Library encourages patrons to chat

These days when patrons seek help from Montgomery County, Md., reference librarians, they can do so without raising their voices.

Since March, the Rockville branch of the county's public library system has been piloting an online service called "Ask a Librarian Live Reference" in which librarians can engage in real-time "chats" with patrons over the Internet.

Montgomery library patrons simply click a link on the library site (www.mont.lib.md.us/askalibrarianlive.asp), supply a name, e-mail address, question and ZIP code, then can "talk" with the librarian through instant messaging.

Such real-time service has been "around a while," but the public sector has only started using it in the past year or so, especially among libraries, said J.D. Kathuria, director of operations for Chantilly, Va.-based International Business Systems Inc., which developed LiveAssistance, the chat software used by Montgomery.

The service also may be a way for libraries to get back some lost service, he said.

"Patrons today aren't coming to the library as much as they used to," he said. "They're doing all the research on the Internet and the librarians are concerned for many factors. One, less people means less staff, less budget, less job opportunities. And [librarians] want to go to where the patrons are in terms of trying to get them back involved in libraries. And live chat is a great way to do that."

Kathuria said the service might cost less than a traditional call center model because a customer service representative can handle three or four chats at a time. "So you could do more with less, still provide the typical phone support, and potentially e-mail support," he said. "Live chat adds another dimension for the commonly used questions by taxpayers or citizens about something."

Convenience for patrons is another advantage. "If you're living in Rockville and have one phone line, it's very inconvenient to disconnect off the Web and call the library," he said. "It's much easier to engage in a real-time chat and try to get an answer to a question there than have to call someone."

Kathuria said his company has about 25 library clients, including many university libraries. He estimated that about 100 libraries across the country offer this online chat service. Last fall, the Virginia state government began offering a similar service through its portal.

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