Possibilities for proactive library services

Proactive services and bits of direct marketing are ways libraries of the present can retain a foothold in the future.

Remember library school? Remember how we were taught to be proactive instead of reactive? This concept was behind a lot of our collection management policies. "Buy the books before the patrons ask for them." What ever happened to this philosophy, and how is it reflected in today's globally networked computer environment? In many ways, the collection management policy has changed. Instead of buying loads of books that only a few people will use, we might be buying books on demand and sending them directly to the patron as they ask for them. "Can you say, 'Amazon.com?'" But that's books. What about the other sorts of information mediums libraries provide? How are we being proactive with those services and/or how can we incorporate the idea of proactive service with the present day information mediums?

Just like Amazon.com, we keep track of who uses our services. Often times we do not keep circulation records around very long because of the problems they cause with privacy. On the other hand, if the institution of librarianship were to foster a relationship with its clientele similar to the physician/patient or lawyer/client relationships, then we might feel more comfortable about saving circulation records. Once circulation records were saved, they could be analyzed. This analysis will turn up patterns of borrowing behavior and these patterns could be used to make suggestions (predictions) of future borrowing behavior. For example, suppose a particular set of books is consistently borrowed by a computer science students. The subject terms (or author names) from this set of books could be extracted and used to suggest other books of possible use. Alternatively, when new books are brought into the collection and these new books fit the pattern of frequently borrowed materials, then these books could be suggested as well. If we were to retain the names and/or email addresses of borrowers, then suggestions based on previous borrowing behavior could be delivered on demand to our patrons recommending new reading.

These patterns of borrowing behavior could be mapped to other service across your campus, community, or place of business. Particular subject headings, author names, or call number ranges could be used to draw a patron's attention to upcoming seminars, training opportunities, lectures, or cultural events. These patterns could be mapped to the names of individuals or groups of people who discuss the ideas surrounding the pattern. These patterns could be used to create search strategies that are applied to various database engines like bibliograhic databases or Internet resources. In other words, these patterns could be used to answer the omnipresent question, "Find me more like this one."

Similarly, if patrons were to complete profiles representing their interests, then these interests could be translated into subject headings, author names, or call number ranges. As new books, or other types of material for that matter, are acquisitioned onto the collection, announcements in the form of email messages could be sent to patrons informing them of the new possibilities.

If these ideas were incorporated into our catalogs, then our catalogs would become even more like finding aids and less like inventory lists. A colleague today suggested an interesting idea. Suppose a person does a search in your catalog for "expert systems". The catalog might return numerous hits, but the display of these hits or particular items from those hits might incorporate searches to outside resources like Amazon.com, Altavista, Northern Lights, or your very own licienced bibliographic databases. In other words, the catalog would become a jumping off point to similar information from alternative sources.

Another way to be proactive might be the distribution of a package of information describing your library services and products. Such a package might be a CD containing all the specialized software they might need to use your services. It would include various files in HTML, plain text, or word processed format explaining how document delivery works, lists the names and addresses of library contacts, or guides on how to use the library to find specific information.

The use of CD has a number of advantages compared to a network connection and your library's Web server. First, your patron might not be connected to a network and therefore a CD might be able to display the same information. A CD can be configured to take advantage of a particular computer's operating system. For example, you might be able to include on the CD a program that does not work over the Web but does work directly on the computer, or you might include a multimedia file that is too large to be carried over a network. Additionally, a script could be saved on the CD automatically configuring a patrons's computer to optimally work with your library resources. In short, a CD allows you to have more control over what goes on and what the patron sees since the CD is a much smaller information universe compared to the Internet. On the other hand, the data on a CD is static and therefore runs a higher risk of becoming outdated.

Telephone reference is still a popular service, but why not turn the tables around have you call the patron instead of having them call you. For example, it would be possible to include on your Web pages a "Call me!" hot link. By selecting this hot link an HTML form appears prompting the patron for their name and telephone number. Upon submitting the form the patron is notified as to when they might be called. Immediately? In any event, the submitted name and telephone number would be sent to ready and waiting reference librarians who are charged with making these telephone calls. Sure, it sounds a bit hokey, but it sure would be a bit of proactive service and it might very well come in handy when the user can't articulate their reference question in writing and your phone is busy.

In general, we treat our patrons as if they are all the same. We say, "I don't have time to customize everything for every patron. There aren't enough of me." If you think the patron/librarian ratio works against libraries, just think about the consumer/manufacturer ratios. Despite the high numbers of consumers compared to the low number of individual manufacturers, manufacturers are still creating customized output for individuals. Libraries can do the same things. The problem, in the columnist's opinion, is a lack of motivation on the part of the profession. What is the incentive to change? In special libraries the motivation is obvious and high. Academic libraries believe they have a captive audience. Public libraries probably have the most to lose if they don't become more proactive since they are more like competitors with general Internet searching and huge booksellers like Barnes&Noble.

The history of libraries shows that libraries were traditionally storehouses for books and records. This idea has not only been ingrained in the public perception of libraries, but seems to still be the mainstay of practicing librarians. In today's globally networked information environment, where information is not rare and it used to be, the role of storehouse is becoming obsolete. The key to future success is emphasis on the evaluation of data and information for the purposes of fostering knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom can only be acquired after individuals process data and information. By providing proactive and direct marketing sorts of services libraries can transcend the traditional views of the profession and continue to play an important role in our workplace and society.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This is pre-edited version of an article published in Computers in Libraries.
Date created: 1999-02-09
Date updated: 2004-11-14
Subject(s): librarianship;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/proactive/