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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2008

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[Board accepted]

Chat Widgets for Science Libraries

John J. Meier
Science Librarian
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Copyright 2008, John J. Meier. Used with permission.


This paper describes chat widgets, chunks of code that can be embedded on a web site to appear as an instant messaging system, and how they can be used on a science library web site to better serve library users. Interviews were conducted concerning experiences at science and humanities libraries and more similarities than differences were discovered. High user satisfaction and subject-specific questions were noted by librarians using widgets on their subject research guide web pages. Increased use of these services resulted from embedding widgets on existing web pages rather than linking to separate chat pages.


"Library as place" has increased the value of the physical library and the importance that reference librarians be visible, approachable, and available. On the World Wide Web the "virtual place" of the library is the web site, so too are those values important online. Traditionally this has meant listing contact information for librarians from phone numbers to e-mail addresses. Instant messaging, or chat, technology has also been added in recent years by either listing the chat "handles" of librarians or through a commercial web-based chat service, such as QuestionPoint. The first requires library patrons to install or run a local chat client program, like Trillian, on their computers. The second requires entering an online system, which is often slow due to complexity or wait time, and that may require certain browsers, plugins, or Java to function correctly. Thankfully instant messaging services started to offer chat "widgets" which are small pieces of web codes that would create an instant chat window on a web site.

This has opened up a world of possibilities, but also of decisions. How can libraries best use chat widgets on their web pages? Can current chat service models be extended or changed to include widgets? Which chat service is the best for a particular library? Of particular interest for science and technology libraries, should services or strategies be different for our users and web sites?

Strategies for Success

Techno-savvy librarians quickly spotted the usefulness of chat widgets. Gordon and Stephens (2007) explained how to quickly and easily use the Meebo service including "MeeboMe," the chat widget. Meebo can be used to aggregate chat accounts from multiple services into one account, provide web access to chat so the user can access it from any computer, and generate the HTML code for the chat widget. Boule (2008) discusses Meebo further, noting that "Many libraries use this widget on their web pages for a quick and cheap way of offering virtual reference." The article also mentions the ability to embed Meebo "Rooms," chat rooms from the service, onto a web site.

Meebo Rooms can also be used to have multiple librarians each using individual chat accounts to staff a single widget (Jastram 2007). This provides many benefits including bringing a subject specialist into a reference question rather than requiring the user to leave the chat session. Also, transitions between librarians staffing adjacent virtual reference desk shifts are smooth since they do not have to use the same account. A few of the inherent drawbacks are that the chat room is public, so anyone visiting the web site can see the current conversation and even view the chat history. Also this type of widget does not indicate that the librarians are "away" when they are not staffing the room.

Since the innovations of Meebo, many of the other instant messaging services have implemented widgets as a feature (Meier 2008, sidebar). AOL introduced {WIMZI} and Google provided a widget for its Talk service along with the new services Plugoo and Digsby. Even traditional virtual reference services have entered the game, such as Questionpoint's Qwidget.

There are some simple decisions to be made when customizing a chat widget such as the appearance, where to place the chat window, and a number of other issues (DeVoe 2008). With a wide array of choices in products and how to use them, librarians can make an informed choice (Meier 2008) in selecting the service that works best for them rather than having to drastically change work flow for a specific software product.

In general chat reference evaluation has been fraught with pitfalls (Pomerantz et al. 2008). Since the majority of chat widgets are not part of a virtual reference system, tracking statistics and capturing transcripts for later analysis and evaluation is not easy. The inherent anonymity and potential speed of interaction are also double-edged swords. Chat widgets do not require users to log in to any system or even identify themselves and their demographics as in many virtual reference systems. They can use the assigned guest user name or change it to a nickname of their choice, which makes widget users appear as normal instant messaging service users. This often protects their privacy, depending on the nickname they choose, but it makes follow-up after a chat session almost impossible and the chat logs created are associated with the guest user names. The speed of each reference transaction is convenient and valued by the user, but it leaves little time to ask evaluative questions or introduce assessment instruments.

Comparing Experiences: Sciences and Humanities

In the University Libraries at the Pennsylvania State University, there are a number of librarians and subject libraries using chat widgets. The varying size and scope of each effort make for diverse use cases for study and comparison. There are chat widgets on the Ask-A-Librarian page, subject library home pages, subject guides, course guides, blogs, and even in Facebook. There is a lack of formal assessment of chat reference through widgets for the reasons mentioned previously, so interviews were conducted with librarians who regularly staffed the services.

Significantly one librarian responded from a science library (Smith 2008) and another librarian from the humanities library (Novotny 2008). Both librarians' comments related primarily to their experiences receiving chat reference questions from widgets placed on their subject guides. The University Libraries has many research guides by subject, which can be reached either from a list on the home page or from lists on subject library pages, such as the Life Sciences Library. At the time of the interviews, the subject guides were located "within" a subject library (i.e., they had the same look and template). Subject library home pages are considered the virtual start pages for students, faculty, and staff looking for subject-specific library help and information.

Both librarians estimated that they received about 1-2 questions a week and that traffic would increase during a week when specific assignments were due. The questions were from undergraduate and graduate students, and also some faculty members in the departments associated with the subject guides in each case -- history and agricultural sciences. Also, a recent chat widget deployed on the math subject guide generated an immediate assignment-based question in the subject of mathematics. Both librarians even expressed the same main concern over the service: it is difficult for a single librarian to staff many hours leading to frequent offline status messages on the widgets. Users appreciated the instant help and quality of service provided by both of the librarians through their chat widgets.

Chat widgets can also be a great avenue for liaison outreach to academic departments and faculty. One faculty user reported, "btw, i love the chat with eric feature on the history/library web site. i've used it as a recruiting tool, telling prospective faculty and students what great library support we have!!" (Novotny 2008).

Widgets on Subject Guides versus Library Pages

Another important consideration highlighted by the experiences in a science library was the difference between using a chat widget on subject guide pages and on a subject library home page. The subject guide widgets are embedded in multiple subject guide pages and are all tied to the individual instant messaging account of the subject specialist librarian. The chat widget on the subject library home page was available from a link on the home page and tied to a shared chat account staffed by the librarian on the physical reference desk. There were notably fewer questions received in the shared account from the library home page widget and a larger portion of the questions were general or not science specific.

The greater generality on the library home page could be due to the fact that libraries home page is a way-point rather than a destination. Way-points like the library home page have little content or information, but many links to content such as services or information. Destinations such as subject guides or a help page are the final page toward which users would navigate if they were seeking information or service. This also shows that users were already successfully navigating to the most appropriate library web page for subject specialist knowledge. They were at the "right place on the web already" (Smith 2008) and with a chat widget they now "get the right person."

The lower usage on the library home page could be that the chat widget was not embedded in the web page, requiring users to navigate to a separate page to ask their questions. Recently the Life Sciences Library moved their widget from a separate page to embedding in all pages. "This spurred a dramatic increase in traffic, though questions could still be characterized as more basic or general" (Smith 2008).

Increase Collegiality

Among librarians and staff at Penn State that use chat and have shared their user names with colleagues another benefit has emerged: quick and easy communication through instant messaging. For reference, this not only manifests itself in the ability to refer chat reference questions to another librarian online rather than moving to slower e-mail, but also quickly consulting with a colleague for help in answering a reference question instead of making a referral. Qualitative data from a previous study at Auburn University Libraries (Sears 2001) noted evidence that librarians consulted with colleagues, "Of the 153 chat questions, 59 (38.6%) of the responses gave evidence of consulting books, databases, colleagues, or other resources."

Beyond reference, the ability to consult with coworkers increases productivity by quickly addressing questions that halt a project or simple task. Also, collaboration on projects can be enhanced by chat communication, since it can be active simultaneously with other computer applications either shared such as a wiki or Google Docs or simpler software. This extends beyond the workplace to the global profession: a chat "buddy" list becomes in practice a network of professional colleagues available for assistance or collaboration.


There were no significant differences in the use of chat widgets in the sciences versus humanities library. Similar users groups, frequency, and behavior were all observed, which suggests that similar strategies can be used across subject libraries. Historically, attempts to classify reference questions have been based on complexity, using the Katz system or Warner system (Henry 2008), rather than subject area. Science librarians can work with their colleagues in other disciplines to develop better approaches to web design and reference interaction to make effective use of chat widgets. In fact, given all the benefits of chat reference, even unintended, instant messaging should be embraced more fully by the library profession and utilized to provide better reference service on our web sites, our virtual libraries.

While there are sufficient explanations of how to use chat widgets and the variety of products and features available in the market, some areas of study deserve further study. One area that should be explored is finding a way to assess chat reference service despite the lack of built-in evaluative and statistical functions, which have benefited the study of virtual reference to date. This would allow the observations made through interviews and anecdotal experience to be confirmed by quantitative and qualitative data. Another important area that requires scrutiny is the staffing models used for chat reference, both informal and formal. This is justifiably an area of concern for librarians, who see their work responsibilities increase with each new service the library offers.


Boule, M. 2008. Tools for use. Library Technology Reports 44(1):21-27.

DeVoe, K. 2008. Chat widgets: placing your virtual reference services at your user's point(s) of need. Reference Librarian 49(1):99-101.

Gordon, R.S. & Stephens, M. 2007. Embedding a librarian in your web site using Meebo. Computers in Libraries 27(8):44-45.

Henry, D.B. 2008. Testing classification systems for reference questions. Reference & User Services Quarterly 47(4):364-373.

Jastram, I. 2007. Introducing Meebo rooms. BIGWIG Social Software Showcase. [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 19, 2008].

Meier, J.J. 2008. Chat widgets on the library web site: help at the point of need. Computers in Libraries 28(6):10-13,48.

Novotny, E. 2008. Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Personal communication, Various dates.

Pomerantz, J., Mon, L.M., McClure, C.R. 2008. Evaluating remote reference service: a practical guide to problems and solutions. Portal: Libraries and the Academy 8(1):15-30.

Sears, JoAnn. 2001. Chat reference service: an analysis of one semester's data. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship. [Online]. Available: [Accessed August 13, 2008].

Smith, Helen. 2008. Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Personal communication, Various dates.

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