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Library Reference Services Are on an Info Quest
Posted On August 3, 2009

A new library service named My Info Quest ( claims to be the first collaborative text messaging reference service of its kind. The Alliance Library System ( in East Peoria, Ill., has partnered with about 50 participating libraries; Altarama Information Systems (; and WebClarity Software, Inc. (, developers of PeopleWhere (, to build this new reference service. The pilot program launched on July 20 and will extend until Dec. 31. Other partners include San Jose State University Graduate School of Library and Information Science, South Central Regional Library Council in New York, and TAP Information Services.

The patrons of approximately 50 libraries from all over the U.S. are now able to text a question from their mobile phones to 309-222-7740 and a "real, live librarian" will respond within minutes. The service is free of charge, but standard text messaging rates apply. Staffed by librarians from around the country, answers are sent to cell phones by librarians in 320 characters or less, or the equivalent of two 160-character text messages. The hours of service are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

"Text reference service is the next big thing to hit libraries," said Kitty Pope, executive director of the Alliance Library System. "It is important because it augments traditional core reference services and meets our customers where they are."

There is no cost to join the pilot project. The only requirements for libraries are that they staff the desk 2 hours per week, attend online meetings and training, and participate in evaluation activities. The project website supplies libraries with logos, downloadable business cards, and a poster for marketing the service. Both Altarama and WebClarity have generously donated 6 months of trial service.

Some individual libraries have offered text-based reference services (either using AOL Instant Messenger or a service from Altarama or TextALibrarian). But in our challenging economic times, it makes sense to pool scarce resources. The project represents an impressive collaborative effort with a range of libraries involved-small and large public, academic, school, medical center, and regional library systems. And there's a Google Group to enable communications among the project participants-

Participating in the project allows libraries to increase coverage by cooperating with other libraries, to expand their reference expertise, and to test out this type of service without venturing out on their own. It lets them see how their patrons will respond to the offering. And, best of all, there's no outlay of library funds and only a minimal investment of time.

PeopleWhere is the staff-scheduling software being used to keep the project humming. Allison Standen, VP of business development for WebClarity says, "We are happy to take on the challenge inherent in balancing the 50-plus participants volunteering 1-2 hours a week with the goal of consistent coverage for core hours every day of the week. We also look forward to bringing the knowledge-tracking aspects of PeopleWhere online to help the My Info Quest service optimize its resources."

Altarama, a company that focuses on reference services in libraries, is supplying the text messaging platform (its products include RefTracker, RefChatter, Reference by SMS, and more). It is providing technology and training for project participants and will assist evaluators with nonstandard data access and extraction. "Libraries of all types-and the reference services community in particular-stand to benefit greatly from the outcomes of this unique and timely project, "said Arthur Brady, president of Altarama, "and we're delighted to be an active partner." 

The Info Quest document lists a number of objectives to be addressed in the project:

  • Identify the types of information needs that can be fulfilled by offering text message reference services
  • Identify the issues and potential obstacles that need to be addressed before implementing text message reference services
  • Identify the important features to consider when choosing a vendor for text message reference services
  • Identify the cost and benefits of offering text message reference services

The project is still accepting new library members to join in August. Please contact Lori Bell at, or 309-694-9200, ext. 2128, if you would like to join or would like more information on the project.

For More Information

Mobile Libraries Blog ( McKiernan started this blog with the latest news on library use of mobile services and devices.

Mobile Libraries Google Group ( Bell and Tom Peters started this group for the discussion of mobile services in libraries.

"A New Generation of Innovation: Mobile Library Services," by Kitty Pope, Tom Peters, Skip Burhans, and Lori Bell, forthcoming article in Searcher

Computers in Libraries, The Mobile-ized Library, May 2009 (entire issue)

Kroski, Ellyssa, "On the Move With the Mobile Web: Libraries and Mobile Technologies," Library Technology Reports, 2008, Vol. 44, No. 5, pp. 1-48. An open access version of this report is available at

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Chris Hemingway8/11/2009 6:11:12 PM

I am a librarian in Connecticut and am experimenting with using facebook to answer reference questions. I think the text messaging idea is great!

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