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Case study: rolling out a robust library experience online.

As information seekers continually rely on the Web to satisfy their needs, officials at the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library (CCPL) felt that it was completely possible to meet them there. CCPL's mission to serve the information needs of its community is certainly not unlike the goal of every public library. So, serving patrons who never walk through the doors of a library building has become a natural extension of the library's commitment to its community.

Through a recent redesign of the library's Web site (www.cuyahogalibrary.org), CCPL is attracting a growing number of users who are drawn to the features and functionality they have become accustomed to seeing on other sites. With the inclusion of virtual communities, blogs, and search engines that scan the library's entire collection, CCPL has bolstered its site to appeal to its Internet-savvy patrons.

The new site, which officially launched in May 2006, is definitely more robust than its predecessor and offers a more organized presentation of the library's online services. "Part of our goal was to have the library and the branches actually able to maintain and update the content themselves," said Mark Dober, information technology director of CCPL, which is located outside Cleveland in Parma, Ohio. (CCPL has 28 branches that cover Ohio's Cuyahoga County.)

Because there was so much content (and there were so many contributors adding it), it was necessary to create a single system for multiple users. Pages didn't have--but needed--a consistent look. "We desperately needed something more organized. We kept getting requests to do more things, and we did that and sort of cobbled things together," said Greg Weller, Internet specialist for CCPL. "Now we have a much more defined way of putting new things in. There are procedures and [there is] a methodology of doing this that we didn't really have before."

The end result is a site that is easier for library staffers to update and for patrons to find what they're looking for. "We wanted the public to be able to do a lot of the things they do at the branches virtually from our Web site," said Rebecca Ranallo Kahl, Internet and media services manager.

For instance, users can quickly scan an events calendar; search by location, subject, audience, and event type; and then register for the desired event directly on the site. One click takes them to a daily listing of events. They can also search the card catalog for reading material and, in most instances, download content (including books and movies) directly from the library's site. Blogs written by librarians who are subject-matter experts in a variety of areas are updated frequently and provide users with content geared toward their specific interests. Special communities, located in a YourSpace section on the site, are also available for users who categorize themselves into groups, such as teens (Teen-Space) and seniors (SeniorSpace).

"We wanted to make that online experience much like that experience with other online services that people are used to using," said Dober. "The other side of this is people who may never walk in the door could still be our customers, so how do we attract them and get them to use our services? ... A lot of people don't know you don't have to walk through the door to be a library customer. We want to make sure we're reaching those people and showing them what we have to offer."

A Personalized Experience

Users never have to enter the actual library structure to access the Web offerings. They can apply for a library card directly on the site. To make it even easier to access the online services, library patrons can select a username and password (instead of having to remember a library card number). They can renew their books online and maintain a list of books they've read. Users can also rate those books. All of these features combine to make a more personalized experience for patrons.

The site helps keep patrons continually engaged by enabling them to sign up to receive email messages containing news related to particular subjects and/or branches of interest. Other customer service-based features include the ability to pay fees and reserve items patrons wish to borrow. The library also sends text messages to patrons, notifying them of overdue materials or letting them know their requested materials are available. CCPL averages about 30,000 to 40,000 text messages a month.

Finding content that those patrons want to "check out" is a more robust experience than the in-person flip through the card catalog. When using the online card catalog, patrons can click on a link to see the cover image of the book. They can also read reviews, check out the table of contents, and (in some cases) see excerpts from the first chapter. "You get a lot more out of the book than you could with a simple nonelectronic card catalog," according to Dober.

Search by 'Find Engine'

The new site also offers a feature the library refers to as the "find engine." It's a search tool similar to a traditional Internet search engine, but it searches the library's subscription databases and full-text article databases at once.

"Before the redesign, the site was fairly static. It didn't have a lot of interactivity," said Dober. "It didn't have the daily interaction and involvement of the librarians." Dober added that initially gaining that involvement was perhaps one of the biggest challenges the library faced during the initiative. "One of the challenges was having the technology there and enabling the idea that people can maintain and manage their own content and have them feel comfortable, well-trained, and willing to spend the time and energy to keep it alive and interesting," he said.

The time library staff members devote to the site has been noticed by site visitors. "We find the librarians [who] spend time keeping it fresh get the most hits," said Dober. Overall, the site has posted an increase in hits since the relaunch. For instance, the site recorded 533,091 home page hits in January 2006. That number increased to 827,749 just 1 year later.

Once patrons check out the home page, they click further into the site to take advantage of the library's collection of resources. Ebooks available on the site circulated 13,938 times during 2006, representing an increase of more than 115 percent over 2005 figures.

Getting the Word Out

To help educate patrons about the site's new offerings and capabilities, the library's marketing department coordinated radio and television commercials. Posters and print ads also helped get the word out.

CCPL selected Optiem, a Cleveland-based interactive marketing agency, to redesign the site at the end of 2005. During the RFP process, library officials determined that they wanted the design vendor to select the content management system (CMS) CCPL would implement as well. Optiem selected Ektron's CMS400 .NET, which serves as the backbone of the site. Weller said CCPL picked Optiem because of the company's willingness to learn and understand the library market as well as CCPL's goals for the site.

It was important for the library to implement a system that would be able to grow with its needs, and officials feel the system Optiem helped build will accomplish just that. "It's constantly growing and changing," said Kahl. "But we're able to grow and change with this structure more than we were able to with the old structure." RSS feeds and podcasting, along with more digital video, are among the future plans for the site.

Being able to adapt to the behaviors of today's Internet-savvy library patrons will only help CCPL continue to grow its offerings, and many libraries will likely follow its lead. "A lot of libraries are coming to the realization [that they need to improve their Web presence,] and many are trying to do similar things," said Dober. "We're hoping we're at the forefront of that."

Marji McClure is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.
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Author:McClure, Marji
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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