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Home access – the ability of library clients to connect to the online services of their local public or academic library, brings with it many benefits. Not only has the obvious need to venture out on a wintry night disappeared, but also, and more importantly, there is the privileged access to the specialist material itself. True, we must presume that the library user would have general access to the Internet and World Wide Web, but more than likely the depth and currency of knowledge required would come at a premium unaffordable to the individual. The library however is in a position to negotiate the purchase price and this has been done largely successfully.
When libraries do this they are acting on behalf of their community of users. In the academic sector this is a maturing approach while in the public sector there are still many challenges, but progress is being made. Even greater benefit can be gained through libraries forming consortia and negotiating from a position of strength. On the downside, home access to library materials and networks can miss the human touch. The member of staff who ably assists the enquirer, taking them on a path of discovery through the book stock, the journal stack and the archive material, is by far the libraries greatest asset. But it is important to provide the user with an alternative even if, as librarians, we have a perceived vested interest in such matters. As I have mentioned in this column before, the virtual reference model is here to stay. For proof of this look at the increasing number of technological solutions that are becoming available to mimic the “human touch” and of course the coining of the term Cybrarian brings with it Bladerunner imagery of the future.
Within the public library sector there is increased interest in how users might access services. The most obvious piece of evidence is the number of UK local authorities who have developed an implementing e-government (IEG) statement. Further and perhaps more telling is the rhetoric that is emerging regarding e-citizenship; this has been a main feature of public library position statements. Here the concept of access channels – telephone access, face-to-face access and Internet access – gains credence. With libraries well positioned to offer services through all channels they should be seen as central to the activities of local authorities. The e-government agenda continues to unfold, with challenging targets and, many would say, insufficient resources. Of course, those involved with the selection of reference materials will know that the likely access channel is a crucial factor in weighing up a particular resource be it electronic or print based. The information held in say a company financial resource that displays financial returns with graphical illustrations might be excellent for Internet access but next to useless for telephone enquiry services. So, when choosing resources the preferred method of access has become an additional factor for consideration.
Within the academic sector the library is a resource supporting the learning process. More learning is becoming distributed through an on-line learning model and increasingly through blended learning, where different access channels are used in tandem. The UK academic library, now typically electronic, is offering, through systems such as Athens, closed access to a wide range of materials. Again the learner can access this service from home. In addition, through the use of a virtual learning environment, the learner may have access to fellow learners in the cohort as well as to support staff.
Providing reference services and materials in this environment is becoming highly specialised and is tied to the overall learning package. Providing reference services generally, taking into consideration the various configurations of delivery and access, is certainly becoming more of a challenge.
Ronan O’BeirnePrincipal Libraries Officer: Information, Bradford Libraries, Archives and Information, Bradford, UK