Marie Bednar
Penn State University Libraries


Since the first use of computers in libraries about 25 years ago, computers have totally penetrated and changed every aspect of work in American libraries. A possibility to store and transmit information electronically profoundly influenced how information is acquired, organized, stored and accessed within library walls and on a global level. The new technologies are now quite common in all types of US libraries. Over 90% of college and university libraries and nearly as many large public libraries have OPACs with substantial databases. Majority of these libraries also offer dial-in access to their databases from remote locations. More than 90% of college and university libraries and larger public libraries have CD-ROMs available to users and a great majority of academic libraries provide access to bibliographic and full-text databases through their OPACs. Majority of academic libraries and larger public libraries offer do-it-yourself or mediated on-line searching of commercial databases. Nearly all academic libraries as well as 23% of public libraries serving larger populations offer Internet access to their users. The changing ways of organizing and accessing information meant that US librarians have been faced first of all with the task of learning to use the new information resources. Secondly, librarians had to expand the old ways and invent new methods of teaching the user to deal with and benefit from the constantly expanding information universe.

This paper will focus on some practical strategies and methods commonly employed in US libraries for dealing with the need for continuous training of library users and library staff in the newest technological trends. Hopefully some of these methods might be useable in your efforts to cope with the electronic revolution that you are or will be experiencing in your libraries.


When computers revolutionized access to information by making it available electronically, US librarians were relatively well prepared for teaching their users to take advantage of these new information resources. Helping patrons to use the library to get the needed information has been a long tradition and a cornerstone of American librarianship, going all the way back to Melvile Dewey. Service to the public, called reference service, public service, user education, or library instruction is a major specialty of American librarianship. Larger libraries of all types have whole departments devoted entirely to helping library patrons to find information they need. The tradition of the librarian as a teacher has been particularly important in college and university libraries, since American higher education places a great emphasis on students doing independent research assignments that require work with library resources. Thus the reference librarian has been recognized as a partner in achieving the educational mission of the university. One of the important and difficult tasks that Czech librarians are facing is to make user education a part of the daily library activities, particularly as libraries begin to acquire electronic informational resources.

With access to information becoming more varied and sophisticated, the US reference librarian's role as an intermediary between user and information has become more important than ever. Each new technological trend requires additional time to train the users how to take advantage of it. Some of the traditional ways of user education the are still valid, some methods needed to be changed and expanded and other new methods developed. Lecturing users about library sources is being replaced by hands-on-instruction or by live demonstrations with a computer and an overhead projector.

Library Tours

Of the basic, traditional methods of introducing users to library resources--the library tours--still play an important role in user education. At Penn State, for example, over 3,600 students participated in library tours in the last year academic year. The tours take the user around the library, explain what services are available, what traditional and electronic resources the library has, where the current journals or open stacks are, where the reference desk is, etc. In academic libraries tours are generally conducted at the beginning of the semester. Periodic informational tours are also common in other types of libraries. Some larger libraries have recently started to offer self-guided tours with a walkman, for obvious reasons of convenience to patrons and cost-effectiveness to the library.

Printed Guides to OPAC

Besides knowing the basic layout of the library and the services it offers, the new user needs to develop skills in searching the local OPAC. Although OPACs have been getting user friendlier over the years and on-line Help is generally available, research have found users often get lost in online help screens and that other methods of used education are needed. A very effective method of helping users to search the OPAC are printed, one-page guides or instructional sheets. The guides should explain the basic searching techniques in simple, straightforward style, giving plenty of examples, in order not to overwhelm the first-time user. The printed guides need to be visually appealing and must be always available at the public terminals. It is helpful if there is an information desk in the proximity of the public terminals with library staff available to answer questions or help the users if they experience problems. Providing well designed, self-explanatory printed guides is the most cost-effective way to teach the basic OPAC skills.

Other Electronic Resources in the OPAC

Besides providing access to local collections, the OPACs in the US libraries are increasingly being used as gateways to other electronic resources. Many libraries are able to locally mount into their OPACs general bibliographic and full text databases, such as Periodical Abstracts, Faxon Table of Contents, and Newspaper Abstracts, as well as indexes to journal articles in specific fields (Medline, Eric, PsycINFO, AGRICOLA, NTIS), and document delivery services, such as Uncover. Electronic journals and full text reference works, such as Encyclopedia Britanica, are also often available through the local OPAC. Locally mounted databases are more costly than CD-ROMs but the databases can be accessed by an unlimited number of users and from all locations, including dial-access users. Another great advantage of mounting the databases on the local OPAC, especially for user education, is that an interface (called Z39.50) between the OPAC and some of the databases is possible. The interface allows the user to search all the databases exactly the same way as the local OPAC. The interface can do other wonderful things; for example, it provides local call numbers and holdings as part of the citation, so that the user knows immediately if the library owns a particular article. The interface also allows the citation or the text of the article to be sent to an email account. Other services that OPACs often provide are Internet access via Gopher or Web browsers.

Making various information sources available through the OPAC costs the library a great deal of money, so it is extremely important that the public is aware of what information tools are available and how to use these tools. The user needs to know what types of information the databases contain (bibliographic citations, abstracts, full text), subjects and dates of coverage, how often they are updated and how to get into them and how to exit. The user needs to know how to print a citation, how to send it to an email account. Printed information sheets that outline contents and the mechanics of searching of each database are the best way to inform the user. Again, brevity and simplicity are essential. In order to organize the various printed guides to resources in the OPAC and assure that they will always be available, some libraries are putting the information sheets next to each public terminal in loose-leaf binders that cannot be removed from the terminal. The users can flip through the various sheets to find what they need and as they do that they often discover other resources that they might not have know about.

Group Demonstrations of OPAC Resources

Another very common method of teaching users how to search the OPAC and its various information resources are group demonstrations or group training classes. The training sessions need to be well advertised in advance in order to attract users and a simple method for signing up for classes should be available. In college and university libraries, group training classes are generally offered at the beginning of each semester. Penn State Library recently experimented with a new approach to a group OPAC instruction. The program has a catchy title and was advertised in the university newspaper, the Library Home Page and on colorful posters throughout the library, particularly near the entrance. During the third week of the semester, 50 minute OPAC demonstrations, using a computer with a video projector, were conducted every hour throughout the day. The demonstrations covered not only the use of the OPAC but also access to the other 20 databases that are available through the OPAC. A common script was developed to assure that major points were covered, but each instructor was also encouraged to respond to specific questions or interests of the participants. The experiment was very successful (over 300 students participated in the fall 1995 semester) and the program will become a regular feature of the user training program. The advantage of this method is that it makes the OPAC instruction available to many people, at their convenience. It is not necessary to sign up in advance, users can just walk in at any hour of the day. The library, of course, has to have enough staff available to teach these sessions. It is becoming common in US libraries that even staff that work behind the scenes, in cataloging for instance, are beginning to participate in the basic user instruction.

CD-ROM Products

Another standard electronic information resource in American libraries, the CD-ROMs, present special problems for user education. The CD-ROMs burst onto the American library scene about ten years ago and have become very common even in small public libraries. Larger libraries have whole collections of reference CD-ROMs. Penn State Library, for example, has over 70 of CD-ROMs in all subjects, some bibliographic citations, some have also abstracts, other have full-text (Lexis/Nexis, Periodicals Ondisc).

CD-ROMs offer the least expensive way to provide access to reference databases, compared to access through the OPAC or a direct on-line connection. A CD-ROM product can be networked on several workstations and searched by multiple users. CD-ROMs are also very popular with the users, since they like to do the searching themselves, even though as research shows, users generally find only one third of relevant information because they often do not articulate the search statement correctly.

In spite of their advantages and great popularity, acquisition of CD-ROMs is not without problems. They create significant new workloads for reference staff, who must become familiar with each new product. Staff expertise is required to service and troubleshoot CD-ROMs. The training of patrons is another issue that needs attention. CD-ROMs are generally not as user-friendly as vendors claim and the on-line help and vendor instructional manuals are often too complicated to be followed by users who never have much time, although the manuals are great for staff to learn from. Searching protocols of various CD-ROMs differ and it takes practice and frequent use to be a good searcher. Since users are generally not able to use the CD-ROM without some staff help, it is advisable to prepare easy-to-follow, simple information sheets outlining the basic steps of operating the CD-ROM and of constructing the search strategy. This minimize the need to explain the basic use of the CD-ROM to every user, although some people will still need help, particularly with printing and downloading information. Placing the CD-ROM workstations near the reference desk makes it easier for staff on duty to help the patrons using the CD-ROMs. To further minimize individual instruction which is very costly, many libraries offer periodic group demonstrations of the CD-ROM products. Academic libraries also include the CD-ROM training in formal, subject oriented user training, which will be mentioned later. Libraries considering CD-ROM purchases should plan for staff time to learn to use the CD-ROMs, service them and provide user training. Another problem that the library faces with the acquisition of CD-ROM products, as well as other electronic bibliographic resources, is the significantly increased demand for articles from journals the library does not own. A modern document delivery system needs to be in place to obtain copies of articles from journals not available in the library.

On-line searching

Because of the CD-ROM explosion, the demand for direct on-line searching of reference databases has somewhat decreased, although this service is still available in American libraries, particularly in corporation and higher education libraries. The selection of databases available for direct on-line searching depends on the needs of library patrons, but the Knowledge Index databases (formerly Dialog) and CDP Colleagues databases (formerly BRS) are among those often available. Users generally have to pay for direct on-line searching, since it is very costly for the library. It involves charges for on-line connect time, telephone charges, per-citation charges, etc. Since skills in constructing a quality search that does not produce too many useless citations and retrieves exactly what the user wants are not easily acquired, librarians trained by vendors usually perform the searches. Large academic libraries also offer reduced-costs, do-it-yourself searching in the evenings and on the weekend, when the searching is less expensive. Special workbooks guide the user in preparation of the search strategy, since selection of the right terms for the search, including synonyms and truncation symbols, is extremely important. Thus preparation of the do-it-yourself on-line search needs to be extensive and often involves librarian's help. Because the on-line searching skills are so crucial for conducting cost-effective search, only one or two reference librarians generally specialize in this activity.

Bibliographic Instruction

In the college and university setting, the traditional, most common method of teaching students how to use the library resources has been formal group instruction that is part of a specific course. It is called course-related, or course-integrated bibliographic instruction. Aimed at both undergraduate and graduate students, it acquaints the students with specific resources that the library has in the subject of the course and how to use these resources. While such formal instruction in library use has been around for many years, goals and coverage of bibliographic instruction had to be expanded and changed with the proliferation of electronic information resources. The format of bibliographic instruction has also changed from a lecture to live demonstrations of all types of electronic resources -- bibliographic or full-text databases available in the OPAC, the CD-ROM products, as well as Internet resources. The original goals of the formal bibliographic instruction--to teach students how to use printed sources of one library, have changed to teaching what is sometimes called information literacy -- ability and skills to gather information in the electronic environment, ability to find relevant information in appropriate sources, ability to evaluate and organize information. The bibliographic instruction component is included in general introductory courses, as well as research courses in nearly all subjects that are taught at the university, from agriculture to sociology. At Penn State, for example, during the year 1994/95 librarians conducted 290 one hour sessions of bibliographic instruction, reaching a total of 6,598 students.


The latest technological trend that has hit the US libraries in the 90's is the Internet, with its seemingly unlimited information transmission and access possibilities. Contrary to the standardized and controlled environment of a library and the much more varied but still relatively predictable organization of the electronic information databases, the Internet has no standards and no organization. The Internet is a chaos and it is constantly changing. Yet it is a very impressive information tool with a tremendous potential. Everybody is interested in the Internet, and surfing the Net (most recently via WWW browsers) is one of the hottest topics in the library literature.

US librarians have learned about the Internet from each other, by experimenting with it, from many excellent books that have been published about it, from the numerous workshops offered at professional conferences in the last several years. To become proficient at surfing the Net, to know what is out there and to maintain Internet competency requires a major time commitment. Some librarians feel that while it is a great fun to spend hours surfing the Net, it is not always the best use of library staff time and best place to find information. It has been said that in some cases answering reference questions with the help of Internet resources is like killing a fly with a bulldozer. Others are convinced that librarians must offer Internet access and become skilled at teaching the Internet to their patrons if they do not want to become obsolete. Issues of cataloging some Internet resources are also being discussed.

The interest of users in the Internet is also extremely high and libraries of all types are responding to that interest, including public libraries. The Seattle Public Library and its many branches, for example, has started to offer Internet access on their OPAC in 1993 via their gopher. Currently they are planning to add access to the WWW with a graphical browser. To introduce Internet to their patrons, they conduct many training sessions per month because the interest among their patrons is very high. Academic libraries are incorporating Internet training into their formal, course-related instruction and conducting special subject related Internet introduction seminars. Some academic libraries have found that the best way to provide Internet training is to join forces with the computer center on campus and develop collaborative training programs. While it takes a lot of planning and coordination, combining information expertise of librarians with the expertise of the computer center people has proven successful in many institutions.


The penetration of computers into all aspects of library work requires that most library workers need to master a great deal of general computer-related knowledge to become computer literate, in addition to being able to use the specific computer applications that relate to their jobs. This knowledge needs to be continuously updated and expanded, as new, more sophisticated products hit the library scene and are incorporated into the library environment (such as the windows technology and the graphic browsers for the WWW). The issues of continuing staff training are gaining more importance and many libraries are beginning to take a systematic approach to upgrading the computer-related knowledge of all their employees. College and university libraries, because of their traditional centralized organization and large staffs and because of their being on the cutting edge of library technology, tend to approach computer-related training of their employees more systematically and are developing special training programs for that purpose.

Development of a computer-related training program usually begins with establishing a specialized training position in the library or selecting a training group of librarians with computer expertise to create and deliver the training. As with the Internet training, some libraries are developing computer literacy training in collaboration with the campus computer center, combining technological expertise of the computer people with the information expertise of the librarians. Besides knowledgeable trainers, another important requirement for a library training program is a training lab, preferably right in the library, with microcomputers connected to the OPAC for hands-on practice and a computer for the trainer with an overhead projector. The training lab is of course also used for training of library users.

An interesting and very comprehensive staff training program was developed at the Engineering and Science Libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, consisting of twenty 90 minute sessions. Similar although a more modest training program exists at Penn State. The program has two components. All employees are required to the basic course called Automation Skills Training. The training consists of twelve hours of classes spread over three weeks. The training covers computer concepts, such as memory, software, hardware, menus, local operating system, local LAN, working with files and directories, using windows and mouse for multiple sessions work, spreadsheets and introduction to word processing. Other topics covered include, e-mail, file transfer, searching OPAC and its other databases, Internet access via gopher and via WWW browser and basics of CD-ROM products.

The training introduces staff to computer concepts and applications that are used in the library. After going through the basic training, employees can selectively sign up for in-depth training in specific computer applications that were mentioned in the basic training, if they need to know more about them. The training classes are advertised by e-mail and the library monthly newsletter. Employees are encouraged to take these classes, even though they might not be directly related to their present jobs. The idea is to increase the overall computer literacy of the library staff to make them more productive and comfortable with current technology and prepare them for future technological developments.


All the various methods of training library patrons and staff to use the latest electronic information resources cost a great deal of money, not to speak about the costs creating OPACs and acquiring external electronic resources and hardware that is needed to make them available to users. The great challenge that I think you face is to be able to start doing all of it when you are just beginning to automate your catalogs and staffing and funding levels in your libraries are inadequate even for basic services.

It seems that the only possibility how to start bringing the new technologies to your libraries and teaching your patrons to work with them is cooperation and networking. Connectivity or building networks between libraries to acquire and share electronic resources is considered to be the highest priority of library automation in the US. In this day and age hardly any library can afford to provide access to the constantly expanding information universe. Cooperation, building partnerships and establishing consortia to start accomplishing the library automation goals is even more important in this country since there is so much to do. The initiative for networking, for library cooperation on all levels--within a university, among similar institutions, on regional and national level--has to come from the librarians.

By forming groups, more ambitious projects can be accomplished and outside funding obtained more easily, particularly from large US foundations, than if each library worked on its own. As a group, you can decide what is the single most important missing element that is preventing Czech libraries from cooperating on a big scale and seek funding for putting it in place. As a group, you can decide, for example, what CD-ROMs would be most desirable for your libraries and you can negotiate better prices. As a group, you can seek help from other countries to teach you about new technologies. Both American Library Association and the IREX, for example, are very interested in helping East European librarians to expand their knowledge of library technologies. As a group, you can work on developing your expertise and share training ideas about passing your knowledge to your patrons.

Marie Bednar, Cataloging Management Team
Penn State University Libraries
University Park, PA 16802
(814)865-1755, FAX (814)863-7293 

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