Click here to learn more about this conference.
Volume 15, No. 3 Apr/May 2001
Cover Story
Building and Marketing a State's Virtual Library
by Bonnie F. McCune

Let's face it: Sometimes we do a lousy job of marketing ourselves! And we have only ourselves to blame. We need to capitalize on our strengths and tell our customers how we're filling their needs. You don't need a fortune to accomplish this. Our strongest strategy is to use the traditional library value of free and equitable access to information.

A big part of marketing is discovering and then filling people's needs. And the need that staff members of the Colorado State Library assessed was that smaller libraries in Colorado needed free access to the online catalogs of the state's major resource libraries. Enter the Colorado Virtual Library. The basic concept is nearly a decade old. It began as a pilot project in 1992, known as the Access Colorado Library and Information Network (ACLIN).

The impetus for ACLIN lay in a conference that took place in the early '90s to discuss resource sharing around the state. Librarians expressed a need to share content, and they began a project. Access Colorado Library and Information Network was a statewide cooperative project that built an interface to link content from various libraries. It was a way to provide free access to the online catalogs of major resource libraries in Colorado.

I am the library community programs consultant for the Colorado State Library, but I came on board after ACLIN had begun. I've been involved in the project and its marketing for the past 2 years. I'll share the success story of how librarians began seeking and serving small needs, and over time built the larger Colorado Virtual Library (CVL).

State librarian Nancy Bolt emphasizes that the Colorado library community has a history of cooperation among institutions of all types and sizes. Cooperation naturally prescribes involvement. Involvement means voluntary associations and relationships—in short, committees. While committees may slow down action, they are an excellent, low-cost method of providing information on consumer needs.

From the beginning, volunteer committees of librarians and experts were involved with each step and improvement of ACLIN. Today, the Resource Sharing and Information Access Board, along with Acquisition of Information Resources Statewide Committee and others, provide a constant stream of advice, feedback, and guidance on the progress of the CVL.

The Idea of Statewide Access
ACLIN was implemented in 1992. The founders' first marketing thrust focused on their primary market—librarians and the library community. Since ACLIN was a library service, and since library staffers have extensive contact with information seekers, it was essential to train them on the resource-sharing system they'd just built. The original ACLIN system was primitive and difficult for a beginner to navigate. At that time, many areas of the state lacked a graphical interface or even Internet access, and people had to dial in through long-distance telephone services. Instruction booklets were required even for trained librarians, because different library catalog databases used different search engines.

Fortunately, the presence of advisory groups and a statewide communications network through the Colorado State Library (CSL) sped the process along. Regular bulletins and mailings ensured that the project managers stayed in contact with the library market and helped them along.

Year by year, libraries added their catalogs to the system. Usage increased, and people began to demand enhanced services. In 1994, ACLIN received two federal grants totaling $2.9 million to expand the network. Some of the money was earmarked for marketing, including buttons, posters, mouse pads, limited paid advertising, and other advertising items. A "Super Trainer" program reached key librarians throughout the state, who, in turn, trained other staff in the region.

While we were grateful for the original years of funding, continuing to depend on grants was not a viable option. To ensure continuing, reliable support for the statewide network, Bolt and others knew that state funding was essential. But Colorado's state legislature is frugal. "Frills" are deprecated; simplicity is valued. Consequently, the next marketing task was to reach the state legislature. Advocates concentrated on two basic ideals that are dear to the hearts of the library community as well as to elected officials: shared (read: "cost-effective") resources and equitable access.

Led by state representative John Irwin (now deceased), library allies launched a grass-roots campaign to contact state legislators. People affiliated with public and school libraries spotlighted ACLIN in its federally funded guise and showed that benefits would be reaped from ongoing state support. In 1995 the state legislature provided $237,950 for ongoing telecommunications costs. Since that time, support has remained stable or increased.

The Internet Drives ACLIN Upgrades
Meanwhile, the Internet was developing. As software, hardware, graphical interfaces, and the public's acceptance of computers improved, ACLIN was able to evolve into new stages.

A pilot project in the mid-1990s encouraged nonprofits and government agencies to use our site as a base for their Internet presence. Although this service has since become outdated (with the wide availability of Web sites and the increase in people with a basic technological background), it did lead staff members to analyze the resources that might be appropriate to include on ACLIN.

In addition, ACLIN's access to library catalogs needed some visibility, some pizazz. The life cycle of most consumer products includes periodic changes and improvements. (Consider the "New! Improved!" detergent that appears on grocery store shelves.) How could librarians improve the service and generate excitement?

Librarians are known for their expertise in evaluating information sources. They could easily apply these skills to Web resources. Thus the Collection Development Committee came into being. This group essentially created a collection development policy for Web sites that could be added to or linked to ACLIN. The collections centered around 12 main topics of interest. The group selected "Health & Medicine" as the first topic for in-depth attention, and it went up on the Web in 1997. This was followed by a "Business & Consumer" site in 1999.

ACLIN Moves to the Next Level
When Susan Fayaud, the original director of technology and resource sharing for the CSL, moved on to a new position, in came Brenda Bailey, whose background included experience with many of the components essential to launch ACLIN into its next stage of development. "The Resource Sharing Board's vision was in sync with my vision," she says. "ACLIN had done a lot of the base and grunt work, licensing the software, getting Z39.50 servers out there, creating an ACLIN site everyone could go to for catalogs. I could hit the ground running."

At ACLIN's initiation back in 1992, nearly one-third of Coloradans lacked Internet or dial-up service to a statewide catalog, and access was particularly limited in rural areas. By 1999, 90 percent of the population had access. Federal programs like LSTA and e-rate were helping provide small libraries with adequate Web access. Most libraries and their staffs were at the point that Web access was ubiquitous. The project was waiting to jump to the next level: to become a portal for multiple information formats, including library catalogs, quality Web sites selected by librarians, and digitized objects, and also for statewide electronic interlibrary loan services.

The political climate Bailey stepped into in 1999 bore some similarities to the early '90s, especially in terms of funding. Libraries still needed to show value for tax money to the state legislature. In terms of technology, usage of computers and the Internet was becoming nearly as widespread as usage of printed resources. And the public wanted the Internet to be as easy to use as books and magazines. Additionally, children's education had become the political issue. The Colorado State Library, as part of the Colorado Department of Education, carried responsibility for contributing to the improvement of education in the state.

Colorado Virtual Library Emerges
At this juncture, two marketing decisions made major impacts on the development and visibility of ACLIN.

The first was—ta-da!—new packaging! The old name "Access Colorado Library and Information Network" didn't convey the wealth of information and resources available through the service. A staff brainstorming session came up with the name "Colorado Virtual Library." The term was familiar to current and potential users, and stressed the importance of the home state. The staffers especially liked the name because they were "trying to get people to think of the site as a library of information but not a physical building," according to Bailey.

Accompanying the change in the name was an improvement in approach and appearance. "We moved from character-based to graphics. Graphics are more intuitive than language," explains Bailey. "Prior to changes, [to use ACLIN] you had to learn how to search each individual library catalog. We simplified by making the site a Web-based interface, so there's a common interface that can be used across library systems. This is geared for the person with a high school education."

The Colorado Virtual Library, introduced in May 2000, is now a series of Web-based menus that guides the user to information resources ( Instruction booklets are outdated, so the menus have become the manual. The Web site is designed to maximize and encourage use; it's bright with visual images. The ability to perform one-stop searches across library catalogs, Web sites, and digitized images is critical.

The second marketing decision was to put radical enhancements to "ACLIN for Kids" on a fast track. With state government's mandate to improve K-12 education, along with CSL's position in the state's Department of Education, it became imperative that support for children's education be a high priority to ensure the usefulness of the Colorado Virtual Library.

We built a site based on KidsClick!, a site created by a group of librarians at the Ramapo Catskill Library System in Middletown, New York (with their permission). So now, our CVL for Kids has more than 6,300 linked Web sites on topics of interest to young students. Many have correlated state benchmarks, standards, or reading levels to help teachers and parents assist children in finding valuable and age-appropriate Web sites. CVL for Kids was launched in September 2000 and has become the most effective marketing tool we possess. When teachers and parents learn about the service, they literally cheer.

Additional enhancements are still evolving.  Currently, a pilot project for electronic interlibrary loan is underway, with full implementation expected this year or next. Still on the horizon is full text from journals.

How We Continue to Promote CVL
Those of us at the leading institution, the Colorado State Library, continue to emphasize librarians, our initial market and our best salespeople, in our strategies; and we continue to utilize steady, low-key, low-cost techniques. E-mail listservs have been valuable; they are reinforced by mailing flyers and notices.

The constant drip, drip, drip of our promotion is showing results. In 1997, hits to the site averaged about 180,000 monthly. This rose to 450,000 monthly in 1999, and increased to nearly 725,000 in 2001.

The education community is our second major market, again best reached through ongoing, cost-effective networks like schools, professional associations, and training institutes. We have specific ways to reach these markets:

  1. Giving presentations at conferences and doing exhibits at fairs

  3. Contacting techies through outlets like computer magazines

  5. Distributing news through our regular infrastructure (monthly mailings, listservs)

  7. Publishing brief flyers targeted to specific audiences

  9. Encouraging libraries to link directly to CVL with their catalogs and encouraging school media centers to bookmark CVL for Kids

  11. Attending meetings with principals' groups and similar organizations to provide training in educational uses of CVL
Now we are poised to enter the next stage of our marketing strategy, to reach the computer-literate public. OCLC, which provides the SiteSearch software used on CVL, is helping us develop a nice brochure and table tents. I've prepared an overall marketing strategy. We hope to add some paid advertising to our marketing mix, and we're seeking partnerships with businesses.

To our surprise, we find ourselves squarely in the ranks of "radical marketers." Sam Hill, co-author of Radical Marketing, says that organizations that are successful in radical marketing efforts share certain characteristics: 1) The organization is in for the long term; 2) It possesses visceral consumer connection; and 3) It has limited resources for marketing (thus requiring creative approaches).The Colorado Virtual Library meets all these points.

From the time it was founded, the Colorado Virtual Library has used basic marketing concepts to reach its customers. Its development is an example of determining what users need and then coming up with ways to meet the need. Because it remains true to library principles of equity and access, it is becoming an essential tool for those familiar with technology as well as for those non-computer-literate patrons who are just entering the computer age.

"Libraries have a valuable role in providing information for everyday lives," says Bailey. "For-profits can't usurp our role, but we need to be cognizant of their challenge. People need librarians to help them navigate the Web. Our role is to guide and give them information literacy skills."

Bonnie F. McCune is library community programs consultant at the Colorado State Library in Denver. She holds a B.A. from the University of Colorado­ Boulder. Her 10 years' experience in libraries centers on public and community relations and marketing. Her e-mail address is

Table of Contents Marketing Library Services Home Page