Need Help? Online

Screen sharing gets librarians and patrons on the same page

August 7, 2013

Meredith Farkas

When librarians first began offering chat reference, most envisioned it as a medium to answer quick and simple questions. Involved research questions were best answered in person. Somehow, our patrons didn’t get the memo on this, and many chat interactions are just as involved as face-to-face reference sessions. What complicates these chat-based interactions is that the patron can’t see the librarian’s screen. Significant time is lost helping patrons maneuver to something that would be so much easier to just show them.

Co-browsing or screen sharing—the ability to let people on other computers view your screen—has existed for more than a decade. While early commercial chat reference software offered co-browsing, it frequently failed to work properly. The high failure rate and the availability of free and inexpensive chat clients led many to move to simple, lightweight chat tools like AOL Instant Messenger and the now defunct Meebo. Since then, new screen-sharing tools have come on the market and others have matured significantly. There are now tools that allow librarians to easily share their screen while chatting or speaking with a patron remotely. is a simple and free screen-sharing application that includes chat and Voice over IP (VoIP) options. To get started, the person sharing his or her screen downloads a small file that, when opened by the recipient, starts the screen sharing. To invite other people, the sharer simply sends a link provided at the top of the screen-sharing interface. The viewer doesn’t need to download anything to access

A tool like could be used at the reference desk for chat queries that are involved or require a visual explanation. The librarian could send the patron a link to a website where he or she could view the librarian’s screen. They could then either use text chat or VoIP within to communicate. In order to ensure the patron will be able to do what is being demonstrated, the librarian can give the patron control over the screen and simply provide guidance. This allows for active learning instruction within a reference transaction. even works on iOS and Android devices. Once you’ve installed the free application, you can easily share screens and text, chat, or talk with others through your smartphone or tablet. A paid version of allows people to schedule meetings in advance, swap presenters, and provide a permanent personal meeting-room link, among other things.

Some librarians have used screen-sharing tools beyond the reference desk. Subject librarians frequently provide individual research consultations for students and faculty in their liaison area(s). At Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, Heidi Steiner, head of digital and distance education services, used the screen sharing functionality of web conferencing software to offer virtual research consultations for online learners. could be used for the same purpose. could even be used for group instruction. Since up to 250 users can attend a session, a librarian could demonstrate the use of online tools via screen sharing and VoIP. Since viewers don’t need to download, it’s quite a bit simpler, and probably less prone to failure, than traditional web conferencing software.

Given the growth of online learning and online library use, serving remote patrons is becoming the rule, not the exception. Tools like allow librarians to provide a similar level of service to online patrons as we offer those we serve in person. Being able to visually demonstrate something makes instruction and reference assistance much more effective.

MEREDITH FARKAS is head of instructional services at Portland (Oreg.) State University. She blogs at Information Wants to Be Free and created Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. Contact her at



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