This started as a comment response to David Lee King’s admonition, but by the time I got to paragraph three, I decided it would be better to post it here instead.
My library (small private academic university) offers both IM and email reference services. There is a note on the IM page of the website which states, “Users at the Main Service Desk have priority over IM users. IM users are taken in a first-come, first served order. If you would prefer not to wait, you may always email a librarian.” Essentially, this is the only way we can manage IM reference service with one person handling it at the same time they are answering questions at the desk and responding to email queries. So far, our users have been understanding, and IM reference makes up approximately 10% of our reference interactions.
I don’t see this as discriminating against our virtual users. Anyone in customer service will tell you that the person standing in front of you takes priority. The culture of IM is such that a delay in responding is acceptable, if not expected. Chat doesn’t mean that you drop everything else — we’re all used to multi-tasking while having an online conversation. Chat provides a faster back and forth than email, which is why many prefer it for reference interactions, but that doesn’t mean they expect instantaneous service.
The libraries with explicitly stated response times that DLK points out are large institutions serving large populations. My library can get away with fast response times because we might get one or two IM questions an hour, at most. Larger populations result in more questions, and depending on how in-depth those questions are, it may take several hours or longer to respond with all of the information the user is seeking. I often conclude a basic IM reference transaction by providing the student with the contact information for their subject librarian and the personal appointment request form. Some research needs can’t be met exclusively in an online environment.
I get what DLK is trying to say, and I agree that we should treat our online users with the same courtesy we do our in-person users. However, the limitations in online reference tools, staffing, and resources all combine to make it difficult to create a virtual library utopia. We should strive for it, yes, but making librarians feel even more guilty because they can’t do it (for whatever reason) is not going to improve the situation.