The Universe at Your Fingertips
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The Mission and Role of the Library Web Site

Mark Stover
Director of Library and Information Services
Phillips Graduate Institute


Copyright 1997, Mark Stover. Used with permission.

Abstract

Many libraries have created a presence on the Web, but have we really thought about why we want to be there? Should library Web sites be grounded in the past or look forward to the future, or both? This discussion group will focus on various issues related to the mission and role of the library Web site, including the following: Intended audience: anyone with an interest in library Web sites, especially those who wish to clarify the nature and purpose of their own library Web site.

Introduction

Many libraries have created a presence on the Web, but have we really thought about why we want to be there? Should library Web sites be grounded in the past or look forward to the future, or both? This paper will focus on various issues related to the mission and role of the library Web site, including the topic of what a library Web site should look like if it is to be true to its mission and role.

The different missions of academic, public, and special library Web sites

It should be clear to all of us that the mission of a library Web site is connected to the type of library represented. Thus, academic, public, and special library Web sites will all have different purposes. My own context is an academic library, so the mission of my Web site is tied to the three-fold mission of the academy: research, teaching, and public service. The academic library Web site can support research in higher education through providing access to Internet research tools and full text databases. It can support teaching through online full text reserves and other means. And it can support public service through allowing the general public to access its online resources, including the online public access catalog.

Public library Web sites serve different purposes. A typical public library might want to provide free and open access to information for all local residents, and this could be reflected in the library Web site through links to community information resources, links to job postings, access to the library's online catalog, etc. While a public library might want to give completely free access to its Web resources, licensing restrictions on some electronic databases may limit this scenario. Password protection (perhaps through a patron's barcode number) may be necessary in some cases.

Special libraries have still another mission when it comes to creating a Web site. Special libraries generally need to service their parent company or organization, and the library Web site will reflect this through focusing almost exclusively on the parent company's staff and clientele. Sometimes this will take the form of a heavily passworded Web site; other times it will preclude the library from even appearing on the publicly available Web page, restricting itself to a locally available Intranet. On occasion, the special library may wish to use its library Web site as a "loss leader" to attract more business to the company. Generally, however, the special library Web site will be an internal tool that will focus almost exclusively on staff.

How mission impacts the content of a Web site

Mission clearly has an impact on the content of any Web site. An advertizing agency Web site will look quite different than a library Web site, even though each may be fulfilling its own mission. As mentioned earlier, the type of library will affect the nature and content of the Web site. Academic libraries may need to provide access to sophisticated research tools; public libraries will certainly want to provide free access to their online catalogs; special libraries may not be on the Web at all, but instead may focus on local Intranet applications.

Supporting the parent institution through the Web site

The theme of this paper thus far is that whatever the nature of the individual library, its Web site should support the parent institution. Thus, academic library Web sites need to support their college or university, primarily through supporting the three-fold mission of higher education of research, instruction, and service. Special library Web sites can try to support the mission of their parent company through a variety of means. But who or what is the parent institution of the public library? Presumably it is the local governmental infrastructure, but ultimately it is the local taxpayer or resident. The mission of local government is to provide a variety of services for local residents, including police protection, fire protection, engineering, utilities, city planning, etc. Within this context, the public library Web site should provide a broad array of information services to its primary clientele, which in most cases will be local residents.

The difference between mission and function in the library Web site

So far we have emphasized the mission or purpose of the library Web site. Mission is a theoretical construct that focuses on the abstract underlying purpose of an organization. The other side of mission is function or role. Within librarianship there is a universally accepted role for libraries and librarians: selecting information resources, organizing information resources, and disseminating (or providing access to) information resources (Berring, 1995, p.97; Martin, 1996, p.291; Schnell, 1995, p.440). A key question for those of us who create and maintain library Web sites is this: How can we continue to function in our traditional role of selection, organization, and dissemination within the context of the new Web environment?

The universal role of librarians as selectors, organizers, and disseminators as applied to the Web

Librarians seeking to apply their traditional role of selection, organization, and dissemination to the Web environment can use some of the following examples in their work.

Selection of information resources can be reflected on the Web through creating links to other relevant sites as well as creating links to full text electronic resources. In fact, many librarians are beginning to view Web "collection development" as a task equally important to traditional (print-based) collection building. It is in some ways more challenging, given the changing nature of Web resources. An excellent example of a library Web site that takes its role of selection seriously is at the University of California, Riverside (see {http://infomine.ucr.edu/}).

Organization of information resources can be reflected on the Web through proper classification of resources and links, collocation (placing similar resources together), and subject bibliographies of print resources. Some of this can be performed informally on a local level, while other pieces of this puzzle should be addressed at a higher and more formal level (e.g., the OCLC NetFirst project is a good example of formalized cataloging of Web resources). While the topic of metadata on the Web is somewhat beyond the scope of this paper, it is clearly a vital issue for libraries in the coming Internet-based information infrastructure.

Providing access to information can be reflected on the Web through the following: internal search engines, online reference service, stable links to other Internet sites, access to the online catalog and other databases, basic information about the library (hours, staff, collections, etc.), and timely updates. Perhaps the most important of these is access to the online catalog of the library's local collection(s). While many library Web sites provide a telnet-based connection to their online catalog, a growing number are transitioning to a Web-based interface. A Web-based searchable online catalog is preferable in several respects: it provides a consistent and standardized interface for the user, it avoids the necessity of a helper application on the client side, and (in many cases) it allows more flexibility for the user in manipulating data retrieved from the online catalog.

Summary

The mission of the library Web site will depend on its parent organization and its clientele. Academic, public, and special libraries will all have different missions, and sometimes local considerations will impact the nature of a library's mission. In any case, library Web site designers must have a clear understanding of the library's mission before embarking on construction of the site.

The role of the library Web site should be distinguished from its mission. The mission is more theoretical and is tied to the needs of the parent organization. The role of the library Web site, like the traditional role of librarians, should be one of selecting information resources, organizing information resources, and providing access to information resources. All types of librarians can benefit from incorporating the three-fold function of libraries into the library Web site. Application of these principles may look quite different from library to library, but the end result will help us bring the rich information resources on the Internet to our information-seeking users.

References

Berring, R. (1996). Future librarians. R. H. Bloch, & C. Hesse (Editors), Future libraries (pp. 94-115). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Martin, S. K. (1996). Organizing collections within the Internet: A vision for access. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22(4), 291-292.

Schnell, E. H. (1995). The anatomy of a World Wide Web library service: The BONES demonstration project. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 83(4), 440-444.


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