|First impressions count.
If you've ever sold a house, you were undoubtedly advised to spruce up
the entrance to your house so potential buyers would have a good first
impression. The same holds true for libraries. We want to make a good first
impression so visitors will want to walk through our front door. At my
library we recently replaced aging carpeting in the foyer with lovely new
tile to make our entrance both more inviting and easier to maintain.
A good first impression,
however, isn't enough to make people come back. A library must make its
patrons comfortable and provide services appropriate to the patrons' needs.
Over a year ago, my library instituted a Welcome Desk just inside the front
door. Staffed by volunteers, the Welcome Desk provides a warm personal
welcome to the library. It also helps the patron who is unsure about how
to find his or her way around the building. Volunteers at the Welcome Desk
can direct patrons to circulation and reference services or provide information
on popular locations in the library such as our magazine area, the new
books section, audio and video collections, and the children's room. They
can also direct patrons to such necessary conveniences as the public telephone
and, of course, the restrooms. Library brochures and other pamphlets on
community organizations and municipal services are also available at the
Welcome Desk. The goal is to extend the first impression of the foyer by
immediately directing patrons to the services they are seeking.
Since libraries today have
not just a physical presence but also a virtual one on the Web, they have
to make sure that their virtual library is just as welcoming as their "real"
library. A library's home page could correspond to its front door. An attractive,
well-designed home page can encourage visitors to explore the site, but
by itself, it may not be enough to make them come back. Visitors will return
to a library site if it truly helps them find what they need, and what
they need may be the library's catalog, community information, citations
from a subscription database, or links to authoritative information elsewhere
on the Web. A virtual library needs a virtual Welcome Desk to direct patrons
to appropriate resources.
The virtual equivalent of
a Welcome Desk is a Web portal. If you are unfamiliar with the term, portals
are starting points for Web surfers. A number of the larger Internet service
providers offer their users customized startup pages that are designed
to direct them to frequently used resources. Many Web surfers who don't
use a portal page designed by their ISP use Yahoo! as their starting point.
Its "My Yahoo!" feature allows users to create a customized portal to the
resources they use most often. The personalization features even extend
to providing links to local weather, sports, and news.
It seems both obvious and
natural that library sites should function as portals since libraries are
in the business of classifying information and helping patrons locate the
best information resources to fit their needs. Many libraries are now constructing
their sites to serve as portals, and automation vendors are developing
new products to help them.
Starting at the LibrarySpot
Many of you have probably
visited the LibrarySpot—at least I hope you have, because I've referred
to it in several of my columns. You may not have realized that it is designed
to function as a portal to the best library and reference resources on
the Web. It works very well, which is the reason that I use it so often
when I'm doing research for this column.
The LibrarySpot home page
makes information professionals and patrons feel right at home because
it is organized using familiar, library-related terms. There is a Reference
Desk with links to online almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and many
more online reference tools. Thereis also a Reading Room with links to
resources for readers, including book reviews, newspapers, magazines, poetry,
and speeches. We librarians often prepare special finding aids to commonly
used materials, and the LibrarySpot accomplishes this through its shortcuts,
which include links to online homework help, science projects, and obituaries.
The LibrarySpot home page spotlights special technology, and directs visitors
to online exhibits. Finally, just for us, there is a Librarian's Shelf
with links to professional resources.
Going from the LibrarySpot
LibrarySpot is a great
starting point for locating our specialized tools, and many libraries have
created similar Web pages with organized links to Web resources. But these
lack the customization features of portals such as My Yahoo!, which lets
a user choose the resources he wants most often and provides links to local
information such as weather or sports scores. Some librarians have worked
to create personalized library portals for their online users, and one
such project is the MyLibrary information service of the North Carolina
State University Libraries. To learn more about this project and try out
the interface, you can visit the MyLibrary@NCState Development page. [Editor's
Note: You can also read Andrew Pace's column on page 49, or Tripp Reade's
feature, which starts on page 30.] The service is an open source project,
so even the source code is available from this page. There is also a collection
of text materials describing the project and a set of support materials.
Perhaps the most interesting link on this page is the "Sandbox," which
allows visitors to try out the system, both as a user and as an administrator.
Automation Vendor Portals
Library automation vendors
have begun to develop products designed to make it easy for librarians
to create portals, so I decided to visit a few vendor sites to locate information
on these products. The first site I visited was that of Data Research Associates.
DRA's Web catalog product is known as Web2, and there's a page on the company's
Web site that shows its new portal interface for Web2. The portal page
is organized so that links to the library's information are on the left
side, and links to more general information lie on the right side. A library
can, of course, customize the links on either side. The middle of the page
offers a direct link to search the library's catalog and a field for visiting
patrons to send a reference question via e-mail. DRA describes Web2 as
a "one-stop shopping" interface, but it might be more accurately described
as "one-page shopping" since so many options are made available through
the portal page.
The next vendor site I visited
belonged to Innovative Interfaces, Inc. At the time of my visit, Rodman
Public Library was featured on Innovative's home page. I decided to pay
a virtual visit to this library to see how the Internet was integrated
into its Web site. Although Rodman's initial page was organized a bit differently
than the sample DRA portal interface, the Rodman library home page offered
easy navigation to the catalog, library information, reference resources
(including e-mail reference service and links to recommended Internet reference
resources), and a community calendar.
At the last ALA Conference,
the SIRSI Corp. introduced a new product called iBistro. This product claims
to integrate Internet resources into a library's catalog to provide a "one-stop
Internet solution for libraries." The best way to get a feel for this product
is to visit SIRSI's iBistro Web site. One of the advertised features of
iBistro is the list of hot Web sites that is provided by SIRSI and maintained
by its technicians, rather than by librarians at individual sites--no more
checking your list of recommended sites for obsolete links! Another iBistro
feature links a library's entire catalog to book reviews, tables of contents,
cover images, and synopses and annotations--all available to library patrons
through the library's OPAC on the Web. Patrons also can set profiles for
searching based on their interests, and view lists based on their favorite
authors and subjects. If you want to know more, SIRSI's Web site has a
product brochure in PDF format, information on the alliances with content
providers, and a list of customers who have implemented iBistro so you
can take a test drive.
The final portal product
I looked at was OCLC's recently announced WebExpress. OCLC describes this
product as an "integrated gateway to your library's electronic services."
The product Web site provided an overview of the service, an FAQ document,
a guided tour, and demonstrations. The tour guide showed how a library
would administer and maintain its site using WebExpress, while the demonstrations
showed sample patron interfaces for a public library and an academic library.
There is also information on system requirements and a list of Z39.50 resources
that have been configured for WebExpress.
Making a Lasting Impression
It is no longer enough
for a library to simply "be on the Internet." Libraries need to use their
Internet presence to help their patrons find the information they need
whether it is in the library's catalog, in an online database, or on a
Web site. By developing your Web site as a portal to guide your patrons
to the information they need, your library can make not just a good first
impression, but also a lasting impression that brings your patrons back
to visit whenever they need information.
Janet L. Balas is library
information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pennsylvania) Public Library.
She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org