Resources and Services for Remote Access:
A Content Analysis of Alabama's Four-Year Public University Library Websites

by

Hanrong Wang
Law/Technology Librarian
Jacksonville State University
Jacksonville, Alabama 36265
Hwang@jsucc.jsu.edu


Introduction

For more than a century, academic libraries have been searching for solutions to their physical limitations in order to serve remote users better. Postal mails, telephones, audio-, and videotapes have served as the means for a long time, but not satisfactory enough to the users. The rapid development of the World Wide Web in recent years has provided a new means for remote access. Academic libraries in America have, one after another, developed their own websites on the Internet to facilitate their users conducting research with library resources and services. In other words, the accessibility of library resources and services via Internet has stimulated students to use online catalog, electronic databases, virtual tutorial, and even real-time reference services from their home or dorm room. Remote access is growing in popularity as patrons become more technology-literate and as communities become ever more wired (Tyckoson, 1999). The website has become one of the academic library's most visible artifacts for communicating with users (Osorio, 2001).

Providing library resources and services via Internet has attracted the attention of educators and scholars lately. Several national and international projects have been conducted and other major research efforts are underway. However, current research lays emphasis on the online catalog and electronic databases, while issues of other resources and services have received little attention.

The current study endeavors to identify the principal characteristics as well as trends of academic library websites and suggest better ways to provide library services to remote users by examining the sixteen Alabama four-year public university library websites and analyzing the resources and services that are offered to remote users from their websites.

The establishment of Alabama's Network of Alabama Academic Libraries (NAAL) in 1982 and that of Statewide Online Catalog in 1988 (Medina, 1991) have enhanced resource sharing for Alabama's academic libraries. The Alabama Virtual Library has enabled students, teachers, and citizens of the State of Alabama to access online essential library and information resources since August 2000. University libraries, such as Jacksonville State University Library, have been allocating their resources and services on their websites as early as 1996. All these have greatly increased possibilities for doing research at a remote site.

Literature Review

Websites of academic libraries vary in form and content, depending on the nature of the university, its mission, size and programs offered. They serve as a gateway where a user can find databases, electronic texts, and online catalogs. It is a way to make library-made products available, it is used as a window to the World Wide Web by making Internet resources available on a selective basis, and it is a communication tool where information about services, people, facilities and collections can be found (Diaz, 1998)

In a study of university library websites in four English-speaking countries, Still (Still, 2000) found that all of the websites examined provided access to their own catalogs and some databases. There was much less information on instructional materials and remote access, and there were discrepancies in the availability of encyclopedias, request forms and pathfinders. Cohen and Still (Cohen and Still, 1999) also found that larger institutions made greater use of freely available Internet resources and were more likely to create web version of paper documents (e.g., Pathfinders). Grafstein (Grafstein, 1999) found that many proprietary textual and bibliographic databases, previously available only from a specific IP address, are now available to remote users by means of password verification or proxy server. The University of Southern Mississippi, for example, has set up a Virtual Reading Room for accessing their special collections online.

In Lews Castle College (Mackay, 2001), access to print resources is available via a library request form. Users can key in information and send the form directly to the College Librarian, who will authorize the provision of the resource. Also in Osorio's (Osorio, 2001) study, 65% of the examined websites offered hours and online catalog for remote access. Tyckoson (Tyckoson, 1999) found that many libraries added some form of email or chat line to allow patrons to contact reference librarians. As is stated by Helfer (Helfer, 2001), a project called "24-7 Project", which provides sophisticated tools well beyond "chat" to enable librarians to interact with patrons, has been promoted in Southern California. Starr (Starr, 1998) pointed out that off-campus students should be able to contact the library in several ways such as email, phone, or teleconference. They should be able to find out office hours in case they do come to campus. In his study, Bao (Bao, 2000) also stated that the location of the library homepage link on its parent institution's, and whether or not the library provides online databases, would directly affect how faculty and students access and use library resources.

The literature shows that more and more research pays attention to library websites, especially online resources and services websitethat cater to the needs of remote users. Such resources and services vary in form and content. The options of those libraries under study will be canvassed.

Methodology

The literature review reveals that most of the website studies have used qualitative research method. For this study, the content analysis has been employed. The data have been collected from Alabama public university libraries. This made it ideal for the study of remote access in an academic setting.

All sixteen websites of Alabama four-year public university libraries, from different geographical locations in the state of Alabama, were selected for this study. The URLs of those websites were obtained from Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) website. An important selection criterion is that each library has its own homepage. When a school has different locations, the data were collected separately for each location. When a school has more than one library listed at the same location, only the data from the main library were collected. All data were collected during the month of August 2001.

According to Harrod's Librarian's Glossary (Prytherch, 1987), library resources include books and non-book materials of all kinds, while the facilities provided by a library for the use of books and the dissemination of information are library services. When combined, these dimensions constitute the overall resources and services.

After an initial exploration of each homepage, these dimensions are defined as follows:

Library Resources for Remote Access:

Library Services for Remote Access:

Library Information:

An Excel spreadsheet was used to store the data and a record was kept for each library. A "YES" or "N/A (Not Apply)" was assigned to indicate whether the site had the feature or not. Special features of access were also stated under "Others" if found. The total number of occurrences of "Yes" for each feature was calculated and a simple percentage was displayed. Special features under "Others" were explained separately without percentage assigned.

Analysis of Data

Table 1 shows the library resources available for remote access. Those libraries under study attain quite different a percentage from such library resources for remote access as "Books", "Journal Articles", and "Internet Sites". Full-text books (e-book) can be accessed from four of the sixteen university websites (25%). Full-text articles, with password authentication, can be accessed from all the sixteen university websites (100%). Internet sites supporting the academic research can also be accessed from fourteen of them (87.5%). Some full-text special collections can be accessed from the libraries of Alabama State University, Auburn University, Troy State University-Dothan, University of Alabama, University of Alabama in Huntsville, University of North Alabama, University of South Alabama, and University of West Alabama, while Alabama State University Library's special collection is under construction. Auburn University also offers full-text reserve articles (e-reserve) on its website for remote access.

Table 2 shows the library services available for remote access. All the sixteen libraries (100%) offer the online catalog for remote access. Fourteen libraries (87.5%) offer the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of reference librarians to enable the remote reference services. Auburn University Library also offers InfoChat, which is a real time interactive chat available from the Library reference desk. Though named differently (e.g., pathfinders, tutorials, online instructions, or research guides), twelve libraries (75%) offer some kind of research guides on their websites. Fourteen (87.5%) libraries offer delivery service for remote users through the InterLibrary Loan.

Table 3 shows the library information for remote access. Fourteen (87.5%) libraries offer their addresses and policies on their websites. All of them (100%) put their operation hours on their sites. All of the library websites (100%) can be accessed directly from their university homepages.

Table 1: Resources for Remote Access from Alabama's Four-Year Public University websites

Universities Books Articles Internet Sites Others
Alabama A&M Univ. N/A YES YES
Alabama State Univ. N/A YES YES
Athens State Univ. N/A YES YES
Auburn Univ. YES YES YES e-Reserves, Special Collections
Auburn Univ. at Montgomery YES YES YES
Jacksonville State Univ. N/A YES YES
Troy State Unvi. N/A YES YES
Troy State Univ.-Dothan N/A YES YES Special Collections
Troy State v. Montgomery N/A YES YES
Univ. of Alabama YES YES YES Special Collections
Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham N/A YES N/A
Unvi. of Alabama in Huntsville N/A YES YES Special Collections
Univ. of Montevallo YES YES YES
Univ. of North Alabama N/A YES YES Special Collections
Univ. of South Alabama N/A YES YES Special Collections
Unvi. of West Alabama N/A YES YES Special Collections
Total of "YES" 4 16 14
Percentage of "YES" 25% 100% 87.5%

Table 2: Services for Remote Access from Alabama's Four-Year Public University Websites

Universities Catalog Reference Res. Guides Delivery Others
Alabama A& M Univ. YES N/A N/A YES
Alabama State Univ. YES YES YES YES
Athens State Univ. YES YES YES YES
Auburn Univ. YES YES YES YES InfoChat
Auburn Univ. at Montgomery YES YES N/A YES
Jacksonville State Univ. YES YES YES YES
Troy State Univ. YES YES YES YES
Troy State Univ.-Dothan YES YES YES YES
Troy State Univ.-Montgomery YES N/A N/A YES
Univ. of Alabama YES YES YES YES
Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham YES YES YES YES
Univ. of Alabama in Huntsville YES YES YES YES
Univ. of Montevallo YES YES YES YES
Univ. of North Alabama YES YES YES YES
Univ. of South Alabama YES YES YES YES
Univ. of West Alabama YES YES YES YES
Total of "YES" 16 14 12 16
Percentage of "YES" 100% 87.5% 75% 100%

Table 3: Library Information for Remote Access from Alabama's Four-Year Public University Websites

Universities Location Hours Policies Linkage from Univ. Homepage
Alabama A& M Univ. YES YES N/A YES
Alabama State Univ. YES YES YES YES
Athens State Univ. YES YES YES YES
Auburn Univ. YES YES YES YES
Auburn Univ. at Montgomery YES YES N/A YES
Jacksonville State Univ. N/A YES YES YES
Troy State Univ. N/A YES YES YES
Troy State Univ.-Dothan YES YES YES YES
Troy State Univ.-Montgomery YES YES N/A YES
Univ. of Alabama YES YES YES YES
Univ. of Alabama at Birmingham YES YES N/A YES
Univ. of Alabama in Huntsville YES YES YES YES
Univ. of Montevallo YES YES YES YES
Univ. of North Alabama YES YES YES YES
Univ. of South Alabama YES YES YES YES
Univ. of West Alabama YES YES YES YES
Total of "YES" 14 16 14 16
Percentage of "YES" 87.5% 100% 87.5% 100%

Conclusion and Discussion

This study examined the resources and services for remote access from Alabama four-year public university library websites, and the results seem in conformity with a substantial body of evidence regarding the distance education services. Online catalogs and electronic databases are the main stream of resources and services for remote access. Research guides, Internet links, reference services by phone and email, and library information are gaining popularity. The results also point to new types of resources for remote users, such as e-books, e-reserves, special collections, and interactive reference service.

Library resources and services for remote access encompass a lot of elements. However, without additional comparative data gathered with the same instrument, it would be premature to suggest that this study reveals a general picture regarding remote access other than those websites under study. As to the resources and services, some findings of this study seem to support that of previous research, whereas others do not. Nevertheless, the data seem to suggest that it needs further study as to what and how library resources and services be provided on websites for remote access.

From a practical and more immediate perspective, the resources and services with low percentage usage should be of concern to the appropriate library administration r. It is unclear, however, how the resources and services on the library website influence users' way of doing research, and how often they use the resources and the services. Additional research would be needed to isolate the underlying factors or combination of factors. The importance of this issue is suggested by Riggs (Riggs, 2000)

... it is practically impossible to offer library services of equal quality to those received on the local campus. However, ... users must be provided access to paper and online resources, dependable and fast document delivery, and bibliographic instruction of the highest quality ... and be certain that the future will continue to focus on the needs and expectations of the users.

The views expressed by Riggs are also important from a theoretical perspective, because they suggest that the perception of available resources and services on the library website plays a greater role in supporting the academic career than previously suggested in the literature.

The library website not only changes the culture of the library, it also changes the types of resources and services offered outside the library. Office hours, real time reference services, e-books and e-reserve readings all create challenges for remote access. Examining and understanding these changes will be crucial in the years ahead as remote access becomes increasingly entrenched in our library services.

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Copyright 2001 Hanrong Wang.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 29 October 2001.