A+ A A-

JustAsk virtual reference is a glimmer of what our irrelevance looks like

I was cleaning up some old email the other day (finally!) and I came upon a folder full of the gory details about herding the cats, errr, I mean scheduling the libraries who participated in public library AskAway, the collaborative virtual reference service I ran for a few years. Askaway had its provincial funding cut in 2009 and had to close the service in 2010. I always felt that Askaway was cancelled at a critical time but I couldn't always put my finger on why it seemed that way. Now I think it's because, while we didn't realize at the time, we had built a customer base who were using the service intensely and recommending it to friends but they were not using it because of some allegiance to libraries as a whole.They were sticking (at least for a while) with the service that they used but they were not going to stick with libraries for the sake of using libraries.

And then Askaway was gone and a year-and-a-half later, JustAsk started up. The customer traffic for JustAsk is a fraction of what we experienced with AskAway: during peak months from autumn to spring when schools and colleges were in full-swing, Public Library Askaway averaged over 3700 sessions per month. JustAsk appears to average 840 sessions during the equivalent months. Even taking into account the fact that JustAsk serves only a portion of the province, it still covers the libraries with the highest use of AskAway, and the difference in traffic is far greater than just for that reason. There has been some explanation about this that school-aged kids are not using chat-messaging anymore like they used to. I don't think this is an adequate explanation. It's not that chat messaging has become a "niche" communication vehicle, maybe it's because asking the library questions is a niche activity (!!!) and we haven't wanted to admit that to ourselves until it's too big to ignore. As usual, we've spent our time looking away from the big scary  answers; preferring instead to believe the little answers that don't speak to our looming irrelevance.

A wrinkle in all this is....

that kids are using text-messaging a lot. Tons, in fact. We could easily transition a chat-messaging reference service to a text-messaging reference service if we had the traffic already coming through our existing service, but getting new traffic to a text-msg service that is a brand-new service is probably very difficult. It would take the same amount of public relations and marketing energy that we took to launch Askaway in the first place and we can't afford to expend that kind of marketing effort everytime we change such a small aspect of the service.

The loss of Askaway customers and the inability to gain them back with JustAsk reinforces the need to be nimble and quick, not careful and methodical. It flies in the face of so much of how we are conditioned to look after the scarce resources that our institutions are given. This conditioning is taught to us in colleges and universities and confirmed by relentless mainstream media reports that excoriate public services that appear to "waste" "taxpayer resources" when they back out of something they started or have to cancel something that they've only been running for a short while. It tells us that the risk is just too high to start something new or change an existing service without careful slow study. But the affects of following this dogma may be devastating to libraries. The loss of the Askaway customers is an example of the huge cost to us if we are not able to act with alacrity to change a service or immediately start a new one that targets a known audience. For Askaway, if we were able to quickly find a way to maintain chat reference in 2010, we could have much more easily adjusted that service to use a new communication format (in this case to transition to text messaging) to remain accessible to that portion of our customer base for whom that is their default mode.


Add comment

Security code

Comments on any article in philiphall.ca are now enabled. If you've seen something here you think is great, lousy, plain wrong, or whatever, click on the "Add your comment" link and let me have it.


All about knowledge and information and digital tools. Lots of new ideas. Some are even good ones.
GeopolSimon The War On Solar Is Real, Unlike the "War on Coal" desmogblog.com/2015/02/05/war…

Retweeted Friday, 06 February 2015 via Twitter for Android • 1 retweet

embeedub I vaccinated my daughter & 15 years later she's moody & doesn't want to clean her room. COINCIDENCE?

Retweeted Friday, 06 February 2015 via Twitter for Android • 3275 retweets

phall715 @sios Ahhh... But not all books are equal. How about 2 long books? Or one reeeallly haaaard book? :-)

Monday, 02 February 2015 via Twitter for Android Tablets in reply to sios

phall715 Checking out the new audio gear for Inspiration Lab for 1st time. Good to see those jagged lines on the screen: it w… pic.twitter.com/H5T4EK7XyZ

Monday, 02 February 2015 via Buffer

andrewkpace What does Advocacy success look like? QOTD: "When the ALA is as well known and influential as the NRA." #alacouncil #alamw15

Retweeted Sunday, 01 February 2015 via TweetDeck • 10 retweets

phall715 @BRintoul Well I'm hoping now that they're digitized, further conversions are easier. But that may be foolish optimism :-)

Thursday, 29 January 2015 via Twitter for Android Tablets in reply to BRintoul

Video: Are we Irrelevant, yet?

Are We Irrelevant Yet at VPL, December 2013.