Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 2 • February 2001 

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Extending a Welcome to the Library and to the Internet 
by Janet L. Balas

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 to MyLibrary
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.

Resources Discussed

LibrarySpot — encyclopedias, maps, libraries, etc.

MyLibrary@NCState Development

Welcome to DRA Web2

Library Automation — Data Research Associates

Rodman Public Library (Alliance, OH) home page

Innovative Interfaces, Inc.

SIRSI Corp. — iBistro Client

OCLC Reference Services / OCLC WebExpress


Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pennsylvania) Public Library. She can be reached by e-mail at or

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