ASSOCIATES (vol. 7 no. 2, November 2000) -

Helping Those We Never See: Reaching Patrons
Through Library Web Sites

Linda Putnam's column about digital libraries has prodded me to think about how libraries can reach patrons that never come through the doors. Even in my library, where first-year law students are required to come here to work on research assignments, there are many patrons that we never see after those assignments are completed. The question we have been asking ourselves (and that many other libraries have asked themselves) is: how can we reach and assist patrons that do not come to us?

This is not as new an issue as one might suppose. Libraries have used the telephone for many years to communicate with patrons outside the building. Patrons could call the library and receive information on hours and policies, renew or place holds on materials, and get help with "ready reference" or holdings questions. Public libraries have also made use of the bookmobile to bring collections to those who were unable to come to the library building. Academic libraries have performed outreach to students and faculty by sending reference librarians to classes to talk about research methods and inform patrons about library holdings and services.

Now that new technologies are available to libraries looking to reach out to those that don't enter the building, the question becomes: how can we make use of our new capabilities to assist those whom we never see? There are two ways in which we can do this: first, use new technologies to deliver the same "distance services" we have always offered, and second, use our new capabilities to offer additional services that we weren't able to offer remotely before.

Although there are many new pieces of equipment that are making their way into libraries, the library's web site seems to be the most useful for reaching remote patrons. All types of libraries have web sites, not just those that have the best funding. More and more people are becoming familiar with the web as an information source and will look for a library's web site. The web offers the ability to combine style (colors, graphics, sounds, video) with substance (information about the library and its services).

A library web site allows libraries to provide all the services the telephone could offer, along with a host of other features. Hours and policy questions could be answered by a "frequently asked questions" page. Obviously, a link to the library's catalog will save patrons a telephone call to find out if the library owns a particular book and if it has been checked out. Many online catalog vendors offer software that allows patrons to renew books and place holds without having to come to the library; these technologies could be moved to the web. Ready reference questions could be answered in many cases by offering an e-mail reference service.

The library's web site should do more than merely replicate the services the library already offers by phone, however. The availability of many texts online in their entirety offers libraries a "24/7" addition to the bookmobile. The many research guides that both public and academic libraries have placed on their web sites offer libraries another way to reach students and teachers interested in learning about research methods in a given discipline but without class time to invite someone from the library to speak.

The web gives libraries the opportunity to bring more of themselves to patrons by offering entirely new services. For example, a library can customize its web site so that each patron can see the information he or she views as most important first. This means that an elementary school teacher could customize a public library page to bring up a list of upcoming storytime sessions right away. Likewise, a graduate student could customize an academic library page to bring up a research guide in his or her area as a starting point. This technology is similar to that which allows the user to customize other parts of the web, "My Yahoo!," for example. "My Library" would allow patrons to get exactly what they want exactly when they want it.

There is also an interactive component of the web which needs to be further explored by libraries. Rather than requiring patrons to come to the library to take classes on research or learn more about the library's services, patrons could complete an online tutorial which would guide them through the steps necessary to research a paper, find a periodical article or start genealogical research. Reference e-mail could be used in this setting to answer questions as people worked on the exercise. Again, patrons get the information they need when they need it.

That's really what using new technology is all about, providing the services our patrons need when and where they need them. Gone are the days when we could count on people coming to us; now we have to go to them. Granted there's nothing that will substitute for an actual trip to the library: talking to someone to find the appropriate information, browsing the stacks to find other items by serendipity or just stopping for a quiet moment of reading before heading out into the busy, noisy world; but to ignore those who can't come to us is not a viable option. The more we show ourselves willing to go to them, the more willing they will be to come to us - in person or in cyberspace.


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