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

Discussion of Relevant Technologies

A number of technologies already exist to assist in the delivery of library service to the patron at a distance. UTLive, for example, incorporated voice over Internet and web browser synchronization. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, listservs, ICQ, MOOs (Multi-User Object Oriented environments) have already been tested by several libraries. In the same manner that UTLive was a proof of concept project, some of these other technologies should be evaluated by the Libraries.

Other technologies have yet to prove themselves. Intelligent agents, such as the "Klones" from the Big Science Company (www.bigscience.com) or Interactive Virtual Representatives (IVRs) from Neuromedia, Inc. (www.neuromedia.com), may offer a way to present parts of Library guides and FAQs in a customized and context sensitive manner. As VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) becomes more prevalent in online resources, VR modelling of the library and of research strategies could prove to be useful.

These technologies provide us with the opportunity to expand the ways in which we assist our patrons. In contrast with the not too distant past, online resources and search engines now permit patrons to find the information they need without the mediation of library staff. However, other technologies such as those mentioned above will increasingly permit library staff to respond in person to those patrons who need one-on-one assistance, but who may not be physically at a service desk. This situation reflects the changing expectations and attitudes referred to elsewhere in this report.

It should also be noted that Live Contact was developed in the private sector for application and use within the private sector, without an expectation of use in the educational sector. It is not unreasonable to suggest that other useful technologies will emerge from unexpected quarters.

The "productivity paradox" refers to situations where investments in Information Technology do not appear to produce expected large gains in productivity, with a commensurate reduction in costs. The combination of high expectations, compressed timeframes and technologies that have barely emerged (let alone matured) can lead to frustration. Not all technologies that the Library tries will, by definition, be successful.

All of the foregoing points to certain requirements, if we are to realize the promise offered by the new technologies. First is the need for experimentation with the technologies themselves, and the explicit understanding that failure to adopt a given technology is not to be seen as a reason to condemn the experiment. We need to develop a climate in which such experimentation is looked on positively, regardless of any specific outcome. In addition, new technologies cannot always be adopted as quickly as we might like, and so we must be prepared to allot the time required to implement them successfully.

The other essential requirement is the development of internal and external partnerships, as recommended below, and the concept of sharing which will flow from such partnerships. For example, when different institutions test various technologies, it should be possible to coordinate these efforts and to share the resulting information and conclusions, so that similar activities are not needlessly duplicated. The underlying collaboration which will permit this to happen is vital to the development of appropriate service and best practices in a global context.

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