A Twilio-Powered Solution for Libraries: Tampa Bay Library Consortium Builds an SMS Reference Service

As part of our series on tech innovation in libraries, we’ll be focusing on Florida’s “Ask A Librarian” virtual reference desk service. The pioneering service turned to Twilio to power its SMS reference service throughout the Sunshine State.

For Floridians, having a virtual reference library means that wherever they are—on a Ferris wheel in Disney World or an airboat in the Everglades—a librarian is just a text message away.

Jessica Riggins, member services coordinator, said “Ask a Librarian” is collaboratively staffed by librarians from 120 public, academic and special libraries throughout the state. In addition to its SMS reference service, the librarians offer help via live chat and email.

Since the inception of the “Ask A Librarian” service in 2003, librarians have responded to hundreds of thousands of queries. Last year, they logged 75,712 total sessions, including 53,597 chat sessions, 16,617 email sessions and 5,398 SMS sessions.

According to Riggins, the service began as a partnership between the College Center for Library Automation (CCLA) and the Tampa Bay Library Consortium. Today the consortium is the sole administrator, providing reference services from 10 a.m. until midnight Sunday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

“Library reference has always been face to face,” Riggins said. “As technology has evolved, people don’t need to come to a physical library as often, but they still need help from a librarian.”

“Ask A Librarian” runs its program on InstantService, a chat platform that is owned by Oracle. The SMS reference service was added in 2010 by using Twilio’s SMS API as an SMS gateway with InstantService.

Matt Smith, the technical assistant for the consortium, said the SMS messages are received through Twilio and then sent to InstantService. “The integration works well, and it is pretty easy to maintain,” he said. Using Twilio for the SMS reference service dramatically lowers the costs of its solution. The Consortium pays just 1 cent/message, which averages about $4.42/month or $53/ year.

Riggins said the next move for “Ask A Librarian” will be to launch mobile apps on Android and iOS devices. Library lovers and reference lovers should look for them in the Android market and Apple App Store in early summer.

“Ask a Librarian” is funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Florida Department of State, State Library and Archives of Florida. “Ask a Librarian” is a service of the Florida Electronic Library.