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Volume 14, No. 6 • September 2000
• Cover Story •
Using Your Intranet Site as a Communication Tool
by Walter Nelson

A library’s intranet site should not be like a brochure. It should be a constantly changing window on exactly what the library wants its customers to know at any given moment. It should also be an interactive tool that helps the library staff communicate directly with its clientele, and helps the clients find and communicate with the staff.

The RAND library’s site on the corporate intranet was designed with this idea in mind. RAND is a nonprofit research institution in Santa Monica, California that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis for a variety of clients, including federal, state, and local government; foundations; and the private sector. It is, in some senses, a small and self-contained community that creates a completely different set of marketing dynamics than might be faced by an academic or public library. However, I think the basic principles at work in our system have a broader application.

Our intranet communication strategy consists of three principle elements: a frequently updated home page, an e-mail alert service, and multiple e-mail links to foster communication with library staff. In all of this, we focus on off-the-shelf solutions, and steer away from complex scripts and special programming that would require the assistance of a specialist from our IT department. This allows us to enjoy quick turnaround, flexibility, and self-sufficiency. It means that if the Webmaster is away, any library staff member with a basic understanding of HTML can make quick updates to our intranet information.

A Frequently Updated Home Page
The vast majority of the “real estate” on our intranet home page is devoted to changeable and current content. On top of the page is the library logo, and in the left-hand margin is the menu. Everything else in the body of the page changes at least weekly, and frequently more often than that.

On the left side of the body of the page is a section marked “What’s New on the Web.” In this space we put graphics that serve as links to new Internet sites that are of value to our research staff. These graphics remain on the home page for a few days until new content boots them off and they are consigned to the “What Was New” announcement archive page.

While the left side is devoted to newly discovered Internet sites, the right side of our home page is a section called “Focus on the Library.” This space is reserved for announcements related to library news, such as new services, policy changes, etc. As a default, when there is nothing new to announce, it reverts to a JavaScript that displays one of 20 random “advertisements” for library services ranging from reference services to JSTOR online journals.

Unlike many basic Web sites, we do not hide what is new behind a “What’s New” link. Such a link is seldom clicked. We feel that putting new content on the most visible part of a page leads to the widest possible dissemination and makes the site a little different every time someone visits it.

This is how our internal home page plays its role in our communication strategy. It serves as the primary conduit for “pull” information retrieval. It waits patiently for the user to come to it, and tries to make it easy for him or her to find the information that is waiting there to be discovered. Further, by changing regularly, it tries to encourage and reward frequent visits.

Our Library’s E-Mail Alert Service
The second element, which focuses on a more active “push” approach, is our e-mail alert service. The library maintains extensive files of e-mail distribution lists for topics such as National Defense, Science and Technology, or Health Care. These lists are laid out and explained on a page within the library intranet site, and after each explanation is a link that says “Add Me to the List.” This is simply an e-mail link that sends a message to the circulation desk with a canned text coded in the Subject line of the message that says something like, “Add.Me.To.The.Health.List.”

There are numerous pointers to these opportunities on our intranet site. They include Sign Up buttons for the applicable subject list on our Internet Resource pages. For example, on our list of health-related links, there is a button that says “Sign Up for the Health Care E-Mail Alert Service.” This will create an e-mail message identical to the one generated by clicking the “Sign Me Up” link under the explanation of the health list on the e-mail alert page.

Essentially, we try to provide numerous “pull” opportunities for people to sign up for our “push” service.

Once someone is on one or more of our lists, they receive periodic e-mails announcing the same sort of things we might put on the home page. In fact, we usually try to coordinate a new posting to the intranet page with an e-mail announcement to the applicable distribution list.

A typical announcement might look like the example in the box at the bottom of this page.

There are a few important elements of this message that I would like to highlight. First, it is brief and to the point. Second, it provides a pointer directly to the asset in question. If the message were related to a library announcement instead of an Internet resource, rather than point to a URL on the Internet, it would point to a page within the library’s site that would provide more information on the topic at hand. This ties directly in to the first point. Your message must be extremely brief and pithy, but it should provide those who want to know more with somewhere to go.

Third, in the “To” line it clearly states who is supposed to be getting this message, and ties it in to the fact that the recipient signed up on a library distribution list. Much of the marketing value of this service would be lost if it were not made clear that this message comes as a direct result of signing up with the library.

I will note, though, that the “To” addressee is not the actual list. It is a “dummy” user that routes one copy to the circulation desk and only the circulation desk. The actual mailing list name is hidden in the “Bcc” field, which does not display. This is important, because if you put the distribution list in the “To” field, any replies could go to everyone on the list. You don’t want to send a message to 200 people, and then have each of those 200 people get the reply “Please take me off your list” from one of your recipients. The worst-case scenario would be if your message sparks a lively discussion between several of your recipients, which could turn your distribution list into an involuntary chat room.

Further, if you are using something like Netscape’s “List” function and you put the list name in the “To” or “Cc” fields, every recipient’s address will display in the header of the message. This is not only a privacy issue, but if you have hundreds of recipients, your actual message won’t even start until after a page or two of recipient addresses. Most users will click the Delete button without reading your message if you do that to them. The “Bcc” address field is often the key to effectively using mailing lists.

A final note: In the example on page 2, the word “library” appears three times. It appears in the “To” field, the “Organization” area (set this in your e-mail preferences), and after the sender’s signature. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind who is responsible for providing them with this service. This is important in today’s world, since similar messages might just as easily be sent by a friend or colleague. However, the structured format of this message makes it abundantly clear that this is not just an informal heads up, but the result of a systematic library program.

Using Multiple E-Mail Links to Communicate with Corporate Staff
At RAND, communication is not all one way. It is not just about the library making announcements to its clientele. Our clients come to the intranet site with the hope of communicating with us, and we try our best to facilitate that.

In addition to the usual request forms that route requests for books, journal articles, etc. to the applicable offices, we have populated the site with numerous “Mailto” e-mail links. We have a Staff Directory that lists every library staff member by name and then by job title. Further, we have a “Contact a Librarian” link on every page. This brings up a page that has a photograph of each of our reference librarians. The user clicks on the selected picture, and an e-mail form comes up. This is helpful since we have offices on both coasts, and it is comforting to associate a face with the name of the person with whom you are working. It also helps with a client who might not remember the name of the reference librarian he was working with, but would recognize her if he saw her again.

Further, we have a link on the home page called “general” that brings up a message with a subject of “Route.This.To.The.Right.Person” which goes to the circulation desk. The staff at the circulation desk can usually figure out who should receive any given message.

If your client wishes to communicate with you, your electronic home page needs to help him accomplish that. I have been in organizations that viewed an intranet site as a deliberate barrier between the outside world and the site owners. The philosophy was, “Give them lots of information via the site so they won’t bother us.” While there is something to be said for addressing basic and frequently asked questions with a home page, you are never going to be able to anticipate every information need. Providing the Internet equivalent of an annoying voice-mail menu is not the way to go if you are interested in building good will among your clients.

Fortunately, building walls is not the philosophy behind the RAND library’s intranet site.

Some Caveats and Some Pitfalls
As with any human endeavor, coordinating intranet pages and e-mail has its traps and dangers.

The first is the most difficult to address. Once people have signed up for a list, they have some expectation of getting something from it. For instance, if I sign up for a list in January, and don’t see anything from it until August, it will not reflect well on the list owner. So once you have created this service, it becomes incumbent upon your staff to find useful things to tell the list subscribers from time to time. I think it’s highly likely that you will not get universal “buy in” from your staff, and the vast majority of input will be from a few individuals. However, if those few individuals are energetic enough, it will work.

This also means that you should not get too crazy in creating different interest lists. You should not create a list just because it represents a legitimate area of interest. You should certainly not create a different list for every major subject heading in the catalog. Before you create a list, you must be sure that it is something that a significant number of your clients care about, and you must be sure that it is an area that will generate a sufficient quantity of news in the future.

On the other side of the coin, you need to be sure that your announcements are important and not too frequent. Don’t pester your patrons with tedious “spam.” To prevent spamming and other sorts of sloppiness, you should limit the group of senders to a small and manageable number, and make sure they understand the goals and standards of the program.

To conclude: Your corporate intranet site and your e-mail messages are not two distinct elements. They are and should be intimately linked and mutually supportive. The site should build your e-mail capabilities and your e-mail should drive more traffic to your site. All of this means that you can communicate with and provide information to your patrons to a degree that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. From a marketing standpoint, it clearly and continuously demonstrates the library’s relevance in the Information Age. A few years ago around RAND, we used to hear quite frequently, “Why do we need a library, we have the Internet.” Since we have moved aggressively to “own” the Internet, we don’t hear that anymore.

Walter Nelson, manager, Classified Information Services, has worked at the RAND Library in Santa Monica, California, for 15 years, supervising military document management, circulation, corporate archives, marketing, and the library intranet site, among other duties. Prior to that, he was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He has a B.A. in history from the University of California–Berkeley. His e-mail address is

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