Hi everyone! Lots of people have asked us if we're going to be at ALA 2012. Alas, no.
However, we thought that the next best thing would be to have a virtual ALA 2012 presence. And, since we are in the business of virtual (reference, that is), we thought a virtual presence would be particularly fitting. This post is one of a series we'll post during ALA 2012. Please check back daily for more. Or to simply your life, get updates via RSS or e-mail.
In this post, we'd like to talk a little bit about one of the biggest features that differentiates LibraryH3lp from the available free options as well as the paid alternatives for virtual reference.
Unlimited concurrent operators
No question about it. For reasons of load and scaling, an unlimited service is a much tougher technical nut to crack than a limited service. From the beginning though, our primary objective has been to provide a flexible chat platform at an affordable price. This is something in which we strongly believe, and we'd like to share with you why we think the concept of 'unlimited' is so crucial to virtual reference.
When I (this is Pam) was at UNC during the very early (pre-Meebo) virtual reference years, we used a few different chat systems. All of them had per-operator pricing. Sometimes, this wound up slowing the growth and expansion potential of our service because it meant we could not always quickly change things around the way we wanted. Our staffing model was stuck based on the operator limitation.
What if another campus library wanted to come on board? Or what if we needed to add on a few more operators during a suddenly-busy time of the year? Or what if we wanted to start staffing out of librarian offices instead of centrally from shared computers? If we wanted to add more operators, it would cost extra. That meant we had to get in touch with both our budget people and our vendor. And that took both time and funds. Often, our staffing changes couldn’t happen until much later, mostly because of things like fiscal year issues.
A fair bit of tweaking can be required to develop a suitable staffing model for a virtual reference service, given the schedules and duties of everyone involved. Every library is different. Inflexible staffing can lead to limited service hours, which can lead to low usage. Low service usage makes it harder to prove the value proposition.
So, when we started building LibraryH3lp, we sought to design a chat platform, or infrastructure. We didn't want to impose any particular usage model but instead sought to provide a system that would give libraries the most flexibility possible for growth and experimentation. This meant that the library should be able to create any number of operator accounts any time they wished, and that any or all of those operator accounts could be in use simultaneously.
Chat is just another communication tool
When you add unlimited operators into the mix, you open the door to interesting possibilities. For example, you can have staff who don't need a public-facing chat presence help out with your service. Maybe staff in your ILL, document delivery, or IT department would like to be available to take transfers of difficult or specialized questions. They can function as a sort of "tier 2" support level and only get questions that require their specific expertise as transfers, after the public service staff have done what they can to assist the patron.
Often, a patron's entire question can be handled right there through chat even if it has to get passed to another department. No need to switch to phone or e-mail unless one of those will work better for the situation at hand. Keeping the entire experience in chat makes the library transparent and the patron experience seamless. When the patron started their chat with the library, they probably weren't concerned with which specific department they needed help from. Since recipients of transfers can see the prior conversation, they also won't have to re-explain their situation to multiple staff members. If it turns out that their question will require more time, it's easy to email their transcript to the right person for follow-up.
And why just think of a chat as being between librarian and patron? In the course of a day, librarians talk with each other continuously to carry out the work of the library. With LibraryH3lp, you also gain a powerful enterprise IM system for internal communications because librarians can IM each other directly.