Ever Wonder About That SMS Reference Service

If you have heard about SMS Reference but weren’t really sure what it was all about or how it worked, thanks to a newly available podcast from PALINET you can listen to a conversation with J.B. Hill, Head of Reference at the Sims Memorial Library at Southeastern Louisiana University. The Reference Department at Sims was the first U.S. customer of Altarama, an Australian-based firm that markets the SMS reference technology. The podcast does a good job of covering the basics of how SMS Reference works, pros and cons, and expected costs. Basically the Altarama product allows students to text a message from their cell phone, and the library reference staff receive that message as an e-mail message. The librarians then respond by e-mail and the student receives the response as a test message to their cell phone. So, no, librarians don’t have to be skilled thumb typists. The estimated start-up cost is about $1,000 to $1,500, there are monthly fees, and a fee for each text message received and sent – not unlike standard cell phone text service. One drawback is that text messages are limited to 160 characters, so unless you are really concise, you may need to learn those texting abbreviations.

Given our recent posts about taking advantage of technologies that are popular with students for social interaction, and cell phone texting certainly fits into that category, is this a new opportunity to reach out and connect with our users where they are, or might it just be seen by students as another inappropriate co-opting of their technology for academic (non-social) functions. Given that quite a few libraries are already using instant messaging for reference, some with a modest degree of success, perhaps this is just an extension of the idea of using a popular communication technology to expand the reach of reference.

While you’re at the PALINET podcast page, feel free to listen to one by yours truly on the use of RSS and blogs for connecting with students in their courseware sites – as well as some general discussion about googlization, simplicity vs. complexity, and keeping up.

4 thoughts on “Ever Wonder About That SMS Reference Service”

  1. (1) One would be hard-pressed to call cell phones “students’ technology.” Facebook, maybe. Cell phones, no.

    (2) With SMS reference, libraries are not reaching out to students in the sense that we are initiating contact with them. (That would make us some enemies pretty quickly, since many plans charge per text message received.) We *are* making it easier and more seamless for a certain segment of users (avid texters) to contact us. Certainly, that is “reaching out”–but not in any intrusive sense. I can’t imagine any student expressing horror that the library could be TXT’ed, as they might (and have) that the library is in Facebook.

    Students’ communication preferences are changing. The more ways librarians can make themselves available (face to face, phone, email, IM, VR software, txt, roving, presence in courseware, office hours in depts, etc.), the more relevant we’ll remain (or become) in students’ lives. Presence in a medium does not entail “co-opting” that medium. It gives students a choice.

    (3) It’s good to consider whether we’re using technology appropriately. Sadly, I can imagine too many librarians who would gladly seize upon the fear that we might be “intruding” in students’ “private spaces” as an excuse *not* to do certain innovative things that make sense, simply because they are not comfortable with the necessary learning curve.

    The cost of the SMS reference package is what’s kept me from pushing for it at my library. If it were free like IM, I’d be all over it. Or, if there weren’t a 160 character limit, I might go for it. But the uncertainty about how useful we could make our service given the constraints on the medium, combined with the cost, has me waiting.

  2. Why aren’t mobile devices “student technology”? Aren’t they in the same vein as PDAs – or will be as these technologies converge? To my way of thinking a mobile device has far more potential for learning possibilities than facebook or myspace (but I agree there are other social communities such as bookmarking sites that do have learning potential).

    If you open yourself up to a way to be reached by others, regardless of who initiates the contact, that’s “outreach” in my way of thinking about outreach. But let’s not quibble over semantics.

    I agree that these technologies are of good value simply because they create new doors through which a member of the user community can connect to the library – especially if he or she is not a user of the physical facility. As we found when we tried VR here – we can put the door in place but the users may choose not to open it (which is why we eventually stopped offering VR – but that’s not to say it isn’t working in certain library environments).

    My post is not intended to spread fear about using certain technologies – and I’m all for experimenting with them. But in times of constrained staff and budgets – and much to do – we should always be asking if new innovations offer an acceptable ROI – which may be why your own institution isn’t going ahead with SMS. We should also ask – before we try (unless there is no risk – such as creating a profile on myspace, etc – unless turning off students is a potential risk ) if our users want or need what we think is a cool technology worth trying – before making the monetary and human resources investment.

  3. You make great points about considering ROI when planning services yet not being afraid to experiment (when it makes sense to do so), and *asking your users what they want*. These are things I hope every librarian who’s in a position to implement services takes to heart. So far in my young career, I’ve been very happy to find that they usually do. Still, you hear stories.

    Regarding semantics (sorry, can’t help it–I was a linguistics major): calling SMS “their” [students’] technology seems like a stretch. A 2003 study in Research Alert indicated cell phone ownership was actually *highest* in the 35-44 age range. A 8/11/05 Wall Street Journal article indicates that 33% of American 25-34 year olds and 25% of 35-44 year olds text messaged regularly in 2004. The numbers are higher for 18-24 year olds, of course–62%–but still, it’s far from exclusively a student practice.

    So, you ask whether students might see SMS reference as “another inappropriate co-opting of their technology for academic (non-social) functions,” and I respond that I don’t think the technology’s “theirs,” and thus there’s no co-opting to be done.

    Whereas the conventional wisdom certainly seems to be that Facebook is “theirs.”

    And I agree that becoming accessible in a diversity of ways does constitute outreach. Which, in my mind, is almost but not quite the same as “reaching out.” Yep, semantics. (I always preferred phonology.)

  4. I realize I’m coming into the conversation very late but wanted to comment that your opinions, more than 2 years later, hold and prove true. SMS/Text Messaging, while used a lot by teens and college students, is being used just as much by the 25-34 and 35-44 segment of the population.

    In fact, 34% of all US cellular subscribers pay for a bulk text messaging plan with 95 billion text messages sent in the first half of 2008.

    I think ALL smart organizations need to ask about ROI when implementing new systems, services and products. I’m sure ROI was discussed when libraries were considering getting websites and emails. The SMS/Text Messaging Reference ROI is determined differently by each library, but mobile/sms, like the internet, isn’t going away. It then becomes a question of “do we want to embrace this or not?”

    If the answer is “yes” then ROI becomes a matter of determining what is the best way to implement. As I type this, there are many libraries using work-around ways of getting this done, ways that work but can get their IP addresses blocked by mobile carriers or limit their ability to archive or search questions and answers later.

    Altarama offers a good solution, but the texting to Australia part seems to be somewhat limiting for Americans. There’s a new technology called Text A Librarian http://www.textalibrarian.com (I’ve linked to it from my name in case this link doesn’t work) that is US based and looking to take care of all issues surrounding getting SMS/Text Reference Services up and running in a web-based environment.

    It seems most of the successful and popular libraries are those that, as Emily states, are unafraid to “experiment” and embrace new technologies, further making the libraries a helpful tool as guides to information rather than gatekeepers of it.

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