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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
The economics of library portals in transition: something old, something new
The economics of library portals in transition: something old, something new
Keywords: Public libraries, Internet, Information technology
A few weekends ago, I cranked up my computer and headed toward the OCLC Website. I experienced some typical Internet problems: I was redirected, timed out, timed out again and finally went to the site the old-fashioned way by typing a URL. Reaching OCLC's electronic home, this banner appeared mid-page: "New site design coming".
This and similar "Under construction" signs are typical at library Websites. The texture of the change is important. The building of Internet portals, a new stage of library Website evolution, is now a full-scale trend. Decades ago, University of Illinois library-school professor F. Wilfred Lancaster recognized that information technology passes through several developmental stages. In the first stage, developers use the innovation to mimic the old forms of expression. In the second stage, innovators adapt the technology and experiment with new forms. In the third stage, innovators invent wholly new ways of using the technology.
Changes in book technology follow Lancaster's tripartite staging. Gutenberg used moveable type to reproduce huge monastic tomes. Shortly afterward, Malthus innovated portable books small enough to fit into the saddlebags of the horses his salesmen rode. The maturing of portability came with glue-bound paperbacks and other cheap books of all kinds. With that innovation, moveable type technology that first was intended to preserve knowledge, inevitably become a portable knowledge transmitter and later a disposable container of stories and information.
Library Internet Website development is moving through Lancaster's stages. In the beginning, the library online catalogs emulated the forms of their paper predecessors. Electronic catalogs were simple-search versions of drawers full of catalog cards with former cross-subject headings left pretty much intact. Many, for example, will remember how VTLS scanned the Princeton catalog. It proudly announced that even the hand-written notations on the backs of the cards had been preserved.
Innovators quickly saw new possibilities and stretched the concept of the electronic catalog. Some expanded electronic content, using the tool to make catalogs and/or indexes of periodicals; government documents and art collections that individual libraries would soon purchase singly or collectively. At the same time, innovative libraries ventured into other electronic services: dial-in and electronic reference, e-mail, and the creation of staff-authored databases.
As more libraries made these changes, the term "portal", which had appeared in the corridors of e-commerce, began to be used to delineate a change in presentation and content. The change marked a maturing of Websites from their simple library catalog days.
The earlier portals were reactive, supply-side presentations in which virtual library users were expected to navigate their way through often-severe technological and software constraints to electronic material that mimicked paper catalogs. The new portals have became brokers that bring information sources and users together along with offering users a set of customer relationships and experiences often remarkable for their richness.
Like most library transitions, the new portals are a combination of old and new. Once all the already-installed portal elements are tabulated, it is clear that the old library Website has been replaced by what in Lancaster's terms could be called the second stage of development in one area of the presentation and use of information technology.
Most portals whether pure libraries or a category of reference material begin with a catalog-style search engine that furnishes the quickest and easiest possible access. One good example of a simple, straightforward search engine that does the job is present at the religious book site of Ishwar.com. The site offers depth because it allows simultaneous searching of several different books in religion. A search for a single term allows a comparison of the way that term is used in the primary scripture texts from multiple religions. Ishwar.com is a solid presentation of electronic indexing that performs the double function of providing users with fully contextualized quotations from remembered terms and a valuable tool for the study of comparative religions.
The portals involve lots that are new as well: a growing portal function is locally tailored content. St Louis Public Library http://www.slpl.lib.mo.us has stressed the development of such content for nearly a decade. SLPL's Electronic City Hall, its street names index, its genealogy and local history collections all illustrate how a local library can use electronic connections to match the information needs of its natural niche market.
Online reference communities, staffed by either volunteers or professionals, are another portal function. A good example of this phenomenon is Webhelp.com The quality of information at this site is variable, but probably not more so than the range that would be found if one were seeking answers to questions from a group of public libraries selected at random. Such sites have as bright a future as their volunteer experts will supply. In St Louis, our greatest gourmet-recipe and cookbook expert and the most knowledgeable person on St Louis architecture and building are not librarians. As these helping information communities mature, it would be no surprise to see libraries strike up alliances as one way to improve the virtual reference experience of their users.
Another new portal offering is fun. This dimension is especially prevalent in attracting library youth users. Bonzi.com is a site that adds the value of fun to simple searching. The fun takes the form of "Bonzi BUDDY", a purple gorilla cartoon character who helps users with searchers. At the same time BUDDY offers to talk, tell facts, laugh, and sing along with searching, browsing and scheduling.
The need for library portals to remain current, along with being fun, was demonstrated in a late 2000 survey reported at http://www.ala.org/kidspick The survey reported that kids age 1-12 choose the following sites as "best of the Web": Nickelodeon, Disney, GeoCities, Yahoo Search Engine, NBA, PBS, Worm World, ESPN-Sportszone, Sports Illustrated for Kids and Comedy Central South Park. Along with catering to kids' special interests, all of these sites serve up large doses of current knowledge.
A very new library portal function is relationship marketing. The epitome of such marketing, however, is not a library but www.amazon.com Being a frequent user of this site for more than two years, amazon.com has built up an extensive "profile" from my purchases. A few days ago, based on my past buying experiences, amazon.com offered me the following product recommendations: mystery-movie videotapes for my wife; a puzzle toy for my grand children, a book on the history of mapping as a gift for one of my sons-in-law and a continuing opportunity to share my book reviews with millions of other readers who buy from the company. In addition, amazon.com offered the opportunity to download an audio book from the company at a special first-time rate of $2.95.
Training and education is another library portal theme. Distance-education coursework, whether standard university education or short courses, is offered in a cooperative portal named Fathom.com; a collaborative project from Columbia University, Oxford University and the New York Public Library, plus other eminent higher education institutions. Fathom recognizes that learning is not always organized with the clear divisions of the medieval university but instead is a complex business. Three linked quotes from one of this portal's frames declare, "Knowledge is never neatly organized. It is a network of connections, not linear and not confined. On Fathom, these connections are charted along [multi-disciplinary] trails". In the process, it offers instruction in the way that many people learn: by starting somewhere and connecting in many different directions until an information or knowledge need is fulfilled. Look for library-training and distance-education themes on current and future library portals.
Webfeat.org adds another dimension to library portal development. The innovators of Webfeat have programmed what they call a "prism" to set atop library automation systems like DRA, III or Epixtech; special collections like Gdocs; data sets like one or more of EBSCO's magazine and journal databases, and institutional data gathered by library staff specifically for their constituents. The prism searches all the databases within parameters specified by each library, bringing up as many or as few sources as a user wants from each, a few or all the Websites. In addition, Webfeat offers bookcover art that will pop up each time a book title is hit. Webfeat, therefore, gives libraries the opportunity to provide a single search engine that can mine many databases in several different locations at one time. It also adds what portal architects call "candy", a visual carrot to go along with the meal of data and information. As of early 2001, one large public library already has adopted the product.
A final dimension of how library portals varied groups of constituents occurs at the site for Springfield-Green County Library http://thelibrary.springfield.missouri.org/about/presentations/facets_files/frame.htm The thoughtful touch of this site is the sharing of knowledge created by library staff. A click below the heading "About the library" is a list of two presentations made by staff at recent library conferences. This and other sites that follow this practice perform a valuable service for other library professionals by offering access to that most fugitive type of information, the fruits of applied research and how-to-do-it presentations performed by library staff.
There are many "mature" library portals. Here are four:
New York Public Library often leads. It is already an innovative second-stage library portal. It is outstanding in any number of ways, including the presentation of local information. A striking feature, however, is the way the institution points out to users the value of library membership. To see how this function works, search http://www.nypl.org/branch/eresources.html Under the heading, "Electronic databases available from home", the frame offers a long list with content summary of dozens of electronic databases, many full text. After the collection title and before any content description appears in a bright red the following words, "Available at home with a valid NYPL library card". Seldom has a library's case for the value of library card holding and the need for financial support for the library been made so emphatically.
Like New York, other portals offer a multiplicity of attractive virtual options. Charlotte Mecklenburg (NC) Public Library http://www.plcmc.lib.nc.us has features that range from seasonal offerings to a non-graphic text version for slower computers. There is a book club online, offering book recommendations on the basis of customer-use profiles and a link to amazon.com which provides a buying option to library members.
Hennepin County (MN), located at http://www.kcls.org, is a differently styled portal. It features a melding of national and local information. The local attachments include linked information from the Minnesota Career Information Center. The portal offers many entry points like kids links, teen links, learning links and resource links. There are separate search categories: Library Guide, Library Events, Kids Space, WebRef and Reader to Reader, the latter exactly what would be expected from the title. The portal entry points and links change frequently. The whole portal is designed so that virtual users can quickly self-orient by type, thereby getting more quickly to the information they need.
King County (WA) Library System at http://www.kcls.org has a similar variety of entries. Like NYPL and Hennepin County, it has numerous online databases, and Web references under title of "Ask a librarian". In addition, King County offers downloads of e-books, good read recommendations and combined database searching using Webfeat. The site is visual, bilingual and easy to use.
Like the commercial e-businesses that preceded them, libraries have moved well along the road in the development to change their electronic presence from library Websites to library portals. The new element in this virtual evolution is the large number of services offered, the conscious effort to provide a fruitful and even fun experience and to build and maintain ongoing relationships with users. In the process, libraries have improved the quality of the public library experience in America.
Glen HoltExecutive Director of the St Louis Public Library, St Louis, MO, USA