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Remote users in the virtual library: need for diversification?

  • Hellenic Standards Organisation ELOT
Remote users in the virtual library : need for diversification?
Katerina Toraki
Technical Chamber of Greece, Documentation and Information Unit
23-25 Lekka street, Athens 10562, Greece, tel: 00301 3291714, fax: 00301 3237525
Remote users of a library are the ones who do not visit it physically but use its services from a
distance. They use remote services, when they cannot visit the physical library either because
they live in another geographical place or simply because they do not want to move from their
Remote services have been in use for a long time, mainly, in the beginning, as home delivery
services. The British Library started its lending activities in 1740, while in 1765 the first
American lending library was created in Boston. Subscription libraries appeared in the 19th
century, books were lent and sent home under special subscription terms. Remote delivery
services in Holland started in 1918, while in 1926 in USA, 37 out of 44 university libraries
provided similar services. In Russia, users were encouraged in 1937 to borrow books sending
their request by phone or by post the librarians were called post librarians. All this data was
extracted from a book published in 1970, where the author makes interesting calculations to
compare remote delivery services with (physical) visits in the library. He mentions :
"I assumed that my free time is worth at least as much per hour as my rate of pay on my job.
Any time subtracted from optional free time should be worth time and a half. Assuming that
my time is worth $10 an hour, my attempt to obtain the 100 books that I wanted was worth
$300 to me (30hX$10/h), plus the cost of transportation, telephone calls and book reservation
costs, Thus, I conclude that I should be willing to pay up to $3/book to obtain in a more
effortless manner, from the convenience of my desk or home phone rather than by 34
exhausting and often annoying trips to a library..." (Jordan, 1970).
More services were developed for remote - existing or potential - users, like sending
catalogues, selective dissemination of information and current awareness services, online
services, sending photocopies of articles, interlibrary loan, virtual libraries.
Our concern now is how the libraries will serve the users better. The systems have already
been implemented or they are on a good way, but the issue is how patrons communicate with
all these (Broughton, 2001). Library systems are implemented so that remote services are
provided but this readiness is mainly on technical level. Users may not know their existence
or they may not know how to access them or how to use them effectively and how to use all
functionalities provided. It happens because of :
lack of publicizing/adverstising the services (from the side of the library)
lack of dedicated (well trained) staff (from the side of the library)
lack of assistance to the users (from the side of the library)
lack of adequate knowledge to use the systems (from the side of the users)
conservative (traditional) thinking about technology use (from the side of the users)
A very challenging view for library staff is expressed in a report on remote patrons
(University of Toronto Library Council, 2000) :
“if we made our work more visible, we would be chosen over search engines”
4th Libraries without walls conference, Cerlim, Lesvos Greece, September 16, 2001
Engineers as library users in general
In an interesting survey that was carried out in USA in 1995, the characteristics of engineers
as library users and the interpersonal skills aspects of communications between them and the
librarians were investigated (Mosley, 1995). Among the results, it was found that most of
librarians use reference interview techniques to optimize understanding and satisfaction of the
expressed information need, while a great majority (almost 91%) pursue further definition of
the terms or subject matter that is originally expressed and almost all of them seek further
understanding from a reference source or colleague. Other results were expressed concerning
the gender and the age of engineers.
In a review article, the surveys conducted over the years on the information seeking habits of
engineers and the corresponding results were presented.(Pinelli, 1991). As it is found in most
surveys, engineers have different information behavior from other scientists. They have to
solve a particular problem, so they have a specific question and they need a specific (brief, if
possible) answer. They usually work within time constraints, they do not rely on the library
first for their problem but after they have not been satisfied from their personal collection or
the assistance from colleagues. They use standards, specifications, legislation, reports,
handbooks, plans, drawings and maps. Accessibility is the first factor they take into account,
so proximity to information is a much crucial aspect that means that they approach the
library when other means (like personal collection and colleagues) cannot help or when the
library manages to approach them in the best way. They follow the law of the least effort in
order to catch up with the kind of job they do.
The Technical Chamber of Greece Library case
The Technical Chamber is the professional organization of engineers, the mission of which is
to advance issues concerning engineering and related aspects. Its central responsibility is to
meet the needs of its members the engineers and to provide technical advice to the
Government and other official authorities. Its goals are being achieved through organizing
technical conferences, meetings and continuing education courses for its members and
publishing scientific periodicals, technical reports and books.
The Technical Chamber consists of the main authority located in Athens and 16 regional
sections located in 16 cities around the country. Almost all of the regional sections have small
libraries, among which about 10 of them are staffed with librarians and operate more or less
satisfactorily. The Documentation and Information Unit is the central, coordinating
information and library service in Athens. An integrated networked library system was
established 6 years ago with the aim to provide remote services to all engineers in the country.
The situation described above on the information behavior of engineers and their relation to
the library, is also found very clearly in our case. The Athens library is very old, founded
since 1930s and engineers appreciate its usefulness for their professional awareness. In a
survey conducted some years ago asking engineers to reply which of the Technical Chamber
services were most useful to them, the majority pointed out that it was the Library.
In an attempt to investigate the behavior of our remote users in order to extract results that
will help us to make decisions for the improvement of the system and the implementation of
the appropriate services for their particular needs and level of response, I tried to analyze data
from various sides of the system usage.
Library users are defined as visitors (of any physical library) and as remote users (of any
physical library or of the virtual library system) (Toraki, 1999). Remote users may either use
the system directly (online) and get all the information and data they need immediately or
they may communicate by more or less conventional ways, like email, web forms, surface
post, telephone, fax etc. The first option is the most “innovative” case, where a really virtual
library system operates and all communication among the user and the library takes place
online. The second option is, at least at the moment, the most familiar.
In this paper, the second option is under consideration, taking into account that remote library
services are developed only the last years and they are not well implemented yet and that
users (as well as staff) are not well prepared yet in order to follow (or even to accept?) these
innovations. The aim is to find which methods remote users use to approach the library, if
they have diverse attitudes related to some particular criteria and if there is a gradual change
to their attitude while the library system becomes more automated.
An important issue is that services provided to remote users, are not only simple transaction
services like document delivery, loans and access to the catalogue, but the specialized staff
of the library (engineers) provide specialized reference services to them.
In a previous questionnaire sent to a number of engineers asking them to respond how they
see the Internet library services, it was found that the majority wanted to use Internet to access
the library, given that they need to save time and that they need to use library services,
especially when they live to a place where there is no library to serve them.
The survey
For this survey, only data from Athens Library was used. The requests made to the library
during 2000 and 2001 were separated according to the way they had been sent, i.e. by fax and
email. It should be noted that there is no recorded data for telephone requests, that letters were
excluded because they were quite a few and would not provide any good results and that
requests (especially the fax messages) were mainly coming from places outside Athens,
because until recently the library did not provide remote services to users from Athens (for
organizational reasons). Remote users, were considered the ones who did not live in the same
geographical place as the physical library, i.e. those who could not contact the library easily
and fast. Now of course, the place(s) of the library and of the user may be or may be not the
same – the network does not recognize or differentiate geographic locations.
Email has been selected for comparison with other conventional ways of communication,
given that it is the easiest way - for the user and for the library - to communicate remotely
(Twidale, 1998). Library systems have not implemented yet other efficient ways of
interactions between staff and users or the users are not well informed how to use them. The
main disadvantage to use email is that interaction does not take place synchronously and that
feedback which may occur, will cause delays to needs satisfaction. According to user studies
concerning user staff interactions, it was found that usually end-users need to return after
their first contact with the staff, in order to clarify their request or even to change the initial
formulation after the response received from the librarian. This was also found in our case.
On the other hand however, email provides an easy technically way to communicate at
any time with anyone anywhere, so it is the best way perhaps for remote users to approach the
library staff wherever they are located. Also, email provides the means to send remotely
and/or receive from remote places long text or anyother documents.
In general, the requests are of the following types:
Asking to borrow a particular book or report which the user knows that it exists
Asking if a particular title exists and if yes, to borrow it
Asking for photocopies of articles from periodicals that exist in the library
Asking for photocopies of articles from periodicals, without knowing if they exist in the
Asking for a bibliography on a particular topic from the library catalogue
Asking for a bibliography on a particular topic from foreign databases
Asking for legislation or standard
Although engineers use Internet services and email quite a lot for their job, it seems that they
do not prefer to use it for library services yet. Additionally, although the library web page
appears for years and the web catalogue since June 2000, it seems that the number of email
requests has not been increased enough. They rather prefer other ways of communication -
telephone is the most heavily used, but as it is not recorded, we cannot present comparative
quantitative data.
Log analysis to web catalogue started to be recorded the last three months and the
corresponding data was also collected. Although it is still too early to draw reliable
conclusions from present data, it seems that usage of the Internet service at least access to
the catalogue is used a lot. Some times, the number of daily physical visits in the library is
less than the number of Internet visits.
I have to notice here that the use of web access logs (as well as loan data, even much more)
may have an impact on the privacy for library users, if used in an unfair (and illegal) way.
This was always the case, but the extended use of computer and networked systems can
increase these possibilities if there is no care for the protection of individuality. The least we
have to guarantee as personal data keepers, is that this data is not publicized and are not
disseminated to anybody.
Data collected from email and fax messages throughout the last two years (2000-2001) was
rated to one of the following categories :
a) general enquiries
b) requests to get a bibliographic search on a specific topic
c) requests to borrow particular documents stored in the library or to receive photocopies
from periodicals
d) requests for legislation or standards
The following variables were used to differentiate the users: the place of living, the kind of
professional involvement and the years of professional experience.
Email messages were almost one third of fax messages. Half of email messages belonged to
the second category, while the rest belonged equally to the other three. On the other hand,
65% of fax messages belonged to category “c”, while there was only one message of the first
category. It should be noted that most of loan requests were from places where there is no
regional library. Also, in both cases, legislation and standards hold the same percentage
(almost 18%) although the rate of standards requests would increase much more if I had
also measured the requests made straight to the Standards Office, which keeps separate usage
Additionally, the fax messages from the regional libraries were twice the number of the fax
messages from users and the 98% belonged to categories “b” and “c” (the “c” being the
majority again).
The records of years of experience of remote users does not give very diverse results, while
concerning their professional involvement, most of them are civil or mechanical engineers or
architects, usually involved in construction and building works.
A questionnaire was sent to a random sample of engineers, involved as follows: 50% work as
freelances, 10% from the private sector, 25% come from the public sector, 15% come from
the academic/research sector. The majority of the respondents had a computer and had access
to the Internet independently of the years of professional experience, with just a slight
increase of young members.
Comcerning the usefullness of virtual library services, the majority considered it useful to
provide bibliographic search and circulation facilities, followed by document delivery and
current awareness in scientific and professional topics. When they were asked to give a more
detailed description of the services they expect from the virtual library, they ranked as
1) legislation / standards
2) economic data (prices of materials and services)
3) electronic journals
4) full text of documents
5) general information engineering topics
6) library catalogues
7) companies data
8) access to bibliographic databases
9) document delivery
10) links to engineers societies web pages
11) links to other professional and scientific societies web pages
12) general information about libraries
13) links to other web pages of general interest
When they were asked if they would accept to pay for the above services, in general they did
not look willing to pay. It is noteworthy that for the first and the second options, half of them
might pay if the price is reasonable, but only 18% for the first and 9% for the second option
would pay at any price. Even for the access to electronic journals or full text of documents,
they do not realize why they should pay at any price and a 25% respond that they would not
use if they had to pay.
The results from the data collected for this presentation seem to comply with the picture
described for engineers as information and library users.
Age and years of professional experience may have an impact on computer and information
literacy. In my opinion however and from my experience, while computer literacy may be
presented higher to younger engineers, information literacy may be the same or even higher to
more experienced members, given the information habits and behavior of engineers as already
presented above. In the present survey, remote users belong to any age group although those
using email have mostly less than 15 years of experience.
Place of living has an impact in general. The number of those who live in a place without a
regional library is higher, given that the others prefer to approach the physical library and
make their request through that. It means perhaps that still in the electronic communication
times, people prefer to make more direct, personal contacts.
Fax messages from users outside Athens are twice the number of email messages. It means
users are not familiar yet with this kind of communication
as the majority of the sample were freelances, they should establish a dialup access to
send an email and perhaps they found it less fast
they use fax usually when they have a particular problem, e.g. to borrow a specific book
or to ask for a specific piece of law or standard, while they use email for requests like
bibliography or full text of articles and standards they want to receive by email.
A problem with remote users is that of aquiring primary sources. The Digital Library
implemented by the Unit, provides the way to get the full text of Technical Chamber
publications through the Internet, although it should include all of them in order to be reliable
and more useful. It could be achieved only if authors are convinced to send their text
electronically. As it was presented above, among the information sources that engineers
mostly prefer, are standards, laws, handbooks etc, i.e. material which is usually classified as
“not to be removed from the library”. This is a difficult situation because the library cannot
lend such material which is in printed format and it is not allowed or cannot afford to send
photocopies for free. Also, especially architects who are additioanlly interested in journals
with drawings and photos, cannot be served effectively under the present conditions. A
solution for access to non-Technical Chamber electronic documents would be to examine a
payment system on a pay-per-use basis, but taken into consideration the unwillingness of
users to pay, it should be applied after a well examined analysis of all the parameters.
In an attempt to reply to the title question, the general conclusion drawn from above, is that
remote users have the same interests and the same habits with all users but they do not all
enjoy the same rights yet, although the library system is defined as “virtual”. Especially those
located to places without a regional physical library, are more isolated and need even more
care about the information services provision. Nowadays, all users are “remote users”, in the
sense that the library should be able to provide remote services to anybody (and at anytime, if
Thus, for the present system, some measures to improve the situation would be to examine the
to publicize the electronic services of the library through various ways
to provide primary sources online
to get dedicated, well trained, visionary staff involved with (remote) users services
to develop more user-friendly electronic services
Broughton, K. (2001). Our experiment in online, real-time reference, Computers in Libraries,
Vol. 21 No. 4.[cited 7 August 2001]. Available from WWW:
Jordan, R. T. (1970). Tomorrow's Library: Direct Access and Delivery. Bowker: New York.
Mosley, P. A. (1995). Engineers and Librarians: How do they interact?, Science &
Technology Libraries, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 51-61.
Pinelli, T. (1991). The Information-Seeking Habits and Practices of Engineers, Science &
Technology Libraries, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 5-25.
Toraki, K. (1999). Greek engineers and libraries in the coming years : a human
communication model. In: "The Future of Libraries in Human Communication", 1999 IATUL
Conference. Technical University of Crete, Chania, Greece, 17th May - 21st May, 1999.
[cited 24 August 2001]. Available from WWW:
Twidale, M.; Nichols, D. M.(1998). A Survey of Applications of CSCW for Digital Libraries.
Computing Departmet, Lancaster University. [cited 16 August 2001]. Available from WWW:
(ARIADNE Project on Digital Libraries. Technical Report CSEG/4/98)
University of Toronto Library Council (2000). So Near and Yet So Far:Reaching Out to the
Patron at a Distance. [cited 7 August 2001]. Available from WWW:
(Report of the Task Force on Services at a Distance submitted to University of Toronto
Library Council, March 2000)
4th Libraries without walls conference, Cerlim, Lesvos Greece, September 16, 2001
Katerina Toraki
... As it is found in most surveys, engineers have a particular information behavior, compared to other scientists (Toraki, 2002). The most important issue is that they have to solve a particular problem, so they have a specific question and they need a specific (brief, if possible) answer, while they also have and need to keep updated with their professional and sceintific matters (Veshosky, 1998). ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
The information behaviour of engineers is found in several papers, either exploring their habits and practices as a particular category of information users, or presenting them compared to other categories of scientists. Some characteristics of that behaviour are associated with aspects, such as library use, computers use, information literacy, ways of communication, librarians as intermediaries, types of information resources and data, types of information services, quantity of data, speed of service etc. An attempt to explore and describe the corresponding behaviour of engineers in Greece is presented in this paper, taking into consideration three different sources of information: the use and loan statistics at the Technical Chamber of Greece (TEE) Library, the interviews with engineers who used the library at least once and bibliographic references included in papers published at the scientific journal of TEE, Technika Chronika. The aim is to investigate the information needs of engineers in Greece and the ways that they use to express and achieve those needs, paying particular attention on remote services and on communication practices (personal and technical).
A profound difference exists in work environment and personal/professional goals between the engineer and the scientist. This review paper explores the science/technology and scientist/engineer dichotomy and focuses on the information-seeking habits and practices of the engineer. It is suggested that only by maximizing the R & D process can the United States maintain and recapture its international competitive edge. An important aspect of this goal is the provision of information services and products which meet the information needs of engineers. The reasons are threefold. First, the specific information needs of engineers are neither well known nor understood. Second, what is known about the information-seeking habits and practices of engineers has not been applied to existing engineering information services. Third, information professionals continue to over emphasize technology instead of concentrating on the quality of the information itself and the ability of the information to meet the needs of the user.
This paper is a review of the field of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) with respect to digital libraries. The literature surveyed covers both library & information science and computer science. An overview of the field of CSCW is provided including requirements capture, ethnography, interfaces, toolkits, organisational memory etc. Collaboration is interpreted in a wide sense and systems supporting user-staff (e.g. remote reference) and user-user (e.g. collaborative filtering) interactions are described. 2 A Survey of Applications of CSCW for Digital Libraries Michael B. Twidale 1 and David M. Nichols 2 1 Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL 2 Computing Department, Lancaster University, UK Abstract This paper is a review of the field of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) with respect to digital libraries. The literature surveyed covers both library & information science and computer science....
Tomorrow's Library: Direct Access and Delivery
  • R T Jordan
Jordan, R. T. (1970). Tomorrow's Library: Direct Access and Delivery. Bowker: New York.
Engineers and Librarians: How do they interact?
  • P A Mosley
Mosley, P. A. (1995). Engineers and Librarians: How do they interact?, Science & Technology Libraries, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 51-61.
Greek engineers and libraries in the coming years : a human communication model
  • K Toraki
Toraki, K. (1999). Greek engineers and libraries in the coming years : a human communication model. In: "The Future of Libraries in Human Communication", 1999 IATUL Conference. Technical University of Crete, Chania, Greece, 17th May -21st May, 1999. [cited 24 August 2001]. Available from WWW: