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.


Philip Hall 2014