We were digitizing a historical collection, so we were more concerned about technology than relationships. But then the barrage of e-mails proved that we'd become a personal part of users' lives, and that we'd always be married to our users--for better or for worse.
The Historic Pittsburgh Web site is the maiden project of the Digital Research Library (DRL) of the University of Pittsburgh's University Library System. This multi-component site contains rich material that documents the history of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania from the times of exploration to industrialization and modernization. This noble idea from 1998 resulted in the formation of the DRL, a library department devoted to creating digital resources. It also involved a multi-institutional partnership with the university's Archives Service Center, Special Collections department, and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania to identify and supply content for this project, which now contains a full-text collection, a map collection, finding aids, a chronology, and census data (http://digital.library.pitt.edu/pittsburgh).
We have completed the majority of work needed to meet our original concept of Historic Pittsburgh--automated scripts have been written; vendors selected; software tested and chosen; items procured, scanned, indexed, and made searchable; interface design completed. In this first project we achieved our initial goals of mounting digital library content and attracting a significant user base. So outside of ongoing systems maintenance, migration of files and software, and the occasional server upgrade, it would seem as if it's time to sit back and reap the rewards of our job well-done. However, while many aspects of digital collection development go away once the product is online, one very important element will remain as long as the collection is accessible: the users, who will inevitably have questions and comments. Who answers these questions? How are responses coordinated among the partner institutions? How much time should we spend on these questions as we juggle the production work for new digital projects ? The way we chose to manage user correspondence has helped the DRL evolve into a wiser matron of the digital library field.
Until Death Do Us Part?
"Are any of the church records for Trinity Episcopal or the first Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh online? Any suggestions on how to get access to baptismal records from around 1819-1820?"
"I am searching for more information on Patrick Best ... Patrick was supposed to have killed a bear with a knife and his bare hands. There was supposed to be a statue for this momentous occasion. What information I have found so far, that could be a possible lead, has been on your web-page. Would you have anything more on this man?"
"Do you have any information regarding Adam Jacobs packet boats? I am attempting to preserve a model built by the original packet boat builder and I need 'all the help I can get."'
These questions are examples of what we have received from users of the Historic Pittsburgh Web site. They illustrate that questions about digital resources can be straightforward, complex, fun, or just plain unpredictable. Above all else, these e-mails require time and effort to respond to. We are not the only digital library faced with such an ongoing task, yet the notion of user e-mail remains an unspoken fact of life. In a way, it is like a marriage between user and digital library, where reality sets in after all the energy has been spent on the glitz and glamour of planning the wedding. In other words, managing user correspondence is a persistent but often-unidentified responsibility associated with digital collection maintenance.
The Honeymoon's Over, or, What Have We Gotten Into?
In the fall of 1999, Historic Pittsburgh was up and running and bringing in a steady stream of user correspondence. We quickly realized that we had a loyal audience, but not an audience entirely made up of the academic patrons to whom we were officially betrothed as a library department serving the University of Pittsburgh. …