RAISING THE BAR: THE INTERNET RAISES USER EXPECTATIONS
A few weeks ago in NeatNew I mentioned a new study of government web sites that found that only 25% of state government sites offer an 800 number, only 34% post frequently asked questions files, and only 40% allow citizens to file complaints online. A while back I told you about a study of 100 major corporations' web sites which found that fully 40% never responded to e-mail questions about their products, even when those questions were repeated. These are clear signs that a whole lot of the folks in charge still think the Internet is a frill.
The problem for those companies and agencies, though, is that for many of the customers and citizens who are paying the freight, the Internet is the FIRST place they go to look for answers to their questions, for product information, and for service. When they don't find what they need there, they get annoyed.
Internet users who've found that Amazon will find the book they wanted, even if they don't have the correct title or author, AND suggest related titles, will wonder why library catalogs aren't equally helpful. Net users who've applied for college admission and scholarships online will have no patience for organizations that force them to stand in line to apply for anything.
Many net users have found not just information but virtual homes on sites that guide them to good information on their topic AND provide bulletin boards and discussion forums where they can talk about their passions with people who share them. They've learned they can get information online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year without waiting until the library is open. Perhaps it's not the best information, but they almost certainly don't understand that or care very much.
There are even businesses, like Contentville and Questia and Ask an Expert sites that think they can make money offering the books and magazines and reference service we have always offered our users for free. Why? They're betting that they can offer more convenience.
If we want people to understand that WE are the information experts, we have no choice but to provide information service online. How are libraries responding to the challenge? Many answer patrons' reference questions online, either by e-mail or by instant messenging -- see LiveRef, at http://www.public.iastate.edu/~CYBERSTACKS/LiveRef.htm, for a registry of real-time digital reference services. Many offer online reference collections of free web sites and licensed online encyclopedias and other reference tools. Many create searchable pages of top quality web sites, organized by subject area, and post answers to frequently asked questions. Some put their reading recommendations, their "If you like this, try these" lists, online, and some post tutorials and searching tips. A few even post computer troubleshooting guides for their technically challenged users.
Parents should be delighted that their libraries' children's pages are safe and happy places for kids where they can find both good information and fun. Some let kids contribute content -- book reports, or their illustrations for books they read. A few offer bulletin boards where kids can anonymously ask questions, of librarians, and each other. A few libraries even offer online video or audio story hours for kids who can't get to the library. And virtually all libraries explain to children the rules for safe Internet use and netiquette, and offer a page of information for parents.
Many libraries clearly do understand that we shouldn't force patrons to come in person for any service that can be delivered online. The bare minimum internet users now expect of libraries is to be able to search the catalog and read full-text magazines, newspapers and government information online, but many libraries go well beyond this. They offer online homework centers, and tips and links on genealogy and jobhunting. Some reach out to underserved populations and show them that the library has things they'll want by posting lists of recommended books and links of particular interest to local ethnic and religious groups, YAs, and seniors. [I would suggest that one underserved group is men. We could also post things like lists of some of our war novels or sports novels, or resources for outdoor sports or auto repair or men's health -- think how much fun it isn't for a man to ask a female librarian for material on prostate cancer.]
Some libraries offer bulletin boards and discussion groups, an excellent idea since research shows that people spend far more time at any web site that offers opportunities for interaction with other people. Some libraries offer online reading groups, where people can discuss books or hobbies and draw on the librarians' supporting pages that recommend related books, videos, and high-quality links for their topics.
And since we still like to have our users come to the library -- by choice, that is -- many use their web sites to publicize new books and videos, upcoming events, and special collections and exhibits. Some do, on a smaller scale, what the Library of Congress does with its American Memory Project -- offer samples of all their collections in digitized form, like historic photos and maps of their town, oral history interviews, selections from diaries or papers or local government planning documents.
Many libraries have already created their pages, and more are still just developing theirs. Regardless of where you are in the process, remember that your page should never be a done deal, because another thing people expect on the internet is change. Library web pages need to keep improving in response to patrons' interests and needs. That's why it's a good idea to routinely look at other libraries' pages for fresh ideas.
If our web sites show our users that, A) the library is everything they used to expect PLUS full online service 24/7/365, B) librarians are still the best people to ask for information, and C) the library can still offer services worth leaving their home or office for, we won't have to worry about the competition.
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At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done -- then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.
Frances Hodgson Burnett. The Secret Garden
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ELECTION WATCH: A ROUND-UP OF POLITICAL SITES
It's easy enough to find the sites for the candidates and their parties. What I'd like to show you are sites that offer a range of differing perspectives and information on the candidates and campaigns.
Web White & Blue 2000 http://www.webwhiteblue.org/about/
is a service provided jointly by 17 of the largest internet portals and news sites to inform netizens about the issues. It features "the first online presidential debate...carried in its entirety by each of the 17 sites on the Web White & Blue network...featur[ing] daily exchanges among the presidential campaigns and responses to questions submitted by Internet users."
C-SPAN http://cspan.org, of course, can be relied on for full texts and even video of the debates, including some for Senate and House and governors' races as well as for President.
SpeakOut.com http://www.speakout.com/, as you might guess, is interested in our views on the candidates, debates, and new political ads. It offers political news, backgrounders on hot issues, full text of the debates, a presidential candidate grid comparing stands on issues, a roundup of how the press and pundits have reported the campaign, and info on house and senate races
Rock the Vote http://www.rockthevote.com/ is MTV's campaign to educate young voters about the issues, the candidates, and how to register and get involved. It comes with hipness and attitude, but provides excellent straight information nonetheless.
She's Got the Vote http://www.shesgotvote.com/main.shtml focuses on issues of particular interest to women. The slant is liberal, but there is good info on the positions of all the presidential candidates, some on local congressional candidates, and a good set of links.
The Center for Public Integrity http://www.publicintegrity.org/ offers a series of research reports analyzing state legislators' and officials' conflicts of interest, including Presidential and congressional candidates and state legislators. Also check out the Issue Ad Watch to see who's paying for those supposedly grass roots ads.
If you'd like to hear the politicians in action, go to Policast.com http://policast.com/ -- "All politics internet radio, all the time." Check the daily calendar of broadcasts. Print news, including state by state political reports is also linked in.
The problem with political polls is that they don't ask the same questions or get the same results, but all any one news organization will tell you about is its own poll. For a roundup of all the polls, go to the PollingReport.com: Public Opinion Online http://pollingreport.com/, which is also a clearing house and archive for polls on a wide variety of other topics.
And finally, don't forget Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonists' Index http://cagle.slate.msn.com/, for a roundup of recent political cartoons. We need cartoonists to remind us that politics may be a serious business, but it's also pretty silly.
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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.