InfoIssues: November 2005 | Mansfield Library | The University of Montana-Missoula

The University of Montana Libraries—Missoula

A publication of the faculty of the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana

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Collection Development


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Keeping up with "Podcasting"

Text Messaging/SMS Reference Services


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To comment on this issue or to suggest an issue, please contact Jennie Burroughs, Chair, Key Constituencies Committee.

Issue of the Month: November 2005

Text Messaging/SMS Reference Services

-Samantha Hines, Assistant Professor
Outreach Coordinator and Social Sciences Librarian

A cell phone seems to be a necessary accessory in a student’s life nowadays, and even most faculty and staff consider them essential. But these phones can be used for more than just calling people. Most cell phones currently sold in the U.S. have the capability to send and receive short text messages to other cell phone users or to computer users. This is called Short Message Service (SMS) or texting. Some enterprising organizations and libraries have taken advantage of this ability to provide services that answer users’ questions.

One of the pioneers in this area, as always, is Google. Google SMS allows cell phone users to send short queries to 46645 (GOOGL) and receive answers within minutes. This service is entirely free, except for whatever charges your cell phone carrier may apply for text messages. Most providers charge ten cents or less per message sent or received. Questions are answered best when they are short and follow Google’s suggested syntax. 411 or directory-assistance-style questions are the most successful. For example, when searching for a cab company in Chicago, I sent the message “taxi Chicago, il” from my phone and within a minute got a text message back from Google with the numbers of two cab companies. The website for the service says that Google SMS can answer short factual questions. I tested it out with “Montana population” and got a response within a minute, stating that the population was 902,195 and that the information came from However, with more in-depth questions, Google SMS doesn’t do a very good job. Texting Google with “number of librarians in the USA” led to the reply, “Sorry, ‘number of librari…’ did not return any results.” It seems that Google’s service is operated solely by machine, and if the syntax is wrong or the query is too long the question is illegible.

A new service, AskMeNow, claims to be able to answer any question via text messaging, provided that the answer is available on the Internet. This service is currently in beta testing and free to users. Users must register via the AskMeNow website with their cell phone number. To ask a question, a user calls a phone number via their cell phone in East Rochester, NY, and leave a message. Within a few minutes, the website says, you should receive your answer via text message to your phone. I tried out my population of Montana query again. In about two minutes I received the answer of 902,195. The message stated that this was the population as of 2000 but gave no indication of where the answer came from. I also tried my query of “number of librarians in the USA.” Almost exactly three minutes later, I got a text message that said, "There are 137,000 librarians in the U.S." but again there was no source. I decided to do some fact checking on this answer. My first resource, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, said that "librarians held 167,000 jobs in 2002" according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the first hit from a Google search on “number of librarians” resulted in ALA Fact Sheet #2, which gave the estimate of 137,000 based on their own figures. To me, it seems that AskMeNow works via a person who listens to the voice message, runs a web search, and texts back the answer.

This service holds a kind of appeal, especially to people who are familiar with texting and use their cell phones frequently. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one third of all U.S. teenagers has used a cell phone to send a text message and internationally that number is higher, for all cell phone users. It’s no surprise that one of the first libraries to create an SMS reference service, the Curtin University of Technology, is located in Australia, where it is cheaper to send a text message than to actually call a librarian. The only company that markets a software application for libraries to deliver SMS reference, Altarama, is also Australian. American libraries have recently started to get into the act, as Southeastern Louisiana State University has started up a text message reference service.

To learn more about text messaging, try these links:
A blog on all things text messaging produced by Emily Turrettini in Geneva, Switzerland.

Mobile Devices/SMS/Instant Messaging Social Science Research
Research compiled by Nalini P. Kotamraju, a sociology Ph.D. student whose work focuses on digital technology and culture.

Text Searches Put the Operator on Hold
Washington Post article on the rising popularity of SMS search services.

SMS in Technology
A site which tracks news and developments in SMS technology.

Walking Paper
A collection of posts from the blog of Aaron Schmidt, a public librarian interested in technology applications, regarding cell phones, SMS, and the library’s potential role.

To comment on this issue or to suggest an issue, please contact Jennie Burroughs, Chair, Key Constituencies Committee.