Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 4 • April 2001 

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Reaching Faraway Patrons
by Kathy Dempsey 

I'm not quite sure how we got to the point that everyone expects to be able to access the whole world's electronic information 24/7, from home, in their pajamas. But yet, here we are. And what are we, as an industry, doing about it? 

That's what this issue of CIL is all about. How are we serving off-site library users? What's new in this field that we've dubbed "distance librarianship"? We've come a long way since it was considered "a big convenience" that you could call the library on the phone to renew your book. Patrons of all stripes—people at home, school or college students, corporate employees—now want information access that's convenient to their lifestyles and their working needs. And I believe that if librarians try to ignore this fact, users will want to replace them with the infamous Internet. Luckily, though, a lot of people are working toward the goal of being able to offer really solid long-distance service. 

We are honored to have our main feature article come from Steve Coffman, who many regard as the current guru of online reference services. He has been developing "call center" software that allows reference librarians to act like catalog sales reps: They can talk to you on the phone or chat with you on the Net, often while you're both looking at Web pages. This type of software allows the same sort of interaction that used to happen face-to-face at the reference desk. Now, though, you can have real-time conversations even when you're far apart. Coffman often writes on this topic, and his conference presentations are always packed. He's written his latest views and speculations.

Following Coffman's article about how it all works is a case study from a library that's been experimenting with these software packages. Thinking of going that route yourself? You can read this first, live vicariously through the Bowling Green State University librarians, and learn from their experiences before you take the plunge.

Our third feature offers a slightly different point of view—it's written by a woman who's title is actually "off-campus services librarian." At a university that needs to serve many distance education classes, she is the one responsible for providing library resources and training to hundreds of adults who seldom see the main campus or its library. She relies on videoconferencing and cyberclasses, and also on more traditional methods of communication like fax, mail, and the good ol' telephone. Imagine that!

And you can't have a discussion about serving distant patrons without talking about ILL, can you? We've got that one covered too, in an article about how a consortium built a catalog that made ILL a whole lot easier and cheaper. Sound good? Read all about the Alleycat on page 40.

We are here to make your job easier. I think these articles will show you what's possible now and what's on the horizon.

Kathy Dempsey, Editor

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