Online Library Card Registration Enables Free Passage to Digital Gems
by Lorrie Ann Butler and Susan Kantor-Horning
As the electronic resources specialist for the Contra Costa County Library in Pleasant Hill, Calif., I, Susan, often venture out into the community to spread the word about the variety of digital resources that are available from our Web site. I tend to view myself as an information navigator setting sail with passengers to a land of digital gems. These passengers include enthusiastic educators who are learning about the resources that are designed to help their students succeed throughout their school years and beyond. However, their excitement can quickly dampen when they consider the hurdle of first getting their students into our physical locations to obtain the necessary key for access: the library card.
Meeting Passengers’ Needs
The Contra Costa County Library is located within the greater San Francisco Bay Area. With 26 physical locations and a virtual branch, we have more than 400,000 cardholders and serve a population of almost 1 million. Our growth is steady, with circulation increasing about 5 percent each year.
Because Contra Costa County has the largest commuter population west of the Mississippi River, the operating hours of our community libraries may not be convenient for many patrons. Our customers include folks who may expect remote access to information and who may only be interested in digitally produced resources such as subscription databases and downloadable audiobooks. As part of developing a strategic plan to meet the needs of our public in the 21st century, the library hired a consultant to gather information from the community and to identify priorities for our institution. Among the findings from the needs assessment was that the community wanted “the capacity for easy, independent exploration when using the library.”
Gathering the Ship’s Crew
To overcome the barrier of getting to the library during open hours to fill out a paper application, we found the right method for providing every county resident with a means of getting immediate and long-term access to our digital gems. By climbing on board with the team of information technology specialists at Quipu Group, we successfully implemented an online library card registration and e-Card service. This service gives us an effective method for increasing community membership, including the capability of extending its reach to previously unattainable people, such as those who have research needs when our buildings are closed. According to Lorrie, the library’s information systems project manager, “By reaching out to our customers where they are and by giving them the opportunity to apply for a card at their own convenience, the library can pull more visitors into its physical locations.”
In March 2005, under the leadership of Cathy Sanford, deputy county librarian for support services, I, along with information systems programmer analysts Stacie Deng and Laura McKeegan and circulation manager Gail Middlekauf, established a task team to identify our needs for the delivery of an online library card registration and e-Card service. The team explored the Web sites of other libraries that offer online applications, but we didn’t locate any institutions that were offering immediate, long-term access to online resources. In July 2005, we began to write specifications for the service. Lorrie joined our team in November 2005, when she began working with the library in a consulting capacity, bringing with her a knowledge of circulation systems and previous experience with library self-service implementations.
Designing a Sturdy Rig to Provide Reliable Passage
The task team wanted a service that would not only provide virtual access to our remote users but would also serve as preregistration for the full-access library card, which would be available to all customers who visit a library and have positive identification and proof of address. While the service’s first priority was to provide 24/7 access for people who can’t get to or aren’t interested in visiting a community library, we decided that it should also stimulate card registrations and promote usage both remotely and at our physical locations.
We needed programming that would validate an applicant’s address so that only those remote users with a Contra Costa County street address and ZIP code could sign up for the e-Card. This requirement was necessary for us to give our customers long-term access to our databases without violating licensing agreements. We also needed programming to join online registrations with existing borrower files in CARL.Solution, ourintegrated library system. A dynamic and integrated system that interacts with our ILS borrower file is important to the success of this online registration product for several reasons: 1) We allow users to have immediate access to our virtual services without a delay for updates and input, 2) our staff maintains and supports only one database of users for all services, and 3) we don’t have to develop a secondary process for user authentication for e-Card holders who are accessing digital resources and placing online holds.
Finally, the team wanted this service to provide applicants with a physical library card as the end result of their remote registration. County librarian Anne Cain strongly believed that if a person registering online were delivered a library card, he or she would more likely visit one of our community libraries to check out materials and to attend programs.
After discussing our requirements with potential vendors, we partnered with Quipu Group in January 2006 to build and install customized programming for the new service. After identifying Quipu as the most seaworthy to take on our task, the crew shifted its focus to promoting the new service. We wanted to capitalize on this opportunity to create a positive first impression to new users and to promote the library and its digital and physical resources.
While Quipu worked on the necessary programming requirements, Lorrie and I gave presentations about the upcoming service to library staff and commissioners. We also developed a list of answers to frequently asked questions to help both customers and staff understand the new service. Gail and other members of the circulation department prepared step-by-step instructions and training documents to distribute to the staff.
Since Quipu’s programming collects and combines e-Card user information with the library’s existing borrower files within our CARL.Solution circulation system, staff members did not have a steep learning curve to overcome in order to assist new users. Our online library card registrations have a unique patron borrower type, which helps circulation and automation staffers identify them. The e-Card customer does not have access to some services, including internal PC use or checkout. The customized software program also determines whether a duplicate card already exists, so when e-Card customers visit a library employee to become fully registered, staffers can take care of outstanding balances on any pre-existing accounts and join unconnected borrower records before issuing a new full-access card.
Constructing the Computer Code for Communication
The online card application is a Web form that’s accessed from the library’s Web site. It runs using PHP and MySQL and connects with the process on the library’s HP NonStop mainframe via TCP/IP client call.The Web application validates the syntax for form field requirements. One of the first steps in completing the online transaction is to send address information, via the Web form request, to a third-party verification system that validates it according to the latest U.S. Postal Service database.If the address passes our residency requirements, the program creates the e-Card’s bar code and sends it to the CARL ILS borrower files along with the applicant’s other information. Next, the program checks for duplicate registrations within the library’s specifications. If a match occurs, the applicant is notified of this status and is asked to contact a staff member.
The program sends email to the applicant using auto-reply technologies. To reduce errors, our online form requires users to enter their email information twice. Quipu’s programming completes a check of this input for proper syntax before accepting an application. Then it sends an email containing the applicant’s e-Card bar code, which gives immediate access to our digital resources.
But this email is not the only communication we send to new e-Card holders. We support the service with a second mailing, a welcome brochure that’s sent by postal delivery.
Testing the Ship and Promoting the Trip
Stacie and Lorrie worked with the county’s print and mail services department and its graphic designer to create a brief, yet compelling brochure that features summaries of our library and e-Card services. The information is presented along with a wallet-sized, paper library card and is printed on high-quality, glossy paper stock to ensure a positive visual and tactile impression upon receipt. With this new service, the library administration expects an increase in overall borrower registrations and anticipates that a new base of customers who are “upgrading” to a full-access card will become active community library patrons.
Quipu provides a Web-based administration module that can output user information to a spreadsheet in order to facilitate daily mailings of the brochure and e-Card to each successful applicant. Because of this second level of communication, users are not removed or blocked when an email is bounced. If the paper mailing is returned as “undeliverable” by the Postal Service, staffers will delete the card from borrower files, thereby eliminating access to our digital resources.
Before rolling out the service to the public, the task team tested it by completing the online application form and receiving email confirmations along with the print mailing. Public services staffers tried out the online application form and provided feedback to improve the customers’ experience. Circulation staff members reviewed customer information posted to the borrower files in our ILS and tested the step-by-step instructions. In addition, branch librarians used the newly created e-Card bar code series to test the remote use of our digital resources. Then, the automation staff reviewed statistical and user data found within the Web-based administrative tools and compared information with statistical reports that were run against our ILS borrower files. After some minor adjustments, the e-Card service went live to the public on July 1, 2006.
We sent a press release to media outlets and local agencies such as the Contra Costa County Office of Education. It announced the availability of the remote online library card registration service and the variety of digital resources that customers can access for free when signing on to it. We distributed an email newsletter to more than 7,000 subscribers, and we placed a news item linking to the frequently asked questions on our home page. All Web pages pertaining to our subscription databases and ebooks include information about their accessibility via the use of a valid library card or e-Card.
Also, we mention the e-Card service when conducting community outreach visits and whenever we distribute information to the public about the acquisition of a new electronic resource.
The beauty of this service is that it delivers our digital resources to a customer’s point of need. It is available to children, adults, and our Spanish-speaking patrons. The e-Card is valid for 3 years. After this time, customers are welcome to reapply.
Passing on Surplus Bounty
The e-Card service also works for in-house library card registration and lets staffers use a laptop to process card applications online for school groups and during community outreach visits. Both of these benefits promote the countywide goals of offering new self-services and easing the staff’s burden for these processes.
The on-site application was introduced in November 2006 during the opening of our newest community library. Elliot Warren, Hercules branch librarian, describes the overwhelming success and enthusiasm for the online registration system: “Patrons find the service logical, self-explanatory, and easy to use. Their wait time is reduced dramatically, and I have noticed far fewer mistakes on borrower records than when staff transcribes names and phone numbers from the written forms. Furthermore, clerks are able to provide more detailed explanations of library services because patrons seem less impatient about getting their cards quickly when they do not have to wait for a staff member to type in their data. We are so pleased with this service that it is hard to believe that we ever could have used paper forms.”
In February 2007, we extended the use of online registration to include self-service registration inside every one of our community libraries. This replaced the paper application process. Access to the internal library card application form is offered from our catalog-only PCs and also from our Web site when the applicant is using one of our in-house PCs. Where needed, we moved a catalog-only PC near the circulation desk so customers could easily be directed to this station when requesting a card. This placement also enables staffers to identify and help customers who need assistance with the online form. When applying from inside the library, a confirmation message will direct customers to staff to show identification and pick up their card. The welcome brochure is not used with the internal service.
Now It’s Smooth Sailing
Since the debut of the e-Card service, 3,500 customers have registered for a library card remotely, and about 25 percent of all e-Card recipients have visited the library to get the full-access card. More than 4,000 customers have used our online self-service registration application in-house. Customer feedback has been positive. One patron said, “Just tried the e-Card system, and it is very easy to use.”
As this service increases in popularity, we’re seeing more email bounce-backs. We have determined that the issues are either with some email services or are user errors that result from typing in the wrong email address. To date, we have deleted fewer than 2 percent of all e-Card registrants from our borrower database because of a bad mailing address. We’re able to reach new users with improved efficiencies that are backed automatically. The e-Card service is designed to notify the library and Quipu of any problems encountered by the Web application. All programming is maintained by Quipu, and the company has been very responsive to changes and/or problems.
The online library card registration system is proving to be a fully developed product of high technical quality. It has helped to align our library closer to the organizational goal of focusing more on our customers and what they want. This service is one example of how the Contra Costa County Library is using new technologies to deliver traditional and new services to its customers.