Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Reference services and Twitter

A few weeks ago, a friend put the idea into my head about whether there might be a use for Twitter for reference. If you're not familiar with Twitter, here's the basics:

  • sign up for a free account
  • send mini blog posts (140 characters max) to your account via a web form, your IM client (AIM, Gtalk, Jabber) , or your cell phone (as a text message)
  • receive mini blog posts sent by those who you've selected from the Twitter network as friends; read the posts on your Twitter page or as text messages on your cell phone
As a way of keeping in touch with friends, especially when you are out and about (such as at a conference, barhopping, clubgoing, etc.), the Twitter service is pretty nifty. But is there a way libraries might want to use this service to connect to users? I've seen a couple of institutions that are having a go at it:

Casa Grande Public Library (AZ)

As Jeff Scott noted on his blog on the Library 2.0 network, took the feeds of library events, new books, etc. and fed them into rss2twitter so that they would automatically get fed into his library's Twitter account. This seems like an easy way to get greater mileage out of the RSS feeds that your library is already generating. In messages I exchanged with Jeff, he said the thought he might scale back the feed to just the day's events so users aren't overwhelmed with Twitter messages from just his library or maybe create two Twitter accounts: one for just the daily events only and another that is a mega-feed combining the various feeds the library has.

Nebraska Library Commission

Michael Sauers describes on the NLC blog how the commission has started twittering (sorry, I can't bring myself to use the more au courant term "tweeting") the latest reference questions received by the reference department. Although Sauers' blog post, which is dated March 23, says that the answers will be made available, I don't see any there yet.
Before discussing how Twitter might be used for reference services, I'd like to first note that our users might hesitate before adding the library as a Twitter friend if they intend to receive most of their Twitter messages via text messaging. As noted on the Twitter help pages, the Twitter service itself is free, but receiving the messages on your phone may incur charges depending on the plan you have with your carrier.

If you're cheap, like me, you pay for each text message received, often in the range of ten or fifteen cents per message (my monthly texting charges come out a very manageable $0, as I don't really bother with texting myself). Some folks have plans that allow them to buy a monthly bucket of messages (say, one hundred per month). Others may be so into texting that they've paid a little extra for a plan that allows an unlimited number of messages.

While our users might be interested in receiving an updated stream of library content (news, events, question/answer pairs from our reference service, new books, etc.), I'm not convinced
many users would be willing to pay for it (which they in fact would be doing if they (a) elected to receive Twitter updates on their cell phones and (b) have a phone plan where you pay a flat fee per text message or have a limited monthly supply of messages). If a library patron is also a Twitter user but elects to receive messages on IM and their personalized Twitter page, that's OK; its the folks who get Twitter on the cell phones that we might annoy. As Twitter notes to its customers, "Twitter can be addicting, so check your plan to make sure you don't get a huge bill."

Let's leave the issue behind of whether or not users would really want to add their local library as a Twitter friend; assume for the moment that they do. Is there a way that we could use Twitter to provide "reference" in some way? Perhaps. Here's an idea that builds on the way that the Case Grande Library users Twitter (use a pre-existing RSS feed to populate your Twitter account with content) and is inspired by the way that the Nebraska Library Commission promises to provide question and answer pairs:
  1. User submits question to library (via Twitter direct message option or via chat, IM, email, reference desk, SMS reference, etc.)
  2. Library answers the question and asks permission to add it (stripped of all personally identifiable information) to a publicly searchable knowledgebase available from the library's web site. That knowledgebase spits out a RSS feed of all newly entered question/answer pairs.
  3. With permission from the user, the question and answer are added to the knowledgebase, which in turn sends out its RSS feed, which itself is sent to rss2twitter to be passed along to the library's Twitter account.
The Twitter account for the library would then be advertised on the library's home page. Library users who also happen to be on Twitter could add the library as a friend in Twitter so they can receive the stream of question/answer pairs. You could streamline this model by making it just a Twitter service. There would be no knowledgebase with an RSS feed that gets fed back into Twitter. Instead, the model would look like this:
  1. Library sets up a Twitter account for reference and advertises it on library web site (among other places, obviously)
  2. Users add the library as a friend in Twitter so they can send reference questions to Twitter, having been forewarned that there is no privacy in submitting their questions this way (the library could tell users that it's like putting a question on an online bulletin board or forum). Users might also use the direct message option in Twitter to submit their questions.
  3. The library answers the question in Twitter using the direct message option.

There are more privacy issues in this second model that make me uncomfortable with it. Both models seem a bit awkward, too. My intent in publishing this post is toss an idea out there and see what kind of reaction it gets. Comments (please)?

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At 11:43 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

I would be privacy would not be as big a concern for patrons. We can certainly make the answers private through private messages. However, patrons may also like a public answer and then it provides a searchable reference index like yahoo answers. If patrons are willing to provide public questions in a yahoo format, then they are not concerned about privacy.

Great idea, constant flow of information. Plus, there is a bit of a curiosity factor for patrons which I think is the reason why many people sign up for twitter. I think people would sign up just to see the questions and answers. More interesting than just getting library news :)

At 12:49 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great ideas, we have linked back to you from the Twitter Community and Forums.

At 10:38 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to clarify - the Nebraska Library Commission blog entry says

"Sorry, answers will not be supplied ;-)"

Thanks for highlighting our sight!

Lisa Kelly- Nebraska Library Commission

At 11:38 AM , Blogger Stephen Francoeur said...

Lisa, thanks for pointing that out to me. This is what happens when you try to write a blog post at 4:30 am (I've got a newborn at home that has shifted my usual sleep habits). Note to self: read all the words someone has written before responding to them. Silly me ;-)

At 11:34 PM , Anonymous rochelle said...

We're not using it as a library--I promised my staff to slow down on throwing new stuff at them. But I personally keep Twitter up at the ref desk and have gotten tremendous help from other librarians who are logged on and think I have helped others as well. It started when I was using Twitter to keep ref logs for a short period of time. I hadn't anticipated others jumping in with answers.

Also, I haven't seen patrons using Twitter or asking about it yet. When I start hearing about it, that's when I'll think about introducing it.

At 8:32 AM , Blogger Gardner said...

Wonderful. Thanks for blogging this.

At 2:53 PM , Blogger Carolyn Foote said...

Interesting concepts here.

Another one I thought of, since you can set up your "twitters" as a widget on most blog, your "news of the day" would automatically show up on your blog.


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