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

Review of Services at the University of Toronto Libraries

A. Existing services in support of service at a distance

A questionnaire was developed and a survey conducted for the purpose of gathering information about reference and resource sharing services currently offered at a distance by libraries at the University of Toronto. In order to reach as many libraries as possible, it was sent out to all recipients of the REFINFO and SCILIBS listservs, as well as the Council of Campus Libraries. Twenty-nine replies were received. The survey instrument and list of respondents are attached as Appendix D, and are summarized as follows.

Regarding reference service, the majority of respondents do provide information using telephone, e-mail, regular mail and fax, with fax being the least used (only 20 out of 29 respondents). No library provided a library research component of a faculty web-based course, not because of unwillingness, but because so few of such courses are currently offered. Other responses related for the most part to web-based delivery of value added reference materials, such as the Bora Laskin Law Library's web site on women's human rights resources. The V. W. Bladen Library has developed Research 101, a web based guide to help students use electronic resources. The OISE/UT Library has a designated librarian for Distance Education (for students in distance classes and regular students living a certain distance outside Toronto) who answers reference questions, conducts searches and who attends initial audioconferencing classes to provide information.

Future plans centred around using the Web to provide reference or instruction at a distance. In addition, there were plans for the introduction of subject-specific bibliographies online and an online newsletter (Robarts); the provision of the full range of services currently offered in the library (FIS); development of an online version of a six-module Virtual Library course (OISE/UT); online newsletter, online demo of MEDLINE, and ability to take document delivery, 'gerref' queries and ScanDoc requests online (Gerstein); building of an inhouse database of theses to be accessed from the library's web page (Zoology); and a full-time librarian to take part in dissemination of information worldwide in the Centre for Innovation (Law).

The Task Force also sought and received input from the Reference Services Committee. Members of the Committee are generally enthusiastic about the challenge of providing distance reference service in a way that retains the personal service element. Consultation with faculty is seen to be more important than ever when services are provided remotely. Concern was expressed about what constitutes an appropriate level of service to the public. However, the greatest concerns revolve around the staffing of such a service; what resources will be needed, both in numbers and levels of staff, and what will constitute appropriate training.

ii)Resource Sharing
The majority of Libraries responding to the survey (17 out of 29) currently do not provide resource sharing/interlibrary loan/document delivery services to University of Toronto students studying off campus, whether in distance education programs or on course-related placements. However, slightly more than one third of the libraries do provide such services. OISE/UT specifically offers service to those enrolled in distance education programs via its Distance Education Librarian, while off-campus students in the health and other sciences (aerospace, earth sciences) receive document delivery of material, primarily from the Engineering and Computer Science Library, the Noranda Earth Sciences Library, and the Gerstein Science Information Centre.

Faculty located off-campus are generally accorded a different level of service from students. Eighteen libraries out of twenty-nine which responded do provide service to off-campus faculty. Faculty in the sciences seem particularly well served in this regard. Gerstein supplies material to faculty in the hospitals, and also directly to faculty in buildings on all three campuses. Engineering & Computer Science provides service to faculty and graduate students of the Department of Aerospace located in the northern part of Toronto. OISE/UT has formalized off-campus field centres with faculty, and offers full services to them through the Distance Education Librarian who coordinates their ILL and document delivery. Law provides such services (along with reference service) to faculty who are travelling or on sabbatical, usually via email. Scarborough provides resource sharing services to off-campus faculty via their web site.

The delivery of material is accomplished by a number of means. There is an understandably high use of regular mail service, although fax service is also used. When material is delivered to off-campus locations, more than half the libraries use regular mail and more than half fax material where appropriate. The use of technological solutions such as email and Ariel (scanning) delivery is increasing. Eight libraries use Ariel scanning technology to deliver material over the Internet, and three of these take advantage of the system's email functionality. Direct delivery of print copy is an option that is also employed, with approximately one third of the libraries using Carecor and six using couriers from time to time. Two libraries use their own vehicles.

Payment for services is addressed in a numbers of ways. In general, there are charges for photocopy services (frequently 20 cents per page). Courier costs are also charged to the patron. The occasional library does not charge faculty or graduate students for ILL service, unless there is a charge assessed by the lending institution. A number of libraries use the internal charge back system of the University while a few libraries do not assess any charges to members of the University of Toronto community.

Future plans for resource sharing are focused on a new management system, to be introduced later this year. This will facilitate the development of services for patrons at a distance; for example, patron-initiated requests for interlibrary loans will be a possibility with the new system. Other technologies include posting scanned articles to a secure web site for direct retrieval by the patron; and the ability to request articles directly from a database search.

iii) Technical Assistance
Although the survey (Appendix D) did not specifically solicit information about technical services currently offered at a distance, such assistance is crucial for the patron who is trying to access services remotely. The following is illustrative and is taken from queries received by the User Support division within Information Technology Services during the period August 1998 to January 2000. In addition, many questions of a technical nature are handled at individual library service desks, as reported to the Task Force by the Reference Services Committee.

More than 8,000 e-mail queries and approximately 1,000 telephone queries were received during this period. There are a number of e-mail links on both the Gateway and the Library's web pages. Once non-technical queries (entrance requirements, residence information, catalogue and research questions, etc.) had been forwarded to appropriate departments both within the University and the Libraries, there were some 8,500 queries of a technical nature. Questions included how to connect, how to access resources, how to establish and use UTORmail, where to find search strategies, how to find links on various web pages, how to renew, how to view patron records, how to establish a proxy account, how to set up a Sympatico High Speed Edition account, what plugins and helpers are needed, why is the vendor server not responding.

These queries demonstrate that patrons at a distance need help not only to understand the operations of the University and the Libraries but also to understand the University's and Libraries' networks, servers, electronic resources and software applications.

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