Excellent People–Oriented Strategies For Digital Libraries
Abstract: Digital libraries are gradually gaining popularity across the
globe. In some parts of the world, especially in the
developed countries, it is already pervasive. But in
most Asian countries and in other less developed parts
of the world, it is still quite a new phenomenon. Some interesting
questions can be raised today, such as, have digital
libraries made librarians less important? Has the digital
library technology rendered librarians useless? Do librarians
still need to be as "human" in
a digital setting as they were in the traditional "physical" setting? Are values
and attributes, such as friendliness, courtesy, and amicability
still important for them to be competent and excellent
library service providers? How does one provide excellent
library services through digital library technologies?
What are the expectations of digital library patrons?
How do we encourage visitors to come back again and again
to digital library websites? How do we make library patrons
satisfied in this digital era? How do we overcome obstacles
in implementing a digital library project and making it successful? What are the specific
skills librarians need to possess so that digital libraries do not create apathy in patrons?
What makes digital libraries more effective than physical or traditional libraries? What
specific skills should librarians in non–English
speaking countries possess in order to make their digital
library services efficient and effective? These questions
and other related issues are addressed in this article.
Recommendations and suggestions are put forward which
are expected to help the librarians in this digital era.
Libraries are information and knowledge service providers. Without service, libraries are indistinguishable
from museums. Montanelli and Stenstrom (1999) stated that, "Although technology is a powerful tool,
it is people—librarians and staff—who build user–centered libraries."  It is
the quality of the people who work inside the library that makes the difference between an excellent library
(e.g. a five–star rated library) and a poor or an average library (e.g. a two–star rated library).
According to Sirkin (1993): "The bottom line is that all of the major causes of customer dissatisfaction
are strongly linked to human performance. Therefore an organization's staff has the greatest impact on
the satisfaction of its customers." 
We need to set the focus on the quality and attributes of librarians. The issues that must be decided are
what quality attributes are we looking for? How can we maximize the people aspect in this digital era?
What are excellent customer service techniques to use for a digital library?
Digital Library Defined
Digital libraries marry the missions, techniques and cultures of physical libraries with the capabilities
and cultures of computing and telecommunication, according to Marchionini.  Chowdhury and Chowdhury reported that the Digital Library Federation (DLF) defines digital libraries as follows:
Digital libraries are organizations that provide the resources, including the specialized staff
[emphasis added], to select, structure, offer intellectual access to, interpret, distribute, preserve
the integrity of, and ensure the persistence over time of collections of digital works so that they are
readily and economically available for use by a defined community or set of communities. 
The word specialized staff was emphasized here. It shows that the success of digital library projects depends
on the quality of the specialized staff (the people aspect). The difficulties of assessing the people
aspect of digital libraries arise from the complexity of the process involved in building and maintaining
a digital library.
Tan and Foo outlined three problems in assessing service quality.  The first problem
was the intangibility of service, which cannot be displayed, physically demonstrated or illustrated. The
second problem was that service performance depends very much on the level of library users' demand. The
third problem was the high degree of people involvement, both from librarians and users, in delivering
a quality digital library service. Kebede identified shortage of staff, both in quantity and quality,
to be one of the main problems for libraries in developing countries. 
Gorman found the seven deadly sins of library service that can prevent a library from becoming user–centered
to be apathy, brush–off, coldness, condescension, robotic, rulebook, and runaround library staffs. 
Apathy happens when the library staff lack the interest or enthusiasm or concern to serve customers. Brush–off
happens when the library staff refuse to listen to the customers. Coldness happens when the library staff
is neither friendly nor enthusiastic in serving their customers. Condescension happens when the library
staff feel superior and look down on the customers. Robotic service happens when the library staff behave
without thinking, and lack imagination and creativity. Rulebook service happens when the library staff
is dependent on the library rules and less concerned with satisfying customer needs. Runaround happens
when the library staff treats users badly by not giving them the help or information the user needs or
by deceiving the users.
As Atkins and Stenstrom put it: "The success of the library in meeting user demand for collections
rarely depends on organizational structure. The knowledge and skill of the selector rather than organizational
structure is key to the development of high–quality user–oriented collections." 
Tan and Foo showed that reliability was ranked as the most important service dimension, followed by responsiveness,
assurance, tangibles and empathy.  Fifty percent of the respondents commented on the
lack of prompt service, helpful and knowledgeable library staff. 10]
Calvert (1994) analyzed the perceptions on New Zealand public library effectiveness. It was found that all
librarians, local political councilors and users who participated in this survey agreed that one indicator,
namely the helpfulness and courtesy of library staff, determines public library effectiveness. 
In the same way, sixty–one performance dimensions of public library effectiveness presented by Van House
and Childers showed the importance of having educated, responsive, customer–oriented, adequate, helpful,
quality and high–morale library staff. 
Ahmad Bakeri identified 13 key IT competencies needed for information professionals in Malaysia: IT basics,
word processing, electronic mail, Internet and intranet, graphics, presentation and publishing, spreadsheet,
project management, design, development, and administration of databases, system maintenance, design and
development of application in web, system analysis and programming. 
All were found to be important, except system maintenance. It is crucial for each librarian to possess
strong technical expertise.
Poll used the percentage of staff devoted to IT services as one of the performance indicators for library's
electronic services.  Poll calculated the number of full time staff members involved
in planning, maintaining, providing and developing IT and Web–based services. The calculation also included
staff in reference and training.
Shahar Banun and Norhayati projected that new criteria for librarians in Malaysian public libraries would
be to be webmasters and Internet information managers who are capable of searching, scanning, analyzing
and compiling selected information according to the library users' needs and capable of creating a special
Web directory, hosting it, maintaining it and monitoring it in a way that benefits the library users.
 The authors further added that the librarians should have strong proficiency in
English in order to assist library users in information searching on the Internet.
Fisher studied the impact of information technology on librarians' work tasks. The findings revealed that
expertise in computer application ranked as the fifth most cited item in 298 job ads, followed by online
searching skills.  Knowledge and skills in Web technology were found to be the eighth
most important job characteristic. Research by Robinson and Jacobson also supported this idea. The trends
focused on a workforce skilled in information technology (IT). Information knowledge management; and database
creation and management skills were ranked as most important, followed by Web development, intranet development,
extranet development, information storage and information retrieval skills. 
Jerabek outlined detailed job descriptions specifically for librarians handling interlibrary loan/document
delivery. They were expected to have an operating knowledge of modern information management and technologies.
They were expected to implement fully automated library system. They must have experience with computer
hardware and software. 
Librarians must meet or satisfy customer needs and provide extra services (i.e. value–added services) to
customers. Hernon and Altman emphasized the following four aspects of service quality in a library: excellence,
value, conformance to specifications, and meeting and exceeding the expectations of library users. 
Meeting the needs of library users is the first step towards providing excellent library services. Devadason
and Lingam introduced an information needs identifier (INI) for identifying the information needs of various
types of library users.  The major steps in the process of identifying information
needs were: study of a subject of interest to the organization/client, study of the organization and its
environment, study of the immediate environment of the clients, study of the clients, a formal interview,
identification and recording of information needs, and analysis and refinement of the identified information
DeVette showed how the Cetus Corporation in Emeryville, California was determined to satisfy seventy–five
percent of its users' information requests within the subscription budget of $100,000. 
This company spent three years collecting the first page of all photocopied materials. This extra copy
was placed in a box next to the photocopier. Then the details were keyed into database software which
kept track of the usage statistics.
Today's cutting–edge technology paves the way for providing excellent library services to billions of prospective
library patrons worldwide without needing to have a huge multi–billion dollar library building and without
requiring patrons to physically walk into those buildings. Tilke proposed four possibilities: subscription
services on the Internet, library web page, web–based library catalogue, intranet and e–mail. 
According to Bryson, there were nine R's in strategies to achieve a customer focus in a library: retention,
requirements, refined segmentation, reach, response, relationship, receptiveness, regular consultation,
and review.  Added value, such as additional advice on the best pages to access
and tips on better searching strategies, can help to retain customers. Since different patrons have different
information requirements, the best practice is to use tailor–made services to meet their requirements:
for example, personalizing the reply e–mail.
It is noteworthy that the Digital Library Federation emphasized the importance of having specialized staff
for digital library projects. Firstly, the qualifications of the staff are a combination of library skills
and information technology skills (or more precisely, digitization of information skills). And secondly,
the staff should possess excellent customer service skills (i.e. the "people" aspect hidden
or latent in the personality of the librarians) to be communicated to the patrons via the Web. We suggest
that the IT skills and human skills of a librarian are distinguishable. A librarian may possess plenty
of IT skills, but lack human–oriented customer service skills. On the other hand, the reverse might be
true as well. The ideal situation would be to have librarians who might be rated "excellent"
on both aspects and dimensions.
Such specialized staff differs from those in the traditional physical library setting because in a digital
library setting they are also required to have expertise in the digitization process, which includes computer
skills and telecommunication skills. At the same time, they must understand what makes information retrieval
via the Internet faster and more precise with less connection/connectivity problems. They should be able
to predict and provide a quick response to any technical difficulties that may result in the loss of valuable
information. They should be able to keep track of the traffic, number of hits, number of web page visits,
number of information downloads and feedback by customers. They also should be able to produce daily,
weekly and monthly reports of these statistics within minutes, if not seconds.
Information needs vary according to the customer's level of education. It is more difficult to predict information
needs in this digital era. It is not easy for librarians to meet and exceed customer expectations with
regard to information retrieval. The main problem, as stated by Tan and Foo above, is the intangibility
of service. Different people may have different perceptions, expectations and preferences. However, when
it comes to library services, they might have one thing in common: the library should be able to provide
the information that the patrons need. It does not matter whether the information need is met via the
Internet or via the physical library collection or via interlibrary loan. The patrons must get the information
they are looking for at minimum cost (to them) and within the shortest possible time.
The existence of a digital library can merely be considered a value–added library service if the digital
library content is too basic (i.e. too simple or too little); and hence the patrons still need to go to
the library physically to meet their information needs. In contrast, a digital library service can become
the main library service to the public if all the information is made available and accessible via the
Web with extensive hyperlinks to important and pertinent/relevant sites. Customers, regardless of their
geographical boundaries, then can access the library's collection by a few simple clicks of a mouse.
The second problem mentioned by Tan and Foo regarding providing better digital library service was the level
of library user demand. We would consider that the demand for a digital library depends on the availability
of a telephone connection, the type of Internet connection and the availability of computers. The monies
spent on developing and maintaining a digital library cannot be justified if the benefits cater only to
selected urban communities. Librarians and libraries will not be able to enjoy the "economies of
scale" benefits (the economics principle/concept which states that firms are able to enjoy lower
unit cost through mass production and over the long term) through such a small user community.
The motivation to provide excellent digital library service largely depends on the degree of librarian and
user involvement. The digital library project must have strong support from all levels of library management.
Substantial budgetary resources must be put aside for developing and maintaining a digital library project.
Adequate training must be conducted/carried out to ensure the smooth running of the project. There must
be extensive marketing so that the public can be quickly aware of and feel the presence of the digital
library. Users can play their role by providing continuous feedback and suggestions, and can indirectly
promote the digital library website as well.
Recommendations and Suggestions
The more the staff understands customer preferences, the more a refined segmentation can be achieved. Try
to offer different information access and delivery mechanisms, such as networked CD–ROMs, video–conferencing
and downloading via the Web, etc. to the customers. Though the digital library may function perfectly,
some customers may still prefer to go physically to the library. Therefore, keep the options open for
them that will allow them to do so. Ensure that the library catalog is readily and easily accessible via
the Web (not just via the Intranet). Provide more and more value–added services, such as the renewal of
borrowed materials, reservation of books, etc., automatically delivering overdue/fine notices, delivering
a list of newly added materials (books, print/electronic journals, databases etc.) directly to patrons'
emails and conventional postal addresses. The new material should also be listed under the popular "What's
new?" link. Deliver the right message to the right customer at the right time in the most courteous
and professional manner. Build strong customer relationships by knowing their details and preferences.
Librarians and staff must be receptive to feedback and suggestions from customers. Use newsgroups and
online forums to discuss and consult customers. Librarians should also continuously review and improve
the digital library system. Last, but not least, remember that digital library technology is there to
assist human librarians, not to totally replace them or render them useless. The center of attention should
still remain the same: the client and not the technology.
Qualified library staff coupled with excellent customer service will boost the overall customer satisfaction
and confidence in using the digital library. It will make a core contribution towards a higher level of
digital library usage among the communities.
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About the Authors
Mohammed Aman is a doctoral Student and on the faculty of Information and Communication
Technology (ICT) at Gombak, Kuala Lumpur.
Email: amanbba [at] yahoo [dot] com
B. Norliyana is a freelance writer and consultant based in Kuala Lumpur. Email: norliyana [at] idigi
[dot] net [dot] my
© 2002 Mohammed Aman and B. Norliyana
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