Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 1 • January 2002

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• FEATURE • 
Catching (and Keeping) E-Patrons
by Jeanne Holba Puacz

Luring people to the library requires more than dropping your bait and waiting to reel patrons in—thanks to the Internet, It's become a competitive sport.
E-commerce has empowered average customers. No longer are they relegated to choosing from only local goods and services. The Web provides them access to a virtual marketplace where they can browse the world, comparison shop, and find the best deals. Many businesses have recognized this shift and are working hard to improve the capabilities of their Web sites in order to lure in and keep e-customers.

We in libraries need to realize that we are in a very similar position. Thanks to the Internet, libraries are no longer the only information game in town. Just as customers can now shop for the best deal on goods and services, they can shop for the best deal on information. If the online presence of a library is not informative, innovative, and service-oriented, there is little to stop e-patrons from surfing on to different sites that better meet their needs. We need to take a lesson from big business and focus on making our Web sites as effective and patron-friendly as possible. Attracting people to Web sites, offering them great deals, providing excellent service, and encouraging them to make return visits are some of the biggest challenges in the digital economy.

The Vigo County Public Library, in Terre Haute, Indiana, is trying to determine how best to meet these challenges now, and how to plan for future improvements. I would like to share some of our ideas on luring empowered patrons to our library's Web site and convincing them to keep coming back for more!
 

Start by Choosing the Right Lure
Marketing your Web site is vital to its ultimate success. Marketing will drive visitors to your site; if those visitors are impressed by the content and services of your site, chances are they will not only return to the site at another time, but they may also recommend the site to their colleagues, friends, and family. Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth advertising! Additionally, those visitors will generate usage statistics; you may be able to present those statistics to your administration to justify a higher budget or additional staff for Web development. More money and more staff should, in turn, help to further develop and improve the site, thus attracting new patrons.

We at the Vigo County Public Library (VCPL) try to capitalize on any opportunity to advertise our Web address. We put the VCPL Web address on everything we can, even on the staff! The backs of the Summer Reading Club T-shirts are emblazoned with the library Web address; the staff is encouraged to wear these shirts to advertise both the program and the Web site. We have also created "business cards" for our Web site. They look like normal staff business cards; however, instead of a staff member's name across the top, the card invites patrons to "Visit our Web Site" and provides the address. Traditional contact information for the library, as well as our logo, is also on the card, as is the e-mail address for the "Ask a Librarian a Question" service. We try to include the URL on all library fliers, newsletters, and pamphlets; many staff members include the Web address in their e-mail signature files too. We have even had pencils printed with the library name and Web address; we hand these out during library classes. This way our students can take notes, take home a fun bonus, and it's all good advertising. We are still hoping to convince our administration that we need bumper stickers!

Publicizing your site's content is another great way to attract visitors. Articles in local publications about the library and its 24/7 e-branch are a great way to start. In addition to general articles about the site, be sure to capitalize on specialized publications and groups. Try to advertise the young people's page in school newsletters and during your children's programming; push the history room's page to local genealogical societies. Don't forget to stress any special local history sources available from the library's Web site, like digitized historical documents or indexes to local events, newspapers, or documents.

Classes designed to showcase our Web site and its features also seem to be helpful in attracting and retaining visitors. The VCPL offers a variety of free computer classes that are available to all interested patrons. We begin all Web classes on the library's home page. This way we can show the class participants how they can obtain valuable information from our site. If the class is a basic introduction to the Web, we use the library site to teach class members how to follow links, scroll, and use navigation buttons. If the class focuses on how to find subject information on the Web, we use the library's "Useful Web Sites" links to lead the students to relevant sites that have been chosen and reviewed by subject specialists.

We also encourage our staff members to discuss the Web page when they are giving talks or presentations to local community groups. Whether hosting a book club or speaking to local businesspeople, mentioning the Web site (and its address) is a great way to generate new traffic. Taking a supply of URL "business cards" may also be helpful when presenting to community groups.
 

Learn How to Set Your Hook
Remember, no matter how great the advertising for your site, if the content is incomplete, chances are good that visitors will not be hooked. The library's hours, policies, branches, events, and, of course, the library catalog are basic items that should be included on a site. In addition to the basics, however, try to include some special information that may not be available to your patrons anywhere else on the Web. The greater the number of unique and helpful services and sources that you can offer from your site, the more likely you are to develop a loyal e-patron base for your online branch.

Offering remote access to databases is an excellent way to entice and serve your Web-savvy patrons. In today's wired world, there is no reason that patrons should have to visit the library's physical location to use an online source; coming to a Web branch should be an alternative. At the VCPL, we were anxious to offer remote database access to our patrons; however, we were having difficulties acquiring the service through our library automation vendor. Luckily, we found an easy and reasonably priced solution in EZproxy. Our database vendors approved it as an acceptable means of authentication and we have had a great deal of success with the software. Our patrons are continually impressed and pleased that, with the library's help, they are able to research reliable sources from the comfort of their own homes.

Another feature that is very popular with patrons is one that comes standard with many online databases: Patrons can e-mail articles and citations to themselves from the database. Although this is a common feature, many people, even those who are technologically advanced, are not aware that it is available. Prominently advertising this service would likely garner even more happy patrons. In addition to traditional magazine and journal databases, the VCPL is now offering access to a database of e-books from netLibrary and a database to assist with test preparation from learnatest.com.

Virtual reference is a service that the VCPL has been providing successfully for quite some time. Currently, questions are accepted via e-mail or via a simple Web form at http://www.vigo.lib.in.us/QUESTIONS.html. Thequestions are reviewed by our reference librarians and addressed quickly; we try to ensure a maximum turnaround time of 24 hours from the receipt of the question.

We encourage patrons to send us their suggestions for new library services they would like to see offered or materials they would like us to acquire. Again, these are accepted via e-mail or via a Web form at http://www.vigo.lib.in.us/suggest.htm. Additional e-request services offered to patrons by the VCPL include the ability to place holds on items via the Web catalog and the opportunity to request copies of local obituaries via e-mail or Web form. We are actively investigating the possibility of offering real-time reference service and are anxious to begin implementing this feature. We have been able to generate some excitement for online real-time reference thanks to a helpful article in the April 2001 issue of Computers in Libraries that explained HumanClick software.

Making unique local history resources available to patrons on the Web has been an incredibly successful endeavor at the Vigo County Public Library. Our first project was to create and publish a browsable online index to local obituaries. The positive response was overwhelming, and it encouraged us to attempt other Web-based local history projects. Our latest effort is to make the actual digitized images of local marriage records accessible from our Web site. We are working to make both the marriage record database and the obituary database searchable in order to better serve our interested patrons.
Making unique local history resources available to patrons on the Web has been an incredibly successful endeavor at the Vigo County Public Library.

In addition to these projects, we are planning to make several important local history books Web-accessible. We are continuing to increase the number of archival finding guides that are available from the VCPL Archives Web page and are working with a local historian to complete a Web-based timeline of local history. Special Web displays are another great way to showcase unique local history resources; we have created and posted Web pages, which include images and text, highlighting local celebrities in honor of Black History Month, Women's History Month, etc.
 

Reeling the New Patrons In
As many businesses have learned, nothing can take the place of efficient and friendly service. Libraries need to grasp this, but they also need to consider that in the electronic world we may need to broaden our definition of service. Prompt, informative, and friendly responses to e-mail questions and suggestions are necessary for good service, but what other services can we provide? We feel that the overall design of the Web site is a key way to try to provide exemplary service. The site should be informative, easy to navigate, and visually appealing, and you must pay careful attention to design issues. Remember that regular review and evaluation are also necessary for the continued success of the site.

One service that is simple to supply is to include the name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address of your library prominently on your page. Many patrons (and many librarians!) get very frustrated when they are unable to locate contact information on company or organizational Web sites. Making your site searchable is an excellent capability that some librarians make available to their patrons. It is a service that we at VCPL have been investigating and are hoping to add in the near future. If site search software is not an option for your library, a simple home-grown site index or map is a viable alternative.

Good site design, however, is not just making the site easy to navigate or visually appealing. You also need to pay special attention to the technical aspects of the design. Remember, just because patrons are Web-savvy does not necessarily mean that they have advanced computer systems. A number of our techie patrons, many of whom are students, have older, slower systems at home. So, when designing your site, try to make it visually attractive but not so graphic-intensive that it is slow to load, and try to make slow-loading items, such as sound and video, optional. Pay attention, as well, to whether the site is compatible with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements. For instance, how does it respond to a screen reader? Talking with your disabled patrons can teach you much about making your Web site a useful resource for all users.

Practicing good Web site maintenance, like ensuring that there are no broken links on your site, is a simple yet effective way to offer good service to your patrons. A variety of free link checkers is available for download on the Web, as is similar software that can be purchased if that is preferable in your library. Here's another design tip that you should not overlook: Check that your page is functional and displays correctly in a variety of Web browsers and browser versions.

We have been able to configure the VCPL Web catalog to provide our online patrons with some helpful services. Many traditional OPAC services, such as placing requests, specifying pick-up locations, reviewing accounts, and renewing items, are available from our Web catalog. We also provide access via the catalog to the online databases to which our library subscribes. We have recently begun to add reviewed and cataloged Web sites to our OPAC with Brodart's DartClix service. Although these cataloged Web sites sometimes confuse our technophobic patrons, our techies seem very pleased. The latest upgrade we have added to our catalog is the inclusion of jacket photos, reviews, and tables of contents for our new titles. This information, provided by contract with Syndetics, was reasonably priced, fairly easy for our systems department to implement, and has made our catalog more dynamic, more interesting, and more informative.

The online environment has provided the VCPL with the opportunity to provide some additional services to our patrons. We are now able to offer them the option of receiving e-mail notices when requested items become available. We are investigating expanding that service to also provide patrons notification of new programs and materials in which they might be interested. Our patrons also have the opportunity to apply for or renew their borrowers' cards online. Although these services are available to the patrons via traditional methods, i.e., waiting for notices to come in the mail or coming to a library branch to renew a card, we feel that offering the choice of utilizing these expedited Web options is a service our patrons deserve.
 

Netting Your New Catches
The good advertising, great deals, and excellent service are obvious means of ensuring return visits to your site, but are they enough? We feel that, although these are vital aspects, we should do more. Thus, we are constantly looking for ways to upgrade and improve our Web presence. Updated links and information are continuously being added to existing pages on our site, and new pages are regularly in development. We are currently preparing for a site redesign in order to improve and ensure access to and usability of our site. Some of our new services, such as real-time reference, enhanced e-mail notifications, an online book club, and continued expansion of the digital local history archive, are in process and should be implemented very quickly. Some services, such as providing improved access to the library's collection through a more effective Web catalog and including personalized "my library" accounts, similar to "My Yahoo!" pages, are additions that we hope for, but that are still in the planning stages. A Web address that is easier to remember is another item that periodically comes up for discussion.

Your Web site is an important part of your organization. It is the only part of your library system that patrons can access regardless of their physical location, and it is often the only part of your library that they can access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your library's Web site should be as innovative, informative, intuitive, and attractive as possible. Remember, regardless of the size of your library or the budget you have to work with, there are reasonable ways that, with a little effort, your site can be improved. The best advice we can give is to try to strive for kinetic thought, planning, and development; do not allow your site to become static. If your site is constantly developing and always offering great deals and excellent service, your regular patrons are sure to come back and you are sure to attract new patrons as well.
 

Reference
Broughton, Kelly. "Our Experiment in Online, Real-Time Reference." Computers in Libraries. April 2001. http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/apr01/broughton.htm.
 
 

To Contact the Companies
DartClix
Brodart Automation
500 Arch St.
Williamsport, PA 17705
800/233-8467, ext. 6581
http://www.brodart.com/automatn/dartclix/index.htm

EZproxy
Useful Utilities
P.O. Box 6371
Glendale, AZ 85312-6371
Fax: 888/282-9754
http://www.usefulutilities.com/ezproxy

HumanClick
A LivePerson Company
330 W. 34th St., 10th Floor
New York, NY 10001
212/918-2100
http://www.humanclick.com
 

learnatest
LearningExpress, LLC
900 Broadway, #604
New York, NY 10003-1210
800/295-9556
http://www.learnatest.com

netLibrary, Inc.
3080 Center Green Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301
303/415-2548
http://www.netlibrary.com

Syndetic Solutions, Inc.
Services to Libraries
7521 S.W. Garden Home Rd.
Portland, OR 97223
877/737-9722
http://www.syndetics.com/site/libraries.htm

Jeanne Holba Puacz is a systems and reference librarian at the Vigo County (Indiana) Public Library. Additionally, she is the library Webmaster and is responsible for the majority of the public computer training. She received her M.L.S. from the University of Illinois­Urbana-Champaign. Her e-mail address is jpuacz@vigo.lib.in.us.
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