Here’s my very short answer to the question “How should IM reference queries be treated?”: You decide for your library.
Because you know your users. And your librarians. And your service policies. And your user expectations. And your traffic in reference and instruction interactions. And a million other things that should frame how you respond to that question.
But personally? In my own professional definition of information services for academic library users? I think that there is absolutely no difference between an IM query and a face-to-face query, and they need to be treated with the same respect, attentiveness, and thoroughness of service. They are both synchronous communication streams in which a user asks for assistance, and they should be treated as such.
I have an experience set that makes this an easy thing to say; I work on a residential academic campus in a library that is experiencing declining use of our reference expertise. As a result, we have tried to change and revalue the way we offer reference service by expanding and personalizing our interactions. We set up follow-up stations for patrons to use near the reference desk so that they can work independently but get continuous research assistance. We expanded and aggressively marketed our one-on-one research appointments. We implemented and broadened and began marketing our IM reference service. We joined AskUs 24-7. All of these are ways to reach a bigger slice of our campus users, where and when and how they need our help, taking into account the teaching and learning environment in which our users live and work. On our residential campus with a strong traditional undergraduate student body as well as a robust graduate program and growing distance learning opportunities, our users’ learning environment is distributed, online, community-based, and independently focused. The library is not the center of their learning world, and I don’t expect it ever will be. But we need to be a part of their world, and having a robust and service-oriented online presence is a key piece of our efforts.
If I, then, say that IM reference is less important than face-to-face reference in my library, I am directly contradicting our attempts to place greater value on reaching our users where they live and work. Our building use statistics indicate that while we are a vital and busy library, the majority of our students do not live and work in the library. Who are we trying to serve? Only the users who come to the building? No. We’re trying to serve all of our potential users, and our attempts to broaden our service offerings into the online communication realm are an expression of that. If I fail to place equal priority on those online users, I am undermining our efforts.
And I think it’s too important to prove the value of information professionals and resources to as many of our students as possible to ever undermine those efforts.
So if I’m answering an IM reference question when a user walks up to the desk, I will do what I have always done: Politely and with a welcoming smile ask, “Can you please wait one moment? I’m helping someone else.” And I will trust that our students will continue to wait their turn in our virtual and physical line.