Choosing a Chat Reference Software Solution: The Devil Is in the Details

Lisa Roberts, Reference Librarian, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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Everyone’s excited about virtual reference.  But making a commitment to virtual reference requires more than just enthusiasm.  Among other things, it requires software.  And it’s hard enough to buy the right software when you are familiar with what the software is used for.  Many of us have never chatted, much less had an occasion to use high-end virtual reference solutions.  So how do you know what to buy?  The purpose of this presentation is to point out some features to look for and some pitfalls to avoid.  Hopefully, these suggestions will make it easier for librarians who are taking their first plunge into the world of virtual reference to get the software they want that will allow them to do the things they want to do.

A little bit about my background in virtual reference first: I’m a reference librarian at Jackson Library at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  I got interested in virtual reference because of my own use of instant messaging and my involvement in online communities.  I could see that people weren’t coming to the library as much.  We had made it possible for them to do the bulk of their research from non-library locations, but we hadn’t put our most important resource online: our helpful, knowledgeable people.  I thought we ought to try to change that.

We did a virtual reference trial run with a freeware product in the spring of 2001.  We had some concerns that led us to search for new software, and we applied what we learned from our initial experience to that process.  This presentation grows directly from our experience.

Getting started.

Several questions should be considered (although not necessarily answered definitively) before you start looking at software products.

What do you want to be able to do?  Can you be happy just chatting?  Do you want to be able to push pages?  Co-browse?  Use voice and video?  You can focus on products you want to evaluate more quickly if you know what features you can’t live without.

How much can you spend?  This makes a big difference because the options now available range from free to $20,000+ and have a similar range of capabilities.  You should have a target figure in mind for how much you can spend before you waste a lot of time evaluating software you can’t afford. 

What kind of volume do you anticipate?  This is important because it determines how many “operators” you will need to have logged on at the same time, and most of these products determine their pricing based on the number of simultaneous operators.  

Do you want users to have to download and install software?  Do you want them to have to register with a third party to be able to use your service?  These are good questions to answer in advance as well.  In our library, we felt that asking users to download and install software would not be desirable.  And we did not want users to have to sign up for any other services such as ICQ or IM to be able to use our service, as this raises privacy concerns.

Do you want to run it, or do you want someone else to run it?  Most of these products are not run on your local servers.  They are run on servers owned by the company you are purchasing the service from.  Companies who do business this way are called “Application Service Providers” or “ASPs”.  There are advantages and disadvantages to such an arrangement.  On the one hand, using an ASP means that less technical expertise and staff time is required on your end.  In some cases, you might not even have to install any software locally at all!  Disadvantages of the ASP model are that you have no control over the uptime of your service, and, if it’s down, your users will assume that YOU are down.  Secondly, when the Internet is having a bad day, you have a bad day.  It should be noted, however, that there are very few virtual reference software packages available to be run entirely on the library’s end, and most of those that are available are extremely expensive.

Do you want to try to cooperate?  If you see cooperation in your future, you should consider investing in software that your potential partners will be able to use as well. 

Software Evaluation

Once you’ve answered some of the major questions, it’s time to start identifying and evaluating specific products.  A convenient resource for identifying products that are currently being used in libraries is “LiveRef(sm): A Registry of Real-Time Digital Reference Services” by Gerry McKiernan (  A similar web page with a global perspective is “Index of Chat Reference Services” by Stephen Francoeur (

I’ve provided a checklist of questions to ask when interviewing sales representatives and when actually trying out the software.  Insist on a trial of the software you’re considering, not just a demo.  If the company won’t give you a trial, I would have serious reservations about doing business with them.  Once you have your trial account set up, test-drive the software from both the user end and the librarian end.  Ask the questions on my checklist and add your own.  At some point, call technical support.  If necessary, make a problem up. You want to know if they are courteous, responsive, and helpful.  This is especially important if you are considering an ASP solution.  In that case, you aren’t just buying a piece of software off the shelf and installing it.  You are beginning an ongoing relationship with a company that affects your day-to-day operations, and you want to make sure that you can work with them.


By the time this process is over, you should have a good deal of information with which you can make an informed decision.  And by using my checklist, or one of your own devising, you should be able to compare features across a wide range of products to determine which one best suits your needs at a price you can afford.  Good luck in your software search–I hope to see you all up and chatting soon!

Chat Reference Software Checklist

Lisa Roberts, Reference Librarian, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

What do you want to be able to do?

·        Chat

·        Remote control 

·        Push pages

·        Video

·        Co-browse

·        Voice over IP

How much are you willing to spend?

How many operators do you need logged on at the same time?

Is it okay for the user to have to download/install software to be able to use your service?  Yes / No

Is it okay for the user to have to register with a third party to be able to use your service? Yes / No

Do you want to run it, or do you want someone else to run it?

Do you want to try to cooperate? Yes / No

Features to look for

·        Preset messages and URLs

·        Email transcripts

·        Storage of transcripts in a knowledge base

·        Built-in survey capability

·        Reports

·        Customization capabilities

·        Documentation

·        Software evaluation

Setup and maintenance issues

·        Installing the software

o    Is a software install required?  If so, then:

o    How is the software administered?

· What functions require administrator privileges?

o    Who has the rights to make changes to the software set-up, programmed messages, etc.?

·  Customizing the look and feel

o       Is customization possible?

o    What changes can be made to the interface?

o    Does it cost extra money to customize? 

On the user’s end

·     Does the user have to download and install a plug-in?

·     Does the user have to register with a third-party to use the service?

·      Is the chat window intuitive?

·      What happens when a page is pushed?

o    New window opens every time, or does each subsequent page load in same window?

o    Is the new window fully navigable, or are buttons or scrollbars missing?

o    Does the new window appear in a frame?  If so, what happens when you visit a frame-busting site?

o    Can proprietary databases be pushed?

o    Do these functions work the same way across various browsers, various browser versions, on IBM and Mac platforms?

·     How well does the software work with screen-reading software (for the visually disabled)?

On the librarian’s end

·        Dealing with incoming calls

o    How is the librarian notified of an incoming call?

o    How does the librarian pick up a call?

o    How is queuing of calls handled?

o    Can the librarian transfer a call?

o    Can the librarian end a call?

·        How does the librarian push a page?

o    Is it easy?

o    Is there a way to store frequently pushed pages?

·        Can the librarian send a clickable URL?

o    Is it easy?

o    Is there a way to store frequently visited URLs?


·     Is training available?

·     What are the training options and what does each option cost?


·        What is the company’s privacy policy? 

·        What data does the company collect about your users?

·        Who has access to the data that is gathered?

·        What use, if any, does the company make of that data?

·        Use of cookies

o    Does the software place cookies on your users’ computers?

o       If so, can that feature be disabled?

Licensing issues

·        Is there a contract?

o    How do you get out of the contract if you’re dissatisfied?

o    How many operators total are allowed? 

o    How many separate installs of the software are allowed?

o    How many operators can be logged in at the same time?

o    How many concurrent chats are permitted per operator?

·        Is there a set-up fee?

·        Is there a training fee?

·        Is there a fee for customization?

·        What are the payment options?

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