Library Council, University of Toronto Libraries

So Near and Yet So Far: Reaching out to the Patron at a Distance

Report of the Task Force on Services at a Distance submitted to University of Toronto Library Council, March 2000


The Task Force on Services at a Distance recommends that the University of Toronto Libraries:

1. Adopt a policy of support for users at a distance as part of the mandate for all Library departments.

Recognizing the fundamental cultural shift which our society is currently undergoing, and the corresponding change in expectations for library service within the University community, the Task Force believes that the principle of equality of access for all its clientele, regardless of location, should be espoused and promoted. Library services to the patron at a distance must be timely, relevant, and customizable. The Libraries must ensure that all patrons, whether in-person or at a distance, receive equitable service of a high quality. The Task Force endorses the principles outlined in the Canadian Library Association's December 1999 draft of Guidelines for Library Support of Distance and Distributed Learning in Canada. See Appendix C.

The Task Force recommends that the Library adopt a policy of support for distance users of the University of Toronto community, on an equal basis with those who come in person to the Library. Levels of service should be established for services at a distance, based on an individual's status within the University of Toronto community, rather than his or her physical location. This will be the responsibility of all Library departments.

2. Provide support in the form of reference services, delivery of materials, and technical assistance.

We currently provide a vast array of resources, information and services to Library patrons. Many are already available to users at a distance via UTORDial and the proxy server. But to provide the degree of access and service to the patron at a distance that is now available to the walk-in client represents a major change, and will require a re-orientation of planning strategy and thinking.

Services at a distance should consist of a number of broadly based functions. A major component will be instruction in use of the resources, backed up by personal reference service. The reference consultation service provided currently to in-person patrons would need to be made available to users at a distance. The current use of email is inherently limited by its asynchronous nature, which tends towards misinterpretation and the need for clarification. Since we know that users want what they want NOW, a better option will be the use of an online reference service provided by librarians with both the enthusiasm and skill to make it work. The convenient and personal nature of such a service makes it appealing.

The proactive approach would see the Libraries doing more to anticipate questions. To this end, better analysis of current questions could lead to improved web pages and FAQs. By building some intelligence into our interfaces we could generate automatic answers to many questions which must now be responded to by a staff member. Javascript could be added to on-line forms to lessen the number of direct questions received. Web pages can be used to disseminate pathfinders and database help sheets, which have traditionally been provided in print.

Next to be considered is the delivery of actual resources to the patron at a distance; that is, ensuring that the required resources and materials do in fact reach the user. These resources include electronic information of all kinds, e.g. databases, electronic journals, and other discipline-specific information sources. These can be customized in the manner of the "My Library" service provided at the University of North Carolina ( and elsewhere. Delivery of resources also includes materials supplied through document delivery, e.g. photocopies of articles or printed books. Methods of delivery, while increasingly web-based, include fax or some form of physical delivery as appropriate.

And thirdly there will be a need to provide technical assistance to the user at a distance, in order to support access to the materials described above. The principle of equality of access cannot be maintained without this type of support, and it must be both speedy and convenient. It should include a library Helpline with a 1-800 number, and a real-time online reference service of the UTLive variety. This kind of support is crucial, since without it the wide range of resources which the registered user has a right to access will be unavailable. Staff will need to be trained to a high degree of comfort in this area, since failure to help the patron will be sure to discourage him/her from further efforts.

The Task Force recommends that service to users at a distance include the following: traditional reference service provided in new ways, either in a one-on-one online environment with a librarian, or proactively through the provision of information to address users' anticipated needs; delivery of the resource materials distance users require, either in electronic form via the Web, or through other means such as fax or mail; and provision of technical assistance to facilitate access to the required resources and services.

3. Promote awareness and implementation of new relevant technologies.

If the Libraries are to serve their patrons at a distance in a manner satisfactory to them, and provide an acceptable version of the service described under Recommendation 2, we must be in a position to evaluate and adopt relevant new technologies on a continual basis. We must find ways to be constantly alert to what is new, and to adopt cutting-edge technology quickly.

The Task Force recommends that the Library commit to a policy of ongoing awareness of emerging technologies which may be relevant to library services at a distance. While this is seen as the mandate of all library departments, the Task Force expects that leadership in this area will be provided by the Standing Committee and Coordinator described below.

4. Support distance education as it develops at the University of Toronto.

Distance education is already established in certain faculties, e.g. Engineering and Education, and there are plans to incorporate it into other program areas. When students pursue their programs through on-line courseware, there is a real danger that library resources may be bypassed. A recent University of Minnesota study received the following comment from a distance learner: "One of the reasons I chose this course was because it did not require the use of a library." Library use by distance learners, whose main connection with the University is through their courseware, is very much dependent on how successful we are at integrating our services with these courses. Faculty may mistakenly assume that the Library is unable to support users at a distance, and it is therefore crucial that they be kept fully aware of how successfully library resources can be integrated into the online curriculum environment.

The Task Force recommends that the Library support distance education programs as they are developed at the University. Mechanisms need to be found to identify distance programs, and to respond appropriately. Formal and informal faculty liaison should be developed to improve the faculty's awareness of what the Library can offer and to promote the Library's input into the process.

5. Develop internal and external partnerships as a means of increasing library support for services at a distance.

Partnerships are crucial to the successful development of services at a distance. Internal partnerships between departments, areas, and units of the Libraries already exist in many cases. Additional partnerships may need to be developed to support this initiative, while those which already exist may need to be strengthened. Examples of partnerships within the Libraries include the cooperation between Resource Sharing and Supplies and Services to facilitate the physical delivery of materials to various points on campus; and the cooperation between Information Technology Services and Resource Sharing to permit electronic delivery of similar materials to patrons remotely.

Other partnerships could be created with the goal of embedding suitable library resources in the curriculum, whether it be via courseware, or a course web page which has a library component, or a live presentation on the use of a specific library resource. Library staff will need to work closely with the Centre for Academic Technology, to ensure library participation when the Centre is approached by faculty wishing to develop a courseware application. An example of this type of cooperation can be found at the V. W. Bladen Library, where the Centre for Instructional Technology Development (part of Bladen's Teaching and Learning Services unit) works with faculty to develop multimedia projects and web pages incorporating online assignments, documents and class discussions.

The recent University of Toronto Libraries External Review recommended increased collaboration with other institutions. Such collaboration could take many forms. Partnerships with similar institutions in different time zones could permit 24 hour access to qualified reference staff (c.f. the Collaborative Digital Reference Service project referred to earlier). This would enable us to develop the "timeless library", providing real-time electronic reference service regardless of time of day. Partnerships with institutions closer to home, both academic and non-academic in nature, might provide greatly increased access to electronic resources for our patrons. Licensing of electronic resources, once the activity of individual institutions, is becoming ever broader in scope, so that consortial arrangements with vendors are now the norm. The resulting access to a wider range of resources brings great benefit to patrons everywhere. And within our own city we have an opportunity to develop fruitful partnerships with two other universities which could result in very advantageous shared staffing arrangements.

The Task Force recommends that the Library develop partnerships to establish and promote service to patrons at a distance. Cooperation to this end between various units and departments within the Library should be encouraged and extended. As well, the Library should work closely with faculty and with those responsible for assisting faculty in their development of web resources. The Library should also pursue collaboration on a larger scale with similar institutions, both locally and globally. A good start in this direction would be for the University of Toronto Library to join the Collaborative Digital Reference Service project (CDRS), and to continue its participation in OCLC's CORC and electronic Pathfinders ventures.

6. Investigate new staffing models for an expanded service.

The increase in collaboration and partnerships at all levels, coupled with rapidly developing technology, is changing the environment in which we work. That, and the type of support for services at a distance described above, present us with an opportunity and a need to examine current and potential staffing models.

The Task Force recognizes that much of the above represents additional service, which cannot be accomplished under our present staffing model. But, just as patrons are no longer necessarily using library resources from within the Library, staff can provide reference, circulation, and technical assistance, for example, from any location that provides access to a computer and an Internet connection, be it the Library, the home, or elsewhere. There are already several precedents for this arrangement within the current Library setting. Similarly, as librarians no longer need to be in the Library to provide service, but can theoretically be located anywhere in the world, they no longer need to be the employee of one particular institution. Building on the partnerships model outlined in Recommendation 5, reference service could be offered around the clock on a rotating basis according to location. For instance, joint programs such as that offered by the Faculty of Law for Australian and Canadian students could be served by librarians based in either country, with service origin depending on time of day. These are exciting possibilities which we need to investigate.

Staff training is a vital component of this equation. The competencies required by staff will need to be defined, and will have to be in place before a service is introduced.

The Task Force recommends that the Library investigate new staffing models to determine what will work best in providing expanded services to patrons at a distance. Consideration of existing service needs must be included in this evaluation.

7. Establish a Committee on Services at a Distance as a standing committee reporting to Library Council.

Many components of remote service are already in place. Examples are the licensing and networking of electronic resources; the use of telephone, email, and web forms to contact the Libraries; and article scanning and delivery using Ariel software. Incremental developments are likely to continue in all these areas. But, to support remote service fully, as recommended in this report, a formal structure to promote, coordinate and extend these efforts will be necessary.

The Task Force recommends the establishment of a standing committee on services at a distance, which would report annually to Library Council. The committee would be charged with the responsibility of supporting the development and delivery of services at a distance from a number of different library perspectives. It would develop, promote and coordinate policies and guidelines for these services across the Library. Membership would include representation from Reference, Resource Sharing, Information Technology Services, the Centre for Academic Technology, Collection Development, the Council of Campus Libraries, and other areas as appropriate. The Committee would advise on the appointment of a coordinator of services at a distance, who would become an ex officio member of the committee. Thereafter the Committee would operate as an advisory body for the Coordinator.

8. Establish the position of Coordinator of Services at a Distance.

To move forward with services at a distance it is necessary to provide leadership in the form of a coordinator, who has such leadership as his/her primary responsibility. The Coordinator will report to the Chief Librarian. The incumbent's role will be to implement services and policies as described in this report on the advice of the Committee on Services at a Distance.

The Coordinator will need to provide dynamic, visionary leadership to create the positive environment which is seen as crucial to the success of excellent service development. He/she must also have a thorough understanding of standard and emerging technologies, and the ability to recognize and communicate their potential for service development.

The Task Force recommends that a position of Coordinator of Services at a Distance be created, to work in collaboration with the Committee on Services at a Distance. The Coordinator will be responsible for implementing the policies agreed on by the Committee, and for providing the necessary leadership to bring about the establishment of new services. He/she will consult broadly with faculty as part of his/her mandate. Duties will include the identification of staff training needs in support of services. The Coordinator will need the assistance of a part or full time technical assistant.

9. Seek funding for the implementation and support of the services.

User expectation, advancing technology, and the organizational environment suggested by the Task Force on Academic Computing and New Media and related initiatives, together provide us with a unique opportunity to position ourselves at the forefront of the emerging computer-based academic landscape. In fact, the recent discussion paper issued by the aforementioned Task Force endorses the expansion of the Library's mandate in this direction, and its position as "the information technology locus of the University". For us to exploit this opportunity we must ensure that financial resources are available to support the necessary staff training, software, and other service requirements. Sources of potential funding may become easier to identify in the coming months, as the University as a whole moves ahead in the area of academic computing. The library should actively seek out these sources. The issue of cost recovery and its role in the overall funding scenario must be part of this process.

The Task Force recommends that appropriate sources of funding be identified, and that funding be sought to support the service on an ongoing basis. An examination of the role of cost recovery from end users should be included in this process. The Committee on Services at a Distance should advise on this issue as part of its mandate.

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