library Consortium, which represents mainly two-year colleges in California. The majority of libraries on community college campuses use free basic text services, typically because they don’t have the budgets for more elaborate services that charge fees. Those systems, for example, can pool libraries so an employee from one of the participating colleges is always on call to answer questions, which save on resources.

Mosio, a mobile software company that developed the Text-A-Librarian program, says its system is used by 500 libraries nationwide, including many college libraries. The company moved into the market because it saw texting as a growing area. Text messaging is the most widely used form of mobile communication in the world. Americans are now texting more than twice as much as they are talking on their cell phones, according to Mosio.

Walk-ins still welcome

Although there’s been an increase in interest in texting librarians, walk-in questions still comprise most of the queries, Raley said.

“There’s a limit on what you can type in a text,” she said. “You can’t really have an in-depth conversation.”

Santa Barbara Community College (SBCC) in California, which started its texting service in 2009, has seen similar results. In two years, the college’s library has received only 84 text messages, including seven in September, said Kenley Neufeld, director of the library. About half of the questions pertain to library hours and the rest are traditional reference questions, he said.

SBCC is about to launch an ad campaign to raise awareness of the service, Neufeld said, noting that nearly all of the college’s students have cell phones with texting capabilities.

“It comes down to how you market it,” he said.

Although the SBCC library uses Google Voice, a free service, it has integrated it into an online chat service through Libraryh3lp, which charges a minimal fee. This allows any librarian on duty to see and reply to a text message.

Other variations

Other colleges and universities already offer similar texting and online instant-messaging features. Maricopa Community College System has set up a website for students during open hours, and it also has a 24-hour chat-with-a-librarian feature. It takes about 15 minutes to answer questions, depending on their complexity. Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania also offers texting and instant messaging with librarians.

Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey even offers a “text-a-tutor” features through its library that allows students to promptly find a tutor in all subject areas.

SBCC is considering expanding services offered through its texting feature, Neulfeld said.

“The next step I would like to take the text service is for library notifications, such as when materials are due,” he said.