Analysis and redesign of a library electronic reference area

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Virginia Tech

The Electronic Reference Area (ERA) at the Virginia Tech Newman Library is analyzed from a systems engineering perspective. The ERA provides library users with access to computerized bibliographic indices to serial and other literature, and to a variety of self-contained statistical and full-text databases. Advances in hardware technology have outpaced those in software sophistication, resulting in widespread problems in usability and effectiveness. Even so, an ERA remains "a flagship or showpiece program for the entire library" (O’Leary, 1990b, p. 33).

In Section II, the Newman ERA is thoroughly described and ERA usage and users are defined, partially on the basis of two surveys conducted as part of this project. The user task of information retrieval is described and a new, comprehensive model is presented.

In Section III, 10 problem areas are identified; 7 are discussed in detail while 3 are mentioned briefly in Appendix B. For each of the seven main problem areas, an objective measure of performance is stated and evidence for the importance of the problem is presented based on the literature and on local investigations.

In Section IV, 24 recommendations are presented in five groups: Expand the Network: Extent and Access, Improve the Facilities and Equipment, Adopt New Procedures for Selecting Vendors and Databases, Expand User Assistance and Training, and Manage the ERA Using Performance Objectives.

In the concluding section, an optimistic vision is presented for the future of library automation. Appendix D contains a description of "AutoLibrary,” a prototype library user interface of the type that I hope will be part of that future.