Death of a Listserv

The use of instant messenger (IM) with regard to reference capabilities is becoming more common among academic and research libraries.  Naturally, more people are talking about the benefits and also the negative aspects of utilizing this service within their own library through listservs.  In my exploration through the DIGLIB mailing list, I discovered a thread from October, 2009 dealing with this very topic.

The thread begins with a curious graduate student working on her MLS who is working on a research study “assessing undergraduate awareness, use, and satisfaction of an instant message reference service at a public university.”  She further states that the main portion of her research is interested in looking at the long-term benefits of implementing an IM system within an academic or research library, but cannot find any literature pertaining to her query.

Though only 2 people responded to her thread, she explicitly states: “Please contact me directly off the listserv if you care to share you experience.”  I found this to be counter intuitive to the purpose of a listserv, but I have come across this similar phrase among several threads that actually have substance.  Though, it seems, a few people wanted to share their experience regardless of her plea for “off listserv” contact.

Bob from Detroit writes that she should look for information through her “favorite search engine” to find information regarding the negatives pertaining to the use of IM’ing in a research or academic setting.  However, he goes no further in answering her question, nor does he provide any articles that could be of any use to her research project.

Though, the next post suggests that the original “thread-starter” should consider her terminology when researching about this topic.  Leo provides sound reason for this, in that he states “many libraries use rather convoluted language such as ‘Chat Reference.’”  He also goes on to say that libraries that have had success with this kind of implementation use services such as Libraryh31p or Meebo and “enjoy considerable usage.”  It seems, too, that in his experience with IM’ing for reference, it has also become a shift, as though the librarian were at the actual reference desk and therefore provides little benefit than actually meeting face-to-face.

Frankly, I agree with Leo.  The implementation of IM in place of a reference librarian, usually doesn’t bode well.  Many students do not take to the idea of IM’ing, and unless there is a librarian working late at night, students are even less likely to utilize the function.  For example, at Millersville University Library, they are currently using MSN Messenger, and are having little success with it, even when there is a librarian available after hours. Honestly, from my experience as an undergraduate, there is nothing better than asking for help on a research topic than from that of a face-to-face contact.  Some students wouldn’t agree, but in order for certainty, the reference interview is most important and I have found that there is an increasing amount of miscommunication when a text function is enabled.

However true both posts contributing to the main feed are, it seems that they are not quite the thoughtful approach that I may have had if I were participating in this discussion.  Both comments are rather short and provide little feedback or personal experience.  I have found that in order to help someone with their research, as a library professional, I would think it to be important to cite relevant literature and other reference materials to aid the original poster.  However, I have discovered quite the contrary.  Perhaps it is related to the fact that in the original thread, the poster wanted people to contact her “off the listserv.”  Again, I wonder, how does this help the people reading the thread?  It seems to defeat the purpose of the listserv utility and thus has provided no answer to the question posed.

Therefore, it becomes obvious to me that people (at least in regards to this post) are merely using the listserv to gain contacts in providing aid in personal and private research.  I have found, too, that many are simply posting ads for calls for papers to conferences, many of which are in other countries.  So, overall, my experience with using the listserv utility has been a negative one.  It seems as though they are not serving their purpose any longer and any meaningful discussion is happening “behind the scenes.”

I have often thought that participatory culture is leaning more toward the blogosphere and other means of social networking.  We must remember that e-mail and listservs have been around for a rather long time and it seems that they have run their course.  In order to find meaningful discussion and aid when speaking of reference issues, it may be more important to look at blogs and Twitter (micro-blogging) to gain knowledge and experience.  Overall, the only positive I see from the listserv is when someone has a question about where to find a rare item, and even then, there are other ways of finding materials.  It is apparent that it is time to explore other modes of participatory functions in order to aid reference librarians and their quest for answers and knowledge.

Gorman, Marisa. “Librarian Opinions on Success of Long Term IM Reference.” Online posting. DIGLIBS. Oct. 2009. Web. Apr. 2010. <>.


  1. I too have been disillusioned with listservs. I unsubscribed from most of mine because there wasn’t much meaningful conversation taking place. I get more out of blogs and searching out the information I need. There is one listserv I like though – it’s ALA’s NMRT-L. They have monthly online discussion forum that I have found interesting to see feedback on. Most of them are well thought out questions (posed by an actual committee of individuals) that people respond to and conversation ensues. The individual posing the questions usually sends some kind of wrap up at the end of the month before they introduce a new set. Just as an idea of the type of things they ask, here are the questions that were posed for April ’09:

    When attending conferences, do you feel it is more useful to attend sessions directly related to our area of work or to use the opportunity to explore other areas of librarianship to get a broader feel for the profession? How does one effectively plan and prepare before a conference? How does one keep from burning out at a conference? How do you network with other librarians/attendees when you attend a conference?

    That kind of thing. Also, @ Millersville we’re using Yahoo! Messenger for the chat service. I can only speak from personal experience because I haven’t looked at the overall chat statistics. I don’t get a ton of questions, but I do find it quite valuable when there is a question. More than once I have had a visitor say “You were my last option” or “I had no idea where else to look” – so at least we can catch them at some point. It brings up tons of other issues like why is the library so difficult to use in the first place (shouldn’t we be making things as streamlined as possible for our users?!) but it’s there as another option for them (along with phone, email, and visiting the desk) if they choose to use it.

    Yayyy I love your posts, Amy, they make me think 🙂 See you in a little bit for coffee!


  2. Yep, don’t really like listservs anymore either. I still subscribe to a few and the msgs go right into filtered folders. Than I never look at them.

    About our chat reference. Be careful about saying MU hasn’t had much success. It all depends on the goals you set out and how you measure success. For the amount of time required to keep things going (very little), I’d say that the chat reference service has been very successful. For the same reasons Erin mentions above. But my analysis is just as suspect as your statement – “…and are having little success with it…” – because it is based on anecdotal evidence.

    Very thoughtful stuff Amy. Keep posting.


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