By David Midyette, Outreach and Communications Coordinator, NN/LM, SE/A Region
Alas, our friend Meebo is leaving us for good (read more here: http://mee.bo/LvBAJa). It can be a sad thing to see such a reliable service end, but thankfully there are many alternatives. Online chat has a much greater time depth than many people know. I remember, as a college student at Wake Forest back in the late 1980’s, using the messaging capability of the mainframe computer to “chat” with other students in the same room. Of course things are a bit different now, but it’s still the same concept just without the black screen, green text, and single line capabilities.
Jumping back thirty years into the present era, we are facing the loss of a chat service that has become rather ubiquitous in libraries. Meebo chat service will officially retire on July 11, 2012 and that oh, so memorable chirp from the notifier will fall silent. Luckily, chat technology is relatively consistent and there are multiple alternatives; some free and some at a cost. This is a good time to revisit your work needs as individuals and as institutions.
When looking at any of chat/reference products, there are some important questions to ask yourself:
Over the years, I have used many of the services listed below and I find that the last question in the list above is most important. As the head of reference at an academic institution, I worked to implement LibAnswers (Springshare had not integrated LibChat yet). I found it to be a highly flexible system that worked well with a large, distributed population. We also implemented Libraryh3lp because Meebo caused an issue when someone else logged in (I almost lost a patron in mid-chat). I found that Libraryh3lp solved many issues by allowing multiple people to monitor the chat widget. I also used a Digsby widget in my LibGuides profile to provide specialized reference chat to my health science departments. These experiences are, of course, my own and not intended as a recommendation. Everyone has unique needs and preferences in their institutions, in their daily work flows, and in their patron preferences.
Here are some of the alternatives you might want to consider when looking at a Meebo replacement:
Digsby (http://www.digsby.com/) – This is one of the more popular chat tools, but it does require that you install a client on your computer. It allows you to manage multiple chat services, e.g. Facebook, Yahoo, AIM, etc., manage multiple email providers, and can provide updates from LinkedIn and Twitter. It does have a notifier and widget, and it can even send SMS (phone text messages).
Pidgin (http://pidgin.im/) – An open-source chat tool that allows you to manage your various chat services. It also requires an installation on your computer and covers all of the major chat services.
IMO (https://imo.im/) – An online service much like Meebo which does not require an install. You have the ability to access both chat services as well as other social media tools, e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Additionally, there is an app for this service on Apple, Android, and Blackberry. It interfaces with Skype but does not have a widget.
Zoho Chat (https://chat.zoho.com/) – This is from the Zoho Creators group and is highly flexible. It provides a widget and access to most of the major chat services. You can customize the widget to your liking, select a background for your page, and set the notifications to your desired preferences. It has a unified login for the Zoho suite which allows you to access their plethora of additional services.
Trillian (http://www.trillian.im/) – An older chat aggregator with several levels of service. There is the free version, which requires a download, and allows you to manage multiple chat services. It also has an app for all of the major smart devices, but there is no widget to embed. The service does have a web version, and the upgrade to the Pro version is relatively inexpensive.
Libraryh3lp (http://libraryh3lp.com/) – This is a service developed by librarians in North Carolina to provide a unified chat interface. They have a native chat client or you can use any of the other chat services to access the system. There is a cost associated with this product, but it is based on FTE and is geared towards libraries and non-profits. This makes it a highly affordable solution. They provide a community forum and there is constant support and upgrade notification. This is a solution for people needing multiple individuals covering a chat function, e.g., a busy reference desk or staff spread across multiple sites.
LibAnswers w/ LibChat (http://www.springshare.com/libanswers/) – Springshare is adding a chat function to their LibAnswers product. This adds a chat function to their reference management system which already includes a text-based (SMS) reference service.
Selecting the proper chat tool requires some exploration and seeking the help/input of others. If you have any questions or need any guidance in selecting the appropriate tool, please contact me @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
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