Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 6 • June 2000
Developing a Virtual Collection from the Online Smorgasbord
by Sue Ann Connaughton

The Web allows me to provide more customers with more data, at lower cost.
Over the past few years, I’ve moved my special library from a physical collection to a mostly virtual one, with good results. Here’s how I serve my customers the best and tastiest information from the huge smorgasbord of online information.

In 1993, I was hired to staff a new Statistical Information Line for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Initially, I received about 28 requests a month for transportation statistics, data, and documents, from a toll-free phone number. At that time, I had neither e-mail nor Internet capability. My customers included government employees, businesspersons, academics, association members, and private citizens. Using mostly printed federal government reports as my sources, I faxed answers and/or gave referrals to customers. My guideline was to provide the answers and referrals the same day that I received the questions. If an answer required the use of a document that was protected by copyright, I provided the necessary information for obtaining the document.

Gradually things changed, and by 1996, I was online and BTS had created links to my e-mail account on its Web site. Since then, business has steadily increased. Currently, I receive approximately 500 questions a month. About 40 percent of the questions arrive via the e-mail links on the BTS Web site. Because of the increased volume, I’ve added two staff members to the project. However, the biggest impact has been on the format we use to send answers and referrals: Almost all the government reports that we use, and much of the privately published data, are now available on the Web. Also, both our phone and e-customers prefer the online format. We very rarely fax anything anymore.

The byproduct of this explosion of online sources is that we now use the Web almost exclusively for research and referrals. Because the reports, statistics, and articles that we use regularly are accessible via the Internet, my collection has shifted from a physical entity to a mostly virtual one. Therefore, I actively seek out online documents and Web sites to add to my collection.

The breakdown of our customer base has remained fairly consistent since the beginning: 30 to 35 percent are from for-profit businesses. The remaining customers are segmented this way: academia and schools; no affiliation (those seeking information for personal rather than organizational reasons); federal, state, and local government agencies; media; and nonprofit organizations. A rather large category (15 percent) of “unknown affiliations” has developed since we started receiving e-mail requests. These are the affiliations that we cannot identify from the information we have. The types of questions have also remained similar: 66 percent of the questions are evenly divided among the broad subject categories of traffic, safety, and infrastructure.

Stocking the Pantry
Most of our customers want government data that is available without charge or copyright restrictions. Therefore, developing online sources was easy in the beginning; there were very few available. Eventually, all the DOT agencies developed Web sites and began adding the documents and statistics that were the staples we used on a regular basis. Usually, we found out about these online additions from press releases and the people we contacted for paper copies of the items. By now, of course, just about every government agency, business, academic institution, association, journal, and newspaper has a Web site that contains varying amounts of documents, data, forms, and regulations. These online sources have become crucial to our service now that the prevalence of e-mail and Internet usage has allowed our customer base to grow larger and more geographically diverse.

We proactively seek out new online data and documents before we need the information. Personally, I browse the following sources on a regular basis: journals (15 titles monthly), newspapers (10 titles daily), agency bulletins, and association newsletters. I check the “what’s new” section of 30 Web sites weekly. If I stick to this schedule of information-foraging, I have already found out about any new relevant facts or documents before I receive press releases about them.

Often, I discover new Web sites while searching for information in response to a specific question. Usually I do this by executing a keyword search on AltaVista, or by trying the links on related Web sites. Of course, I often learn about online sources through informal sharing with colleagues and also by talking with customers, who sometimes mention useful Web sites.

Finding Nutritional Value
This abundance of information on the Web presents us with the dilemma of how to determine the value of the information. This is not a new problem of course, but when we are not limited by the budget constraints associated with purchasing items, our appetite for acquisition can become insatiable, and when confronted by a dearth of information for an esoteric question, our palates can become downright indiscriminate.

Rather than debate whether we, as information professionals, should even consider whether this is a dilemma, instead I’ll describe how I handle it: First, the issue for me most often arises when the Web site or organization is new to me. For a dubious source, I might try to find out more about the organization from its Web site, the Encyclopedia of Associations, or business reference books. I’m reluctant to refer customers to any Web site hosted by an individual person, unless I can determine that the person is a recognized expert in the subject or has completed in-depth, valid research on the topic, such as that in a doctoral thesis. If the data consists of statistics, I try to discover the origin of the data by browsing the site or by calling the organization. Often, the information is a repackaging of federal or state government statistics and is presented in such a way that I can not measure the accuracy, so I try to offer customers the names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers for any relevant government contacts and for the organization in question. Since some Web sites contain no contact information other than an e-mail link to a Webmaster, tracking down the contact information can add considerable time to the whole reference process.

Tweaking the Menu a Bit
Many of the problems associated with our virtual collection are technical ones. The most common and time-consuming issue is that quite a few customers need to be coached, click by click, on exactly how to reach a specific URL. This is not really surprising since much of the relevant data is buried beneath many layers on Web sites that have inadequate search options. When customers are plagued by software or network problems, or if they do not have access to a computer, I will print up to 10 pages of data, and fax or (gasp) snail mail the package to them. Otherwise, I offer them a phone contact who can provide them with the paper copy.

Verifying the origin of statistics and tables published on Web sites can be tricky. Any given site might present data in text or tabular form, and either omit the source for the data or give an incomplete citation, such as “U.S. Government.” Customers frequently ask us to track down original reports for tables that are cited online as coming from a “DOT study.” These citations often omit accurate titles or dates. If we have reasonably close approximations of titles or subtitles of U.S. government reports, we can usually identify them by searching Transport (SilverPlatter Information, Inc.) or National Technical Information Service (NTIS) CD-ROMs. Since both of these CD-ROM products contain bibliographic information, positive hits usually produce enough information to obtain the reports. If they are recent enough, we might find them online.

Older reports present us with familiar challenges: The sponsoring agency may have changed names, the authors may have died, or any remaining copies might be packed off in storage somewhere. These situations have always plagued librarians, but the availability of Internet and e-mail offers us additional, valuable tools to identify, locate, and acquire or borrow the reports.

For me, the most essential requirement associated with using the Web as my primary collection is the constant struggle to maintain a current knowledge of the Web sites that are relevant to my customers. Once a week, I visit all the Web sites on my “favorites” list to confirm that the URLs are still active. I note any changes in organization names, functions, or missions, and check links to other Web sites that have been added. Besides refreshing my mind as to what’s available on the Web sites, this practice of weekly maintenance ensures that I am also adding and subtracting Web sites on a regular basis, the virtual librarian’s version of acquiring and weeding items from the collection.

Improving Presentation and Pleasing the Palate
How has our migration to a virtual collection affected our commitment to provide top-quality, same-day service to customers? Unquestionably, our reliance on the Web has improved the efficiency and quality of customer service. Everyone saves time. It’s faster to e-mail or give out a table number and URL than it is to photocopy the table and title page, obtain a fax number, and send a fax. It cuts out the added time and frustration that we previously spent waiting for a free fax machine; re-faxing every time a receiver’s fax was busy, out of paper, or unavailable because it was not turned on; or hunting for a working photocopy machine. The visual quality of data printed from the Web is better than faxes or photocopies. Also, our customers are more likely to have access to the Internet than to fax machines. When they do have access to both, most prefer to obtain a URL for the item rather than a faxed copy. Another benefit is that customers can easily incorporate online documents into word processing and e-mail documents.

When I provide customers with Web site locations, I can augment the information by suggesting related data at the same or at other Web sites. Previously if I suggested supplementary data, I would have committed myself to more photocopying and more faxing.

Customers reap the benefits of time savings and convenience—since they can access the Web at the time and location that is most advantageous to them—as well as the benefits of availability, completeness, and currency. Here are a few examples of information that’s better online than in print. Air Travel Consumer Report, published monthly by the Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST), contains often-requested information, such as the on-time performance of major airlines and the number and types of customer complaints lodged against them. Before OST started publishing the report on its Web site (, the only way a person could obtain it, other than through interlibrary loan, was to submit a request in writing.

After surveying users, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) decided to drop some tables from the paper edition of the annual report Highway Statistics; but they kept those tables in the online edition. Periodically, FHWA publishes supplements to Highway Statistics. These are extremely useful compendiums because they contain historical tables, some dating back to 1900. In order to include such extensive data, the print is tiny and barely legible in some tables. However the Internet versions, which are available in EXCEL, Lotus, and PDF files, are wonderfully readable and printable. Occasionally, the paper edition is totally abandoned in favor of an online edition.

Although BTS is again publishing National Transportation Statistics in both formats, the 1998 edition was only available on the Web. And many other DOT reports, such as Transportation Statistics Annual Report (BTS), Traffic Safety Facts (U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), and Highway Statistics (FHWA) are available on the Web before they are available in hard copy.

Even when the only way to obtain a report is to buy it, customers still get better service by using the Web. I can refer them to the Web sites of international organizations, such as the International Road Federation, which is based in Switzerland, so that they can obtain details and prices of publications without worrying about the cost and time differences involved in making a telephone call or sending a fax. Many publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, offer some or all of their articles in full text on their Web sites. Not only can I point customers to these articles, but also I don’t have to wrestle with copyright issues; I simply state that the articles are protected by copyright and can not be reproduced without permission.

Now It’s Time for Dessert
Do I have any regrets about migrating from a physical collection to a virtual collection? No. The Web allows me to provide more customers with more data, at lower cost. The data is more easily accessible, more current, and provides equal or better print quality. A virtual collection saves me time, space, and money. Do I think that the Web encroaches on my traditional role as a librarian? No. As information professionals, librarians have always embraced whatever technology was available to research and deliver information. Those of us who went to library school before the advent of the Web can recall the excitement and frustration of learning how to perform DIALOG searches; catalog or complete interlibrary loan transactions through OCLC; search dial-up catalogs of libraries; and decipher the search strategies specific to various CD-ROMs. And so, we are also the heirs to Web technology. While not everyone wants or needs to replace a physical collection with a virtual one, the Web offers the most current, most efficient, and most comprehensive source of information for me in my special library situation. And that is the icing on the cake.

Sue Ann Connaughton is a senior information specialist with EG&G, the contractor managing the Technical Reference Center at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She manages the Statistical Information Line for the U.S. DOT, Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Connaughton holds an M.L.S. from Florida State University and an M.Ed. degree from Boston University. Her e-mail address is

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