Librarians Answer Reference Questions With Text Messages

For a student who doesn’t want to swing by the reference desk, there are plenty of other ways to ask a librarian a question—instant messaging, e-mail, a phone call. And now, on a growing number of campuses, students can ask questions with  text messages.

Oregon State University is among the institutions that have recently added “text a librarian” services. Though the university just implemented its service this month and has not advertised it much yet, librarians there say that they can already tell it will be well used.

Students text a question to an advertised number during library hours, and an alert appears on the computer screen of any librarian who is signed into the library’s instant-messaging service. The librarian uses the computer to send a text message back to the student’s cellphone.

Margaret Mellinger, an assistant professor and engineering librarian at Oregon State, said the library staff expected that students would ask only questions with quick, simple answers. But they were wrong; one of the very first questions was: “What is the function of interneurons?”

“We weren’t thinking that they were going to ask serious research questions,” Ms. Mellinger said. “But they apparently are going to.”

Students have also asked about checking out laptop computers and locating library books. If a question warrants more than a short reply, the librarian will send the student a message back to explain that the question is too in-depth for text messaging and ask for the student’s e-mail address.

Though many libraries use a computer service to respond to texts, librarians at Yale University’s Kline Science Library have been using a shared iPhone to respond to texts since 2007. Joseph Murphy, the library’s coordinator of instruction and technology, said that that librarians use the phone to text back so they’ll follow the same communication norms that students do and stay “on the same level.” Mr. Murphy said that the service is not very popular. But, like Oregon State students, Yale students text more complex questions than he had anticipated.

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