Reference BackTalk: Mad Men Meets Reference | May 15, 2013

LJ recently asked a public and an academic user experience librarian how to make reference tools and services more visible, usable, and desirable. Here, Amanda Goodman of Darien Library, CT, offers some tips she developed with coworker Sally Ijams, Head of Knowledge and Learning Services at Darien, on making databases “move off the shelf.” In our June 1 issue, Stephen Francoeur of Baruch College, CUNY, will discuss how usability testing can improve digital reference.—Ed.

Databases are favorite tools of many librarians, but these expensive resources may be unknown to even power patrons. A Google search is easy, and people think that what they find is accurate (e.g., when they use medical websites to self-­diagnose). So, how can libraries encourage usage of databases? The steps seem simple: patrons need to know that databases are available; librarians need to highlight how these resources can be of use; and the databases need to be easy to access. Ideally, database advertisements would be at the point of need for patrons throughout the community and in the library.

Database publicity in the community

Imagine this: your library exists in a commuter town. Many area residents take the train into a big city for work. You know from previous research that these commuters are employed in the financial district. Commuters look up from their smartphone and see a poster from your library advertising a financial database. The poster informs them that they can read the latest business news while waiting for the train. The patrons type in a short URL to go to a library web page. At this point, they are invited to enter their library card number or sign up for a temporary card to access the database, and with a few keystrokes they are accessing the information they want on demand.

How can a library accomplish this? Aside from the advertising budget and obtaining poster space at the train station, the library needs a system in place to generate and monitor temporary library card numbers. The good news is that this system is already in operation in some libraries. A new patron fills out a short application online to gain access to online resources via a library card that is valid for only 30 days and then comes to the library if a permanent card is wanted.

The Live-brary of Suffolk Cooperative Library System (SCLS) ( on Long Island, NY, uses geographic information systems (GIS) to pinpoint if a patron is eligible for a temporary card. Emily Clasper, the library’s operations and training manager, says that if the mailing address entered matches the service population area, the user receives an immediate temporary barcode to access online materials and place holds. At the Newberg Public Library (NPL), OR, the patron will receive a library card barcode number in three business days ( Denise Reilly, who works in reference at NPL, explains that the delay allows staff to check their records to make sure the patron has not previously received a temporary card.

How do database vendors react to the availability of these temporary cards? The libraries involved have found that there’s no problem. As Clasper explains, “We have not had a problem so far, as the temporary records allow only limited access and are purged from the system after a short time.” At NPL, Reilly says, “We don’t have any problems with vendors since the [online] library card patrons get is indeed a real card using our normal barcodes.”

Temporary access would be easier if there were no forms to fill out. Instead, information about the reader’s mobile device would form a tracking signature, alerting the library as to whether the device had been used before to access online resources on a temporary basis. Once the allotted trial period is over, patrons would receive a notice that for further usage, they need to stop by the library to register a real card. In order to make this a really smooth user experience, of course, all databases would need to have a great mobile interface.

This publicity idea could be used in other places in the community as well. At a day-care center or school, a sign could direct caregivers to parenting databases. While in a doctor’s waiting room, a patient could browse health resources. Professional organizations could access databases during their meetings to research questions on the spot. In each scenario, the resources would be easy to access with friendly interfaces at an identified point of need. The library would work with organizations to get permission to post information about the databases within their buildings.

Database publicity in the library

In the library, ads could be less high tech. However, building on the previous idea of finding databases at the point of need, bookmarks and signs in the stacks could link patrons to relevant databases. For example, when a patron is browsing genealogy resources, a sign could alert them to the availability of Darien’s Ijams stresses that libraries should “leverage brand names” that patrons are familiar with—such as the aforementioned—to draw patrons’ attention to online resources. Other groups that can be targeted with advertising are book groups, which can be introduced to NoveList, for example; librarians can also try including helpful databases on teen email lists when a particular school project has been assigned.The ideas presented here may not be so far off. The major constraints are community relationships, vendors, mobile Internet access, and database interfaces. Advertising databases to your community will take time and creative thinking. The best idea, though, may be to market according to what people need when they need it and stop advertising “databases” altogether.

Amanda Goodman is a User Experience Librarian, Darien Library, CT