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.
|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.
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
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
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
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,
Reeling the New Patrons
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
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.
Broughton, Kelly. "Our
Experiment in Online, Real-Time Reference." Computers in Libraries.
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