Report of the Task Force on Services at a Distance submitted to University of Toronto Library Council, March 2000
The timing for such an initiative seemed appropriate given the confluence of several other developments. The University had just announced a new long distance education program in Engineering. Recent analysis of use of the Libraries' electronic resources indicated that two-thirds of that use was taking place outside of the Libraries. Challenges in responding to queries for assistance suggested new approaches were in order. Distance education is not new in the academic sector but, except for OISE/UT, it would be new for most divisions of the University of Toronto Libraries and raised questions of timing and means. Log analysis indicated that one third of the use of electronic resources was taking place within the Libraries, another one third elsewhere on campus and one third off campus altogether. It should be noted that the most recent analysis now indicates that use within the Libraries has fallen to about 12%, use on campus has stayed steady at about 33% and use off campus is now about 55%. It should also be noted that 25% of use of these resources now occurs when the Libraries are closed. Additionally ITS was providing assistance to patrons through the Web request facility.
Concepts such as "virtual libraries" and "virtual patrons" were no longer ethereal or abstract. Information technology was redefining the meaning of distance patrons. Taken together, all of these developments argued that now was the time to explore new possibilities in service delivery. Within this context the discovery of Balisoft's LiveContact demanded that its possibilities be pursued in a proof of concept project.
Throughout the Fall of 1998 the following developments took place:
The demonstration project was launched in December of 1998. Staff in Information Technology Services were available 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. The New Year brought its own complications. These included the release of Version 2.0 of LiveContact which displayed some fragility; the Balisoft merger with an American company to form Servicesoft Technologies; and the delay in releasing a fully developed Java client. It also attracted the interest of several Library committees and Library Council. It was the response/use from the project's target group - the Libraries' proxy account holders - which proved to be unexpectedly subdued, despite various efforts to bring UTLive to their attention. All of this culminated in the suspension of the project in early May of 1999.
The time to take stock and assess had clearly arrived. It soon became apparent that there were more questions than there were answers:
A review of comments on the Digital Reference listserv reinforced the need to investigate further:
The rationale and technology that underpin Servicesoft's software solution are not unique. Other examples of products using this technology include Battlefield Communicator from ShadowFactor Software Inc. (http://www.shadowfactor.com/), which was recently sold to Microsoft; and DrBean (http://www.drbean.com/)
The advent of the Task Force on Services at a Distance provided the means to investigate these questions more fully. The context in which service at a distance takes place was an important factor for the group.