Thursday, June 28, 2012

Zawinski's Law: LibraryH3lp, now with 100% more email

(See.)

I think Pam and Amy are all blogged-out, so it falls on me to tell you about our new email integration features.  No, we have not written yet another email reference tool, and let's hope it doesn't come to that.  Instead, we've made it easier to combine LibraryH3lp with your existing email service.

First up, a quick note that these new features are on top of our existing email integration, Tag for Followup.  Tag for Followup is in the webchat client and lets operators send a transcript and explanatory note easily, without specifying a particular email address.  It transparently emails the operator involved in the chat, the owner of the queue, and the top-level admin, so that the referral can get handled.  [Edit: Tag for Followup has been improved since this post was published.]  If the operator wants to target a specific email address, that's what email transcript is for.

Over the years we've noticed that occasionally patrons will email questions to queues.  This is understandable given that XMPP Jabber IDs look like email addresses, and services like Google and Facebook encourage users to conflate the two.  We want these questions to get to you.  By default, queues are opted out of email forwarding.  To opt in, you need only define a forwarding email address for your queue in the admin site.  Then anything sent to the queue will be sent on to you.

We've also noticed that patrons will all too often mistype their email address when sending themselves a transcript of their chat session.  Apparently "edu" is about as hard to type correctly as "the" ("edg" is a popular variation).  Who would have thought?  We want you to be able to catch these errors and fix them, without us storing any patron-identifying information.  Even though today's students prefer chat for communication, email still plays an important role in archival storage.

To catch bounces, transcripts are now sent from the queue, using VERP.  This way, bounces will go back to the queue and on to your forwarding address, with the patron's alleged email address clearly visible in the "from" line.  (The point of VERP is that there is no standard for bounces, and the patron may be using their own email forwarding service, so this is the only reliable way to determine where the message was intended to go.)  Oh, and emails will respect the "profile" argument, so bounces and replies can be directed to the most appropriate specialist.

As a bonus, patrons can now directly reply to emailed transcripts in order to continue the conversation... which I guess means we'll be joining with Google and Facebook in encouraging users to confuse JIDs and email addresses.  This falls under the category of "if you can't beat 'em..."

Because this is email, a few words about spam are in order.  Yes, patrons sometimes send email to queues.  Spammers frequently send email to queues, because they scrape the Jabber IDs out of your web pages.  If you use our new-style code, as produced by the service designer, this will not be an issue.  Either way, our server does spam and virus filtering on all email before forwarding it to you.  (But if the filtering is not sufficient, you can always opt back out of email forwarding.)

Also, as desirable as it would be to email transcripts "from" your email address rather than "queue@chat.libraryh3lp.com", that's a recipe for getting flagged as spam and would cause problems with getting transcripts to patrons.  The flip side of that is bounces (failed attempts to deliver to patrons) may well get delivered to your spam folder, depending on the particulars of your email server.  (This is because sending fake bounce messages is a known spam technique, and that's what these emails look like, but safety and convenience have been at war with each other since networking was invented.)  In this case, we're choosing the patron's convenience over yours.

Anyway, there you have it: LibraryH3lp, now with 100% more email.

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