Online Reference

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Libraries Using Virtual Reference Services

You can also check out the LISWiki's List of libraries providing virtual reference services for a list of libraries providing Virtual Reference services of all kinds.

Software We Like for IM Reference

If you would like to recommend software, please sign your name to the recommendation so that we know it's not from a vendor. An explanation of why you like this software would be great too!

  • Trillian - Multiple network program (Recommended by Meredith)
  • Pidgin - Open Source, multiple network (Recommended by Meredith)
  • Fire - Open Source, Mac, multiple network (Recommended by Aaron)
  • Adium - Open Source, Mac, multiple networks (Recommended by Aaron)
  • Miranda - Multiple networks, thin client, great plugins for scripts using spell checker, works well under low bandwidth, Open Source (Recommended by Steven)
  • Web-Based Instant Messengers: A Mini-Guide - listing of 12 web-based IM options
  • Mosio for Libraries - Multi-Channel (Chat, Email and Text Messaging) via a web-based interface - accessible to patrons via support tabs/widgets (Recommended by Noel)
  • Libraryh3lp - Anonymous widget on the website so users don't need to use Aim, Yahoo, MSN. Can receive Aim, Yahoo, MSN IMS also. Can run on multiple computers, doesn't display when the library is closed, nice stats/saved transcripts. Inexpensive. (Recommended by Susan)
  • LiveZilla - Personalisable widget with Windows client software. Offline chat requests are sent via email. Free! (Recommended by Tom)
  • RefChatter Altarama (vendor for LibraryH3lp)

Software for SMS Reference

  • Google SMS
  • Altarama's Reference by SMS
  • AIM Hack: Your users can:
    • Send a message to 246246 (AIMAIM)
    • Enter the text "send [library's AIM address] [question]" (without quotations or brackets)
      • For example:
      • send anytownlibrarychat what are yr hours?
    • From that point on, send and receive messages as you normally would. (Your patron doesn't need to use the account prefix, etc. for each message during the session)
    • Standard messaging rates will apply
  • Text a Librarian, Powered by Mosio for Libraries - Text Message (SMS) Reference Services. Available in 16 countries and now combined with Mosio for Libraries full patron support software suite - all channels (Text Messaging, Web Chat and Email).
  • LibraryH3lp Twilio SMS Gateway - Patrons text a phone number, not a short code/keyword combination. US phone numbers only; international texts can be received and sent. Text messages can be flexibly routed and transferred among librarians.
  • LibraryH3lp Android SMS Gateway - Library provides the Google Android phone and creates a gateway using LibraryH3lp. Patrons text a phone number, not a short code/keyword combination. Text messages can be flexibly routed and transferred among librarians.
  • LibraryH3lp Google Voice Gateway - Library obtains a Google Voice account and phone number. Patrons text a phone number, not a short code/keyword combination. Librarian respond via IM as with other LibraryH3lp questions.
  • Upside Wireless is an SMS gateway company used by UCLA Libraries
  • OmniReference is a Multi-Channel Virtual Reference tool. Allows you to select a local number. Patrons can initial a chat through text or the widget on your library's website.
  • Twilio Provides US phone numbers and APIs for developers to use in creating their own applications. Libraries with programming resources available could roll their own SMS service.

Software We Like for Online VoIP, Video or Co-Browsing Reference

If you would like to recommend software, please sign your name to the recommendation so that we know it's not from a vendor. An explanation of why you like this software would be great too!

  • Skype - Free VOIP Software (Recommended by Meredith)
  • Unyte - Free 'screen-showing' software, works well with Skype (Recommended by Dansich)
  • Windows Live Messenger - Free Voice, Video, Sharing features (Recommeded by Colin]

Online Reference Assistance, AKA Virtual reference

For a working definition see LIS Wiki Virtual Reference

For guidelines, see ACRL Virtual Reference Guidelines

For "Best Practices," see Library Success: Online Reference wiki includes international list of libraries providing online reference service.

Online Reference Providers (Software and Outsourcing)

  • ATG LiveHelp- Generic help desk platform
  • QuestionPoint OCLC platform specific to library reference service
  • Tutoring platform
  • Altarama VRLplus platform specific to library reference service

Easy Screen-Capture Technology


Jing, a Techsmith product, allows you to make quick videos on the fly. It is easy to initiate and produce a recording to be uploaded on a account. Although Jing doesn't offer much in the way of editing capabilities, it works really well for e-mail reference and reference via chat. Instead of typing instructions out, show them with a quick screencast. Also, you can easily import the file into Camtasia (also a Techsmith product) and do some editing from there. For more information, visit

Reference Management Technology

  • Reference Management, Statistics Software, and Ways to Measure Reference Interactions:
    • Desk Tracker by Compendium
    • Gimlet
    • Libstats PHP/mysql open source program
    • RefTracker by Altamara
      • Desk Stats by Altarama
    • SiteScripter
    • ZOHO Creator 2 apps for free
      • See iLibrarian Reference Statistics with ZOHO Creator
    • Reference Effort Assessment Data A method developed by Bella Karr Gerlich to collective qualitative data on reference interactions.
  • Collegial Reference" communicatiing amoung colleagues:
    • Google sites If your institution doesn't have an intranet readily available, Google sites is a easy way to create a private site for sharing between colleages. News, policies, login details for technology can be centralized using a very easy interface that those without any technical affinity can use.

Blogs/Websites to Watch

  • Walking Paper by Aaron Schmidt
  • Librarian in Black by Sarah Houghton-Jan
  • Digital Reference by Stephen Francoeur
  • AskAway @ Winnefox by Joy Schwarz
  • Dissertation Research Blog by Lissa Lord
  • LibrariDan by Dan Sich
  • Library H3lp

Specific Blog Posts/Articles to Check Out

  • IM Talking Points at Walking Paper by Aaron Schmidt.
  • Instant messaging and security: how to talk to IT at Librarian in Black by Sarah Houghton-Jan
  • Collaborative reference work in the blogosphere by Jerrey Pomerantz and Frederic Stutzman
  • Teens and Technology from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (July 2005)
  • AOL Second Annual Instant Messaging Trends Survey
  • IM Me by Aaron Schmidt and Michael Stephens. Featured in Library Journal in April, 2005
  • Chat Reference at Morrisville State College Library by Bill Drew. Featured in Ronan, Jana, ed. Chat reference : a guide to live virtual reference services
  • Virtual Reference Software Comparative Review by Jody Condit Fagan. The Charleston Advisor, April 2005, pp. 16-35. (Behind a subscription wall.)
  • How Americans Use Instant Messaging from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (September 2004)
  • Web-Based Chat VS. Instant Messaging by Sarah Houghton-Jan and Aaron Schmidt. Featured in ONLINE, Jul/Aug 2005.
  • web-based chat vs. instant messaging by Caleb Tucker-Raymond at the L-net staff information blog.
  • Papa's Got A Brand New (Virtual )Bag by Darren Chase
  • War... What is it good for? by Luke Rosenberger from lbr weblog. Post looks at the "war" between web-based virtual reference services and IM.
  • Web-based chat and IM: Not "either/or" but "both/and" by Stephen Francoeur from Digital Reference.
  • IM Reference: What We've Learned (Homer Township @ Illinois Library Association; October 14, 2005)
  • Virtual Reference @ Your Library by Sarah Houghton-Jan. Featured in KnowledgeQuest, Jan/Feb 2005.
  • Trillian training materials - by Beatrice Pulliam, a great training for using Trillian in providing virtual reference services.
  • See You Online: Gender Issues in College Student Use of Instant Messaging by Naomi S. Baron, Department of Language and Foreign Studies, American University. In addition to interesting findings, this paper includes useful terminology for discussing IM.
  • Instant Messaging: Quick and Dirty Reference for Teens and Others by Sarah Houghton-Jan. Featured in Public Libraries, Jul/Aug 2005.
  • IM goes live at UNLV Libraries by Sherri Vokey at ::schwagbag::
  • Building and Maintaining Digital Reference Services ERIC Digest by Joann M. Wasik (1999).
  • Implementing an instant message (IM) reference service by Alec at Librarians at the Gate
  • Gaim Setup for Library IM Services by Pam Sessoms and Charles Cobine, UNC-Chapel Hill's Davis Library.
  • Using Fee-Based Databases in a Virtual Reference Setting September 2006
  • Collaboration as the Norm in Reference Work by Jeffrey Pomeranz A review of the article in RUSQ Fall 2006
  • Maximiek, Sarah and Brown, Elizabeth and Rushton, Erin (2006) Connecting to Students: Launching Instant Messaging Reference at Binghamton University. College & Undergraduate Libraries. Volume: 13 Issue: 4, 2006

Resources for IM Reference Training

  • Learning How to Use Instant Messaging Software- developed in the fall of 2007 to train reference staff unfamiliar with the basics of IM, licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA License.