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New reference services: Chat or text UTSA Library

By Lynn Gosnell
Special Projects Writer

(April 22, 2009)--Say you've lugged your books, notes, laptop and approved water bottle over to the UTSA Library and are camped out at your favorite table, determined to make headway on that research paper. Then you run into a snag and can't find the information you need. Google's no help. You need to speak with a reference librarian -- and they are located one floor below.

No problem. Research help is just a button away via a new online chat and text message service staffed by UTSA reference librarians. Since the beginning of March, the UTSA Library has extended its virtual reference services with live chat and text message capabilities. The new service is available Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Students can use their cell phones to request help via text messaging or chat.

  • For text help, text 265010, then type "Utsalib," followed by the question to receive assistance.
  • To access a reference librarian via chat, students log onto the UTSA Library Web site, click on Ask a Librarian and type. The service is staffed by 10 librarians who work hourly shifts during their regular workdays.

"We really want students to be able to contact the library through various virtual avenues," said Dell Davis, head of electronic information and reference services. Davis noted that in the library's first month of publicizing the service that librarians answered 45 chat and text message questions, a number that exceeded their expectations.

According to librarian Julie Nichols, students typically ask the same kinds of questions they would at the reference desk, although the text and chat formats lend themselves to quick answers. Recently, Nichols has helped students find articles in the New York Times, access specific databases, find peer-reviewed articles and even pay library fines.

"The younger generation is really comfortable with this medium," Nichols said. The technology that made the service available, called Meebo, is free.

"It was very easy to integrate into our existing Web site," said Jeff McAdams, a science and engineering reference librarian. Davis and other librarians credit McAdams for initiating the chat and text service, which he expects text-loving students to embrace.

The library has long offered "Ask a Librarian" by e-mail, and for more than two years has participated in "Ask a UT System Librarian," which uses a live chat interface, but not a texting option. Reference librarians believe that UTSA is the only public university in San Antonio to offer reference assistance by text. McAdams expects that texting will become a standard service "as long as students still communicate effectively with that technology."

With the advent of texting for reference help, cell phones are now officially allowed in the library, Davis said. Also, the library's policy is being revised to acknowledge the cell phone's utility in academic research.

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