Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Maintaining Services That Tomorrow's Patrons Will Expect. (Coming Full Circle)

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Maintaining Services That Tomorrow's Patrons Will Expect. (Coming Full Circle)

Article excerpt

There's a saying that's been going around for some time now regarding service: Good, Fast, Cheap--Pick Two. Those of us who have finally come to grips with the notion that a library cannot be all things to all people like this quote. We can also be heard to mutter the annoying cliche about service being easier without all those pesky users. (I keep trying to convince reference staff that the online catalog is downright zippy when no one is using it.) In a nutshell, good, fast, and cheap are all that today's patrons expect. But libraries owe more than service to today's patrons; I would argue that patrons should expect something more, something they would not appreciate until it appears and something they would not necessarily miss until its alternatives had vanished.

Just Plain Good

It was at a breakfast meeting at the National Online Meeting in 1999 that Ron Dunn of Thomson Learning uttered one of his maxims, a phrase that has stuck with me and guided my thinking about Web design ever since. "The worst level of Internet service that users will accept is the best level of service they have ever seen." This is a library's competition--every better Web page, every better service, every more satisfied customer raises the bar. Libraries, however, excel at collecting and serving good information well. This aspect of service is, luckily, the least of our worries.

More than doing well, libraries continue to do good. In the wake of September 11, librarians stepped into the fray, offering services, resources, gathering places, and even refuge. The November2001 issue of American Libraries is filled with stories--both heartwarming and hand-wringing--about the aftermath's effect on libraries worldwide. Many of you rushed to provide access to resources desired by a public with a new common thirst for information. Would that libraries moved as nimbly as some dot-corns.

Good and Fast

I was struck by the way that users flocked to the Internet to find information, literally in the minutes and hours following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Equally striking was the way that librarians in my building scrambled to find television sets (the right tool for the right job, after all) and then struggled to get decent reception for what would become either an hypnotic or repulsive week of news, speculation, and reaction. But where did online users flock? Was it to library home pages, online catalogs, and full-text databases? Of course not.

First Monday, the peer-reviewed journal of the Internet, recently published an interesting story on the impact of September 11 on the Google Web site (Richard Wiggins, "The Effects of September 11 on the Leading Search Engine" : http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_10/wiggins/index.html). The article follows the daily and weekly evolution of the Google Web site in response to users' pursuit of information. From referral agent--"If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio"--to news portal, Google coupled its fast and accurate search engine with human-edited content. Wiggins summarizes: "The important point to note here is that someone at Google was playing the role of editor, selecting major, authoritative sources, and updating the content to match users' needs as they changed over time." This "entirely new role for Google" should not seem strange to libraries, but the lesson learned from what users expected of the Internet in general, and of Google in particular, is clear. Users expected information delivery to meet their immediate information needs.

Out of curiosity, I embarked on a highly unscientific comparison of Google searches with catalog searches in the wake of the September disaster.

Web catalog logs at NCSU libraries show almost none of this activity, with one notable and surprising exception (see below). Though the NCSU system makes it difficult to determine most popular searches, the list below presents some high and low numbers that might be surprising to librarians; while users flocked to the Internet, they hardly used the online catalog. …

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