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Search Tips for Librarians

Libraries equal online searching
Why are smart, well-educated, otherwise well-informed people so glaringly ignorant of what their libraries offer in the way of online research? I pointed out that almost none of the pages she'd retrieved actually provided the full text for free, that she couldn't search by subject terms or in the article abstracts, and that she could search by author but not sort articles by author or date. She was undeterred: "But this covers so many sources! Where else could I find this much in one place?" she exclaimed. I showed her the hundreds of FREE DATABASES
The New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library both provide their cardholders with paid subscriptions to an online SAT test prep service. No one in her tutoring program had ever used the resource. "People keep buying all these pricey online services when they could be getting the same material from their libraries The library provides 24/7 remote access to the exact same material you've been paying for monthly.

Library "Online Research Tools" or "Use Our Databases" or "The 24/7 Library." We dutifully publicize our "database of the month" in the library newsletter and post helpful explanations on the superiority of library databases to Google searching. We attend workshops and poster sessions on "Marketing Online Resources" and hand out neatly typed bookmarks listing all our databases.

"Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources", a survey of a representative sample of over 3300 online information consumers and their information-seeking behavior. The survey findings indicate that 84 percent of information searches begin with GOOGLE search engine. "...the majority of information seekers are not making much use of the array of electronic resources (online magazines, databases and reference assistance, for example) libraries make available to their communities."

"Library Terms That Users Understand" Many a library arranges the databases alphabetically only, with no annotations. Do we really expect patrons to know what "EBSCOhost," "WilsonSelect," and "General Reference Center Gold" can do for them? Vendors need to know that no one recognizes their brand names. People have short memories and shorter attention spans, so vendors should make product names clear, short, and intuitive. Google works partly because it's easy to remember. WebMD and are both easy to remember and intuitive. Most library database names are neither.
Librarians need to make databases easy to find. Group them by topic and link to them from multiple places on your site.
Keep it simple
You would think some libraries don't want anyone to use their products. A school library in our area hands students a list of 21 online database subscriptions, each with its own password. Surprise! No one ever uses them." We may feel library product searches are more rewarding, but they are definitely more cumbersome. For the patron with a fairly simple question, it's just not going to be worthwhile to remember lengthy library URLs, barcodes, and passwords, or to skim through five different databases. We need to advocate for simpler access: intuitive URLs, federated search tools, and streamlined web page organization. If barcode authentication is the only way to provide remote access, for example, how can we make barcodes easier to remember? Some libraries issue a barcode keychain tag with every library card, making it more likely patrons will always have their barcode handy. The Southeast Massachusetts Library System allows patrons to register their own four-character passwords in lieu of using library barcodes. We need to look for more such creative ideas.

The Vendor Connection
A patron loves our popular online white and yellow pages directory but can never remember that he needs to go through the library web page to use it. Instead, he Googles the name, goes to the company web site...and of course finds he can't access the database. Nothing there tells him how to connect through his public library.
Our online test preparation vendor is no better. Although the marketing reps happily send me promotional posters and bookmarks, all of their materials show only one URL: the company's. The site has no pointers to the subscribing libraries. I stamp or write our library URL on each poster (there's no room on the bookmarks), but wouldn't it be nice if the vendors did this for us?
Vendors, you need to: Link to subscribing libraries on your web site Retail giants let web searchers look up the local store by zip code or with a map
. Why don't you? Use a map and let patrons click on their state and town to connect directly. Sure, this would be time-consuming and hard to maintain, but do you want people to use your stuff or not? Why not mention libraries in ads and on the site?
Mention library access in your advertising A popular newspaper service was running some great spots on NPR this spring. "Use us to find newspaper articles from around the country! A premier online research service, available at" No, it is not available at" but through library web sites.
An MLS is not an MBA Librarians are not marketers. Marketing is a highly developed skill that professionals spend years refining-it's not something you can pick up at a PLA preconference. Most public libraries offer classes, send press releases to local papers, invite the chamber of commerce to take a look. But enough is enough. We are not marketers, graphic designers, or PR specialists.
So, stop putting the onus on libraries to do the marketing. Giving us press releases does not work. The local paper will run them-buried in the back page of a community column that almost no one reads. This is a complete waste of time. And, enough with the bookmarks. We distribute thousands of them, but they don't generate much use of the products. They also usually list the vendor's URL, not ours.
There is empirical evidence that advertising to the public works better than promoting online services through libraries. According to the OCLC survey, 39 percent of information seekers learn about new electronic information sources through promotions or advertising, as opposed to only 15 percent by referencing the library web site. The librarian was ranked lowest, at eight percent, as a source of information about e-resources. Why then do vendors entrust such an important task to novices? Do beer companies leave it up to individual bars to promote their brands? Of course not! Thomson Gale is already moving in this direction with, which provides a search engine for articles in Gale databases and then links patrons to subscribing libraries in their zip codes.

Tips for Librarians

Although I believe the lion's share of database promotion should come from vendors, there are a few things librarians can do:
Promote in conjunction with local organizations
Do the web pages for your local chamber of commerce, health services, city services, and schools link directly to your database page, or just to "The Public Library"? Make sure those other information providers in your community know about your online business, health, and academic resources and encourage them to promote library databases to their members and clients.
Market products by topic
People pay more attention to an ad for a specific service than to flyers promoting an amorphous range of items. Make it easy for patrons to find all your health resources or all your business resources from the same places.
Mention safety
Many parents I've talked to are afraid to let their kids go online owing to fears of online predators, sexually explicit sites, hate sites, etc. While these fears may be somewhat exaggerated, we can use it for our benefit and, ultimately, the community's.
Make databases easy to find
How likely are patrons to stumble on your database products through your web site? Do you use a federated search tool, or do patrons search each product individually? Show the online versions of reference books and periodicals in your online catalog. Make multiple links to the databases from key pages such as the business reference page and others.
Demand that vendors shoulder the burden of marketing, and refuse to patronize those that don't Vendors can get the word out to regular people that A) these databases exist; B) they are better than the free web; and C) they are available through libraries. If they don't, our usage will continue to fall, and we will stop subscribing. With all the money and time vendors spend promoting themselves to libraries, there has to be budget available to promote to the general public. Libraries need help from vendors to make these databases as visible as Google and Wikipedia. Another package of bookmarks isn't going to do it.

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