This article examines the design characteristics of ready-reference and e-mail reference pages on the Web sites of 110 academic libraries in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Ninety-two of these libraries had both ready-reference and e-mail reference sections on their Web sites at the time of the survey. Characteristics examined for each site included the wording of page titles and links, numbers of steps from the library's home page to the service pages, organization schemes, timeliness of resources or responses, and additional means of communication available between patron and librarian.
Everyone seems to have a Web site. At this point in the development of the Web, organizations can go beyond just maintaining a Web presence to take full advantage of their presence in this information medium. Academic libraries are information providers on the Web as well as information providers in their physical locations. Librarians must carefully plan the site content and design to serve patrons for whom the Web has become a central source of information. Library Web site design can be improved by critically examining existing Web pages and learning from them.
Much has already been written about Web design in general and library Web page design in particular, but most articles about library Web pages describe just one or a few innovative sites. There is a need to consider the range of approaches that different libraries have taken in providing similar services online. This study provides some of that analysis, specifically for the ready-reference and e-mail reference aspects of library Web sites.
Virtual ready-reference pages link patrons with sources that contain answers to ready-reference questions. E-mail reference pages link patrons with library staff who assist them in finding answers. Both types of pages offer the possibility of connecting an online patron with the answer to a question via a completely electronic connection and both have become common features of academic library Web sites. Because virtual ready-reference resources and e-mail reference resources can be accessed by patrons who lack prior instruction or orientation, Web page design issues involving these two types of service should be given careful attention.
This article reports on characteristics of library Web sites as observed in February 1999. A literature review of materials on Web design and electronic reference provided the background for survey questions applied to the Web sites of 110 academic libraries with membership in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Features of the ready-reference and e-mail reference portions (where existing) of those sites were categorized and analyzed. The results indicate a baseline of Web reference services as they appeared on the selected sites in early 1999.
The literature of Web design and electronic reference services can be examined as a potential means of determining how to assess the quality of ready-reference and e-mail reference Web pages. General principles for Web design apply to library Web pages. A focus on the information needs of site users is particularly important to librarians. Ready-reference Web resources should guide patrons to facts more quickly or accurately than a general Internet search engine would; e-mail reference pages provide a way to connect librarians with patrons' questions even when those patrons are far from the library.
Hirshon counted e-mail reference service and a broad choice of electronic databases among the features necessary for any academic library at the turn of the millennium. He warned that ensuring the relevance of libraries into the twenty-first century would require doing even more to meet customers' needs and to make the best use of new technologies. Hirshon emphasized the importance of good Web design skills in meeting patrons' needs, and expressed his concern that most librarians lack these skills: "The Web has granted the ability to transfer our early lack of skills in creating attractive and informative brochures into the disability to distribute our poor handiwork on an international scale. …