A Step beyond Deli Sandwiches
Quality reference and user service requires a combination of having the right resources, making sense of them for the user, and providing the right services in the right time and place. Reference and user services librarians' work has involved developing all aspects, and the Web has had a great impact on each one. Many articles in RUSQ have studied the impact of Web resources and questioned the implications for service. For a recent example, see Anne Grodzins Lipow's challenging paper, "Thinking Out Loud," in the winter 1997 issue of RUSQ. It seems that suddenly we are presented with great opportunities for access to resources and great challenges for how to provide service.
Because the Web offers such vast implications for reference and user services, RUSQ editor Gail Schlachter has decided to devote column space to this issue and has generously invited me to edit this column. I am excited to bring my vocational interest in electronic reference to this medium and to have an excuse to spend time considering the issues.
This column will be devoted to examining issues, resources, and technologies presented on the Web that impact reference and user service. The issues are potentially endless and will change over time: the nature of digital service, technological advances and censorship, interfaces, design, integration with other library services and resources, impact on organizations, and more. The types of resources that can be examined are equally endless: search engines, databases, reference sites, directories, training, educational sites and products, finding aids, clearinghouses, and more.
One place to start in the mix of all these choices is to consider what role the actual library Web site plays. Without examining such issues as design and layout, I would like to offer a look at some of the content and organizational issues at stake. Three to four years after putting up Web sites, both my library and my academic institution are creating and recreating guideline and policy statements for Web sites. In the course of doing so, we have (at least in the library) backhandedly learned that it is very useful to have an official sense of what role technology plays in determining what mission that technology serves and what guidelines it necessitates.
Making Deli Sandwiches
In 1997, Garry Trudeau ran a series in the Doonesbury comic strip about Mike, who was running his own fledgling Web-based company. He hired Lars, a consultant, to come in and give direction to the company, to "create paradigms for the next millennium." When Mike checked on the progress of his consultant, Lars quickly snapped, "Excuse me, but I'm not making deli sandwiches here, okay?"
With such a lofty goal, how does one proceed, where does one begin, and how does one recognize progress? For good and for bad, libraries have rushed to keep pace with the rest of the world and our own colleagues in creating a Web presence without stepping back to consider the next millennium. I suspect that if we all waited to see what the next millennium had to offer, we would not be here to see it. And by stepping in and creating sites now, deli sandwiches though they may be, we actually become more technologically prepared and have a hand in creating that future.
After making the now necessary decision to "put up a Web site," libraries then face the real issue of what to put on the site. Catalogers are rushing to provide access to a Web-based library catalog filled with records of electronic library and Internet resources. Reference librarians enhance their sites with pathfinders and road maps to simplify the maze of the Internet and pull out sources that help them answer the questions they know patrons are asking. Many are also providing forms or e-mail links for patrons to contact them digitally. Curators and archivists are digitizing the unique resources they house, allowing them to showcase their holdings to the world, as well as to provide a copy that can be used repeatedly while maintaining a carefully preserved original resource. …