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Rethinking public library websites.

A survey of Australian public library websites reveals that few libraries have gone beyond establishing websites that provide information about their static library resources and services. Few attempts have been made to deliver a high level of interactive library service to online clients. This paper examines some of the issues that public libraries need to consider in rethinking the way that the web can be better used to provide interactive, real time online services. Issues include commitment of staffing and financial resources to online services; developing and maintaining web technology skills; reclaiming the web from information technology departments; individual effort vs collaboration. Edited version of a paper given at the Alia Information online 11th exhibition and conference Sydney January 2003


It was popular in the 1990s, when the internet became graphical and the source of all information was, arguably, only a Yahoo away, to pronounce the demise of the public library. However the traditional services of libraries remain popular, with Australian national, state and local government libraries enjoying 99.4 million visits in the 12 month period ending June 2000. (1) People continue to crave social interaction and visit libraries because they can browse shelves full of interesting materials with other library users; meet friends; involve theft children in storytime and other activities; and seek out a librarian to assist them to locate information or reading material.

Nonetheless the internet, and in particular the world wide web, has had a significant impact on public libraries. The internet has not only changed the way that users seek and use information but also the way that librarians seek, use and deliver information. Librarians were early adopters of web technology with the first Australian public library websites beginning to appear in 1995. These early sites were often developed by librarians and focused on providing information about the library service and, in some cases, the local council and community.

Things have progressed since the early experiments in creating library websites. Most libraries now provide access to their library catalogue and subscription databases as well as continuing to provide information about the library service (addresses, opening hours, lending policies etc). However progress has stalled somewhat in Australia, with few attempts having been made to capitalise on the expanding developments in web technologies and to create a true online branch library.

Statistics for the future

Australia ranks highly amongst internet users around the world behind Sweden, France, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, the US and Norway. (2) How effectively people are using the internet remains something of a mystery but there is evidence that suggests that as people become increasingly busy with work and social commitments, they are taking advantage of the convenience the web gives in providing access to a growing amount of useful information and services.

According to the 2001 ABS census around 37% of Australians use the internet. (3) The National Office for the Information Economy (Noie) puts this figure higher with 64% of the Australian population having access to the internet and 52% of Australians being active users. (4) In the 12 month period to December 2001, Noie reports that Australians used the internet for a range of activities including

* email (48% of users aged 14 years and over, an increase of 30% since December 2000)

* general surfing (37%, an increase of 37%)

* searching for information on companies (27%, an increase of 47%)

* accessing news and current affairs (21%, an increase of 40%)

* internet banking (21%, an increase of 75%)

* playing games (21%, an increase of 50%)

* participating in interactive discussions (19%, an increase of 26%) (5)

Noie further reports that in the six month period to September 2001,50% of active internet users aged 16 years and over (14% of the Australian population aged 16 years and over) purchased online, with 36% of the purchases being books and magazines.(6)

To gain a picture of the sites and web services that Australians might already be accessing or might access in the future, we can look at selected site ranking reports provided by This performs market research upon a statistically, geographically and demographically significant number of web surfers. By recording their website visits, calculates the ranking of the top 300,000 most visited websites.


Not surprisingly, internet search engines rank highly. Ranked at number 3, Yahoo continues to be the most popular search tool worldwide, with Google at number 8. Lycos, Mamma, Altavista and Overture all appear in the top 100 most visited sites.

National and state library sites are represented fairly well. The Library of Congress website rates at number 764 while the National Library of Australia comes in at number 13,971, with the State Library of New South Wales at number 22,752 and the State Library of South Australia at number 28,534.

Given the relatively low numbers that they are likely to attract, compared to state, national and international sites, it is not surprising that Australian local government sites are a little harder to find ranked on However the Brisbane City Council site is located on and comes in at a respectable placing of number 20,276.

A selection of other sites shows

* ranks at number 3,805

* (a free online information and advice service) at number 7,484

* (a commercial information and advice service) at number 1,501

* Ebrary ranks at number 18,028 closely followed by Netlibrary at number 19,713

* continues to be popular at number 35

* Australian banks rank fairly well with the Commonwealth Bank well placed at 2,123 followed by the National Australia Bank at 7,580 and the ANZ Bank at 12,904

* The Internet Public Library does well with a ranking of 3,059 while Victoria's Virtual Library is well represented at 110,118

* Ebay comes in at number 25 with the Australian arm ( doing well at 8,115

* WebFlicks, a relatively new Australian online dvd rental service is doing good business at number 87,220 (7)

What deductions can we now make from the above information and how can we relate this to the direction that library websites should be taking in the near future?

First, it is apparent, particularly from the Noie figures, that internet use in Australia is increasing. How far this will continue to increase is uncertain but we can assume that between a third and half of the Australian population are currently active internet users.

The fairly good rankings of national and state library sites, as well as library portals such as the Internet Public Library and Victoria's Virtual Library, indicate that there is something in, or about, these sites which attract visitors. No doubt they provide resources and gateways to information that visitors find useful but we should take into account that a significant number of internet users are also library users. They will be familiar with using libraries to locate resources to satisfy their information needs, and hence, seek to use library websites for the same purpose.

Despite the difficulties that the ebook market has experienced recently both Ebrary and Netlibrary have ranked quite well indicating that, globally, the ebook industry is not yet dead.

The good rankings of and Liveadvice should be of interest to all librarians. That these sites rank so well indicates the limitations of search engines, and of users, in being able to locate information on the internet. It also indicates that, even on the web, people seek out real people to get advice or information on a variety of topics. Libraries, of course, have been providing personalised information services for decades but, in Australia at least, they have been slow in providing these services to clients over the web.

Finally, a service that has been operating in the US for a few years and is now beginning to take off in Australia, is online video and dvd rentals. WebFlicks is an Australian example of this type of service. WebFlicks, which has just an Australian market, has only been operating since July 2002 and is ranked by as the 87,220th most popular site on the internet. WebFlick's relative popularity indicates that a significant proportion of Australians appreciate the convenience of being able to rent dvds over the internet and have them delivered.

Public library websites today

By 2002, the vast majority of library services in Australia had developed a web presence. Nearly all of the Australian public library websites provide information about the library service and static branches. Most provide web access to the library catalogue (around 80%) with fewer providing access to subscription databases (around 60%) and links to useful web resources (around 68%). Very few libraries, however, have attempted to create their websites as unique branch libraries where visitors can undertake a variety of transactions that are not necessarily hampered by a lack of social or physical human interaction. About 18% of public library websites offer an email reference service and only a handful have incorporated functions such as online registration, online training resources, multilingual pages and resource selection and delivery services.

With few exceptions, the focus of most Australian public library websites continues to be as an information resource about physical libraries. Even the web catalogue, which is included on most public library websites, refers to materials held in a physical library. While users may be able to reserve items on the web catalogue they still need to visit a library branch to retrieve the materials. The exception is the Bayside Library Service in Victoria which offers a fee based delivery option when reservations are made.

There have been, and continue to be, impediments to libraries developing more interactive, service based websites which will be discussed later. Nonetheless, in the face of a growing internet population in Australia and the convenience of accessing competitor sites such as free advice and commercial information services, it is time for libraries to consider how they can take advantage of existing and emerging web technologies to develop websites which become a one stop shop for delivering and accessing a wide range of library services.

Public library websites tomorrow

Before we look at reshaping public library websites we should consider what should not be included on a website. The key thing to remember about physical libraries is that they are places and not just collections of books and other resources. As such, libraries have a long history of providing events that require physical participation. Activities such as children's storytime, seminars, launches and presentations ought not be attempted to be duplicated or delivered online. They are unlikely to be successful online because their success is, generally, dependent on physical social interaction.

For a long time, there will be library users who will never use the internet. There are also people who will only use elements of the internet, such as email. Given this, it will be necessary for a long time, if not forever, to maintain physical libraries. However, there is also a growing number of people who, through lifestyle decisions or other reasons, find it inconvenient to visit physical libraries and find it convenient to use the web for activities including banking, grocery shopping, planning and booking holidays and renting dvds.

In reinventing public library websites it is, therefore, necessary that the delivery of library services over the internet should attract users by enhancing convenience. To do so, public library websites need to be established and operated as a unique branch library rather than simply a repository for information about a physical library. With the exceptions, mentioned earlier, a service oriented website should enable users to do online what they would traditionally be able to do in a physical library.

Australian public libraries vary in the services that they provide so there is no single model to be used to define what should be contained on a library website. Typically, though, a service oriented public library website would include at least the following.

Web catalogue with delivery option

The catalogue is the heart of any library service. It records and provides access to the range of materials held by the library. As mentioned earlier, however, the simple inclusion of a web catalogue on a library website does not make the site a virtual branch library. The library catalogue, even when included on a website, is likely to continue to refer to materials held in a physical library. Without a mechanism to deliver materials to avoid the user having to visit a physical library, the idea of a virtual branch library is obviously compromised.

The Bayside Library Service in Victoria provides such a service. Through a small modification to its Spydus library management system, users can reserve items on the web catalogue and request to have them delivered to their home or business address. Up to 30 items can be requested at any one time. A $5.50 fee per delivery applies or members can subscribe for annual fee of $110.00.

An alternative model is one offered by WebFlicks. WebFlicks is a commercial dvd rental service where, for a monthly fee, members can create a wishlist of dvds and have them delivered by Australia Post to their home or business address. The monthly fee is on a sliding scale depending on the number of items that the member has out at any one time, from $27.50 a month for two dvds to $73.00 a month for eight dvds. As soon as a dvd has been watched and returned, in the reply paid envelope supplied, another dvd from the wishlist is delivered. Members also have the ability to determine the delivery priority, from asap to whenever.

In both models there is a small price to pay for convenience. Bayside Library Service charges a $2.20 fee for each reservation to be picked up at a physical library so choosing to have a bulk number of items delivered can be considerably cheaper than picking items up from a branch location. With WebFlicks, if you are already a regular borrower of dvds, the costs are likely to be similar or less than rentals at the local video store.

Online registration

The concept of an online public library falls down if it is not possible for users to register online for membership without the need to venture into a physical library. This idea is likely to concern libraries whose policies require that a legitimate form of identification is proffered before any membership registration can be finalised. However, let us consider the problem for a moment.

Identification is required by most libraries to confirm that the person wishing to register is who they say they are and to verify the address they have provided in order to minimise loss of materials. In an online world, where people may wish to register for library membership to access databases or other online resources provided by the library to members, address details are largely irrelevant. If, however, a member wishes to borrow physical materials and have them delivered to their home or business address, then the act of delivering to that person and recording the address of each delivery should be sufficient to satisfy the security needs.

Libraries lose items through theft all of the time, either by walking out the door of a library or by people moving address and taking the library items with them. This will continue to occur with members who have registered in person at a physical library and have shown legitimate identification and it is likely to occur with online members. Obviously, libraries do not want to institute practices that increase the chances of items going missing.

By employing a WebFlicks type model of delivery (when an item is returned another item is delivered) libraries can reduce the number of items that are out at any one time to a single member and thus reduce the impact of possible loss. At the same time this would satisfy the needs of users for a continuous flow of materials without them having to venture into a library building.

Interlibrary loans functionality

The internet does not contain all information and public libraries do not hold every print resource. Thus the need for an interlibrary loans service in the physical as well as the online world.

While Z39.50 or xml access to a range of catalogues or library networks is optimal, it would be sufficient to provide an online request form, either as part of the web catalogue or as a standalone form which is retrieved offline and processed as part of the library's normal acquisitions or interlibrary loans routines.

Ecommerce facilities

As with the online registration, the absence of ecommerce facilities reduces the ability of a public library website to act as a true virtual branch. There is a number of issues related to ecommerce. Yet strategies need to be devised to ensure that users continue to use the service via the web and are not put off from using a web service or a library service due to the inconvenience of having to visit a library to pay an overdue fine or delivery fee.

Many internet service providers and web hosting companies now provide access to secure servers and online shopping software which can be incorporated into a library website to facilitate payment of accounts. Utilising such software, which is not integrated into the library management system, would involve a degree of additional manual work but the advantages of using basic shopping software goes beyond overdue fine and fee payment. Such software can, additionally, be used to book attendance at events (whether free or fee based), as well as conducting online book sales and sales of library merchandise.

An alternative to providing ecommerce facilities on a library website is to invoice users for any financial transactions and make payment available by a variety of methods, including Eftpos, credit card, cheque, BillPay and cash. Users may not be able to instantly make payments from the website, but providing a number of options which are flexible and convenient is likely to ensure that they continue using the service.

Interactive reference services

Libraries in Australia, and around the world, have been slow in establishing interactive online reference services. This has opened the way for free and commercial competitors such as Allexperts and Liveadvice. Some attempts have been made to provide email reference services where users can email a question to the library and receive a response, often containing links to websites which provide the answer or information, by return email. Still only about 18 per cent of library websites provide this service and response times vary considerably from 24 hours to ten days.

There is also a number of collaborative email reference projects being undertaken across Australia including the Ask a question service accessible from Victoria's Virtual Library and Sparq (Sydney Public Libraries Answer Reference Questions) in NSW which is a cooperative project provided by Sydney public libraries belonging to the Metropolitan Public Libraries Association (MPLA). These services are available to any member of the public within the respective states. They seek to answer general reference questions, but not provide indepth research, using web and printed resources.

The Council of Australian State Libraries (Casl) has initiated a pilot project offering a real time interactive online reference service called AskNow!. This is a collaborative service between the national and state libraries and enables web users to login and ask a question of a real librarian in real time. The advantage of such a service over email reference services is that it allows the reference librarian to conduct a reference interview and precisely ascertain the user's needs and locate relevant information from web and printed resources. The AskNow! service is accessible from the national and state libraries websites and is open to all Australians.

Neither the AskNow! Service, nor any of the other email reference facilities, currently provides 24/7 service. Despite this limitation they are beginning to create the basis for providing enhanced reference and information services to online library users. It may not be feasible for all libraries, in the short or long term, to provide a substantive online information service, either via email or by utilising realtime interactive reference software. However it is becoming increasingly possible to link to an Australian library related website which provides such a service, and so it is becoming a thing of the past that local residents do not have access to quality information services via library websites.

The limitation of utilising a statewide or national online reference service is that questions relating to local issues and local community information are unlikely to be able to be responded to with the same immediacy as a more general question, if at all. Even if a third party service is used for general questions, facilities should be provided on a library website for residents to seek local community information and ask questions about local issues. This may simply be the provision of an email address of a relevant person within the library service.

Subscription databases and ebooks

Most, if not all, public libraries in Australia have access to a range of subscription databases such as Ebsco's Australian New Zealand reference centre and Thompson Gale's Health and wellness resource centre. Additionally, most state public library networks have negotiated deals which enable some of their subscription databases to be made available to remote library members via the library website.

Libraries have not been so quick, however, to jump onto the ebook bandwagon. A number of libraries have experimented with ebook readers and access to services such as Netlibrary within the library building. No Australian public libraries have yet, however, taken the big leap to subscribing to online ebook services and making them available to online library users. They have, rightly, been cautious given the instability of the ebook market and uncertainty about its future. However given the popularity, in terms of the number of unique visitors (as reported by of the Ebrary and Netlibrary sites, there is an indication that someone is using these sites and getting value from them. While some market research should be conducted prior to investing in a Netlibrary collection or subscribing to the Ebrary service, the inclusion of such services on public library websites is likely to increase the usefulness of the sites and enhance their ability to provide research material and valued information resources.

Value added resources

Users of library websites are likely to be readers and/or seekers of information. Because of this it is necessary to continue to provide value added resources that are available to users of physical libraries. These include new book lists, reading guides, pathfinders, annotated subject links to quality websites, local studies materials and photograph collections.

Library information

On any library website there is still a need to include information about the library service, including the physical library. For example web library users will still need to know the locations and opening hours of the physical library in case they choose to visit or pick up materials from one of those locations. They will still want to know about events and activities occurring in the library. Information about the library contained on its website should be selective information that is likely to be relevant to a user who will rarely, if ever, visit a physical library. Library websites should no longer simply be a repository of brochures, available in printed format, that have been converted to pdf or html.

Resourcing issues

Australian public libraries do not operate in a world of adequate budgets, appropriately skilled staff in sufficient numbers and available technology to automate routine tasks and build perfect online web libraries.

Most library websites in Australia today are relatively low maintenance. This perhaps highlights the low priority that many libraries place on maintaining a web presence.

There are a number of issues and impediments that libraries will need to address if they are to redevelop their websites using a service oriented approach. The issues and impediments fall into three main categories: staff, technology and budget.


In the late 1990s, librarians saw the advantages of the web and quickly learnt html to establish their own websites and, in some instances, develop the website for their council. However the web moved ahead rapidly. Most librarians, if they learnt web technology, did not venture very far beyond html. It started to become more complex and they could not dedicate additional time to learning new technologies such as asp, php, xml, ecommerce.

The majority of public library websites have been incorporated into the council website and are now maintained and managed by the council IT department. Librarians, to a large extent, have been limited to providing updated information about the library service to the council webmaster. If library staff are actively involved in the maintenance of the library website, then in most cases the people involved are also involved in maintaining library technology, including public access pcs and the library management system; providing staff and public training in the use of library technology; investigating and acquiring subscription databases and services; working on the library's information desks; and a range of other information technology related and general duties within the library. It is no wonder, then, that many library websites have not progressed far from the early html sites of 1995.

If Australian public library websites are to progress, sufficient skilled staff are going to be required to maintain, develop and undertake backroom routines that will be needed to effectively deliver a range of services online. This, of course, is easier said than done. Libraries are not getting any less busy and staff resources are usually already stretched to the limit. Additionally, library staff may no longer have the required skills to take advantage of current and emerging web technologies. Even if it were possible for larger libraries to restructure and retrain library staff to develop and maintain service oriented websites, it is unlikely to ever be feasible in small, often regional, library services which operate on three or four full time equivalent staff. However, there are possible solutions, which we will look at shortly.


In an ideal world libraries would be able to purchase plug and play integrated library management systems that facilitate and support the creation of a service oriented website with the features described above.

We are not in an ideal world. No library management system, of which I am aware, currently has the ability to fully service remote library users by incorporating modules to manage requests for delivery of materials to a home or business address, fully functional ecommerce and events booking facilities, and integrated online reference functions. As such, libraries would have to either develop technologies to achieve the alms of an online library branch, modify current third generation library management systems to perform some of the required functions of an online library branch, and/or purchase additional third party software specifically designed to perform functions such as ecommerce and real time reference services.

The first option is probably not feasible for most libraries, given what has already been said about the availability and skills of library staff.

The second option is possible but is likely to only go part of the way in providing an integrated solution to the provision of an online branch library. However if libraries were to look at modifying current or future library systems, either themselves or by the vendor, then their concentration should be on modifying modules to manage home delivery requests and incorporating ecommerce functionality through the web catalogue. Finally, there is a number of excellent third party products designed to facilitate and manage interactive online reference services. It is unlikely that vendors will incorporate this sort of technology into library management systems in the short term. So, to facilitate an online reference service, other than an email service, it will be necessary for libraries to purchase such a product. This, of course, brings us to the third issue--cost.


Most public library websites existing in Australia today, especially where they are incorporated into the council website and managed by the council IT department, are relatively low maintenance. Consequently, they attract a low cost to the library service. To deliver an enhanced website, which effectively services the needs of remote library users, necessarily attracts a greater cost in terms of additional software, staffing and skills development.

For libraries to establish a meaningful online presence it will be necessary

* to develop watertight business cases

* seriously consider the potential to restructure in order to make staff available to manage a web based branch library

* utilise the expertise of information technology staff to install software and implement web services that meet the libraries and remote library users needs

* where possible, incorporate the purchase of additional software into the information technology budget rather than the library budget

It must also be considered whether it is practical, cost effective and even possible for individual libraries to develop their own unique online branch library. There may be economies of scale that can be achieved by collaborating on a regional, state or national level.

Collaboration vs going alone

It is possible for individual libraries, particularly large library services, to develop their own web based branch library. The Bayside Library Service in Victoria has come very close to developing an online branch library by incorporating in its site online registration facilities (library cards are mailed to the address stated on the online registration form without the need for users to visit a physical library), delivery services to home and business addresses, email reference facilities and access to subscription databases.

Even if a more minimalist, service oriented, approach to websites were aimed at, which incorporated third party reference services such as AskNow!, and did not include ecommerce functionality, it is unlikely that most small library services, and some larger ones, would still have the capacity and ability to operate and maintain the service. An option, then, is that a service oriented web approach is developed collaboratively. There are already a number of examples where libraries have worked collaboratively to develop web services on a regional or state level, including Sparq, Victoria's Virtual Library and An immediate problem that is encountered when suggesting a collaborative approach is that some of the technology (library catalogues) and some of the workload eg retrieving materials and facilitating delivery, are only available, or would need to be done, at a local level. Again, we encounter the problem of staffing.

Despite this there are several things that can be done on a collaborative level to defray costs and minimise the workload. These include

* developing a single site on a regional, state or national level which acts as a gateway to the websites and web catalogues of individual libraries and basic information about each library including new events and services

* incorporating, on a single site, professionally selected links to quality web resources with the maintenance of the links being shared across member libraries

* sharing the cost of interactive online reference software across a group of libraries on a regional, state or national level, as well as sharing the workload in staffing the online reference service. Alternatively, existing services, such as AskNow! could be incorporated into the single site servicing member libraries

* sharing the costs and workload involved in purchasing, establishing and maintaining ecommerce facilities

* sharing the costs involved in maintaining a courier service for home and business deliveries

* developing consortia to subscribe to, and share, ebook resources

Finally, something that is rarely done in Australia, is the sharing of staff resources. Since it is unlikely that most small libraries, and some large libraries, will ever obtain staff who are dedicated to and have the capacity to maintain web services for the library, it is timely to consider an approach where skilled staff are utilised across a number of libraries to develop and enhance the web services within a specific region. These people would be employed by a number of libraries within a region, thus reducing the overall costs for each library service, and would collaborate with other regional providers in order to maintain a consistent approach to the delivery of web services across the state or nation.

Reclaiming the web

From its beginnings in 1994 librarians were early advocates of the web and, in many cases, were involved in establishing council websites, or at least advocated the necessity to establish council sites. As internet technologies developed and became more complex, IT personnel started to take a greater interest in the web.

Since websites run on computers and require some knowledge of computer applications and computer languages (html, Java, JavaScript, xml etc) most councils consider the web and web technology as an IT issue. They have, by now, handed over responsibility for the council website, including the library site, to the council IT department. Librarians allowed this to happen because web technologies and languages were getting more complex and other priorities, such as public access pcs, training demands and new integrated library management systems, began to dominate their workload.

However, take away the platform that the web runs on and the important design elements that make websites look good and you are left with the core of what the world wide web is about. At its heart is content storage and retrieval and user service. This is the traditional domain of libraries, and librarians. It is something that they know a lot about but IT personnel know little.

The development of library and council websites needs to be a collaborative effort between information technology professionals, graphic designers and information professionals. If it is not, then these sites, in the main, will continue to be flat storage mediums for council and library information.


(1) Australian Bureau of Statistics Public libraries Australia Canberra, ABS 2001

(2) National Office for the Information Economy Current state of play: April 2002

(3) Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001 Census of population and housing Canberra, ABS 2002

(4) National Office for the Information Economy op cit

(5) ibid

(6) ibid


Other references

Cox, A and Yeates, R Library oriented portals solutions LITC, London, South Bank University August 2002

Rodger, E et al The impacts of the internet on public library use. An analysis of the current consumer market for library and internet services October 2000

Scully, P Creation and evolution: NSW public library websites LASIE 32(1) April 2001 lasie/apr01/apr01.pdf

Referenced websites
Altavista Search Engine
ANZ Bank
Bayside Library Service
Brisbane City Council
Commonwealth Bank
Ebay Australia
Google Search Engine
Internet Public Library
Library of Congress
Lycos Search Engine
Mamma Search Engine
National Bank of Aust
National Library of Aust
Overture Search Engine
State Library of NSW
State Library of SA
Victoria's Virtual Library
Yahoo Search Engine

Received August 2003

Ian Hildebrand is Information and Development Team Coordinator, City of Charles Sturt Library Service in South Australia. Address: PO Box 1 Woodville SA 5011 tel(08)84041333 fax(08)84081346
COPYRIGHT 2003 Auslib Press Party Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Hildebrand, Ian
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Transcript
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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