Volume 14,No. 8  December 2000
How-To 
A Virtual Open House
by Elizabeth A. Bumgarner

I shuddered just thinking about it. Mymanager and I had just decided that the Information Systems Library (ISL)at Time Customer Service would have an open house during National LibraryWeek. A lot of changes had been made to the library·s intranet site inthe beginning of this year, and I wanted to show it to the users. And thechanges weren·t just cosmetic; there were new tools that would help theusers in their jobs. I had to publicize them.

Time Customer Service is the Tampa-based customer service, informationsystems, and catalog and subscription fulfillment operation for Time Inc.magazine company. The Information Systems Library supports Data Centercustomers around the world with a core user group of approximately 500in Tampa. The ISL·s collection consists of 1,800 computer manuals, 23 magazinetitles, a few books, and an extensive online documentation system of over3,200 manuals. In addition, the library also performs research, establishesand maintains information profiles for users, and purchases all materialsfor IS customers.

As I marked the open house date on my calendar, I envisioned the scene.There I·d be, a solo librarian, sitting at the PC in the library, showingthe new features to a small group of people who·d be clustered around metrying to see the 15-inch computer screen. I pictured myself trying toexplain the new features of the site while also keeping an eye on the refreshments,keeping track of how many people were coming in, how many people came onlyfor the food and left without seeing the new site, answering questions,and getting dry-mouth from talking non-stop. Then it came to me: If I wantedpeople to see the re-vamped site, I should put the open house on the intranet.This would also allow me to expand the open house from one day to an entireweek, and hopefully attract more people. Since the Data Center, which containsa large portion of the ISL·s core user group, operates 24/7, using theintranet would be an easier way to reach more of the staff. I proposedthe idea to my manager and his response was, ¯Go for it!˜
 

Planning My Virtual Open House
Before I could begin to plan the virtual open house, I had to put thefinishing touches on the new ISL site. Once that was complete, it was timeto start designing the open house site. I quickly realized that planningfor a virtual open house would require the same steps as planning for asuccessful traditional open house (content, timing, promotion, incentives,etc.). The content and layout of the Web page would have to be taken intoaccount as well.

I first alerted our Webmaster that I would temporarily need more spaceon our server. We also arranged to have a direct link made from the DataCenter home page to the virtual open house during National Library Week.I decided to highlight the new features of the ISL Web site during theopen house. I thought it would be best to keep the description of the newfeatures short, no more than one screen, thus eliminating the need to scrolldown the page. This would keep the users from losing interest and leavingthe site.

When it was time to begin constructing the new intranet site, I decidedto use Microsoft·s FrontPage 2000, the same software I had used to writethe original ISL Web site. My original tour page was basically text ona themed background. I searched through file after file of clip art lookingfor just the right image to add, but couldn·t decide on any. Then one nightI got an idea. Why not use my cat, Darcy, as the virtual tour guide? Ihad plenty of pictures of Darcy and it didn·t take long to find severalI wanted to use. I chose a different photo for each page, scanned the imageinto the Web page, and then rewrote the text on each page to read as thoughDarcy was discussing each of the ISL site·s new features. Using picturesof my cat allowed me to both relax the feeling of the tour and add humorto each page while maintaining the concise structure I desired. Finally,my virtual tour was beginning to come together.

When it was finished, the open house site was six pages long. The firstpage was the welcome page. Each of the next four pages talked about oneof the four new features, and the sixth page launched the user into thenew ISL home page. An additional three pages were tacked on to the library·sregular intranet site to complete the tour; these were removed after NationalLibrary Week.

The first of the three added pages was a guest book. I made a link fromall pages of the library site to the open house guest book so that userscould easily get to it from any page as they browsed through the new site.The guest book allowed visitors to register for the drawing (grand prizewas a $25 gift certificate from Barnes & Noble) and the consolationprizes. It also included a comments box. After a visitor signed the guestbook, he would press the submit button and the system would respond witha confirmation page that let him know that he was entered in the drawing.It also served as a means to immediately thank the user, by name, for signingthe guest book and for taking the time to participate in the open house.The guest book was a feedback form created with the ¯Form Page Wizard˜in FrontPage 2000 and was designed to send the entered information to aprivate text file on the Web site. (FrontPage 2000 for Dummies washelpful when I created the guest book.)

As the Web site was taking shape, I knew it was time to begin advertisingthe upcoming open house. I contacted the vice presidents of the Data Centerand Applications Development and asked to be included on the agendas fortheir staff meetings the week before National Library Week. I hoped themembers of management of the various departments would buy into the ideaof the open house and remind their staffs about the value of the libraryand its services.

In anticipation of the meetings, I created a PowerPoint presentationabout the enhancements to the ISL site and a tour of the work-in-progressvirtual open house. I also prepared a flier to promote the open house.Each flier included standard promotional information such as what, where,when, and why (along with information about the door prize). Finally, tobutter up members of management, I brought a large platter of homemadecookies to the meeting.

As the open house neared, I finished designing the Web page and preparedto up-load the open house to the server. The Saturday before National LibraryWeek, I went into the office to load the open house intranet pages so thatI could test the tour to make sure everything worked as it was supposedto.
 

Going Live and Getting Feedback
The open house site went live on Saturday night. Initial enthusiasmwas greater than I expected. But, as the week wore on, participation seemedto slow. Midway through the week, I targeted the potential library userswho still had not visited the site with a second round of promotional fliers.As a result, interest in the site was renewed.

During the week of the open house, I began to prepare my consolationprizes. Earlier in the year, I had read in Time about an Internetbakery that specializes in creating custom cookies. Ebake.com takes a corporatelogo or photograph or other image and reproduces the image in fine detailon a cookie. After I checked the price list and determined the approximatecost, my manager once again enthusiastically approved the idea. He suggestedwe use the ISL·s new home page for the cookie design.

However, after consulting the people at Ebake.com, I discovered thatit was not practical to shrink the image of the page to the required size(3 x 2 1/2 inches) and still be able to read it. So, I decided to includethe library·s name, three of the enhancements highlighted in the open house,and picture of the virtual open house·s guide, Darcy.

Once National Library Week ended, the guest book was closed, the openhouse was removed from the server, and the three additional pages plusall special links to the open house were removed. I then placed the cookieorder with Ebake.com. Ebake.com has a graduated pricing scale, so the costvaries with the number of cookies ordered, and shipping is extra. I spent$1.80 per cookie, and they arrived in 3 business days in perfect condition.
 

Taking the Closing Steps
I spent the following weekend assembling the consolation prizes. Idecided to present the cookies in small packets. Each cellophane-wrappedpacket would contain two additional cookies from the local supermarketand one cookie from Ebake.com. Using Microsoft·s Publisher 2000, a colorprinter, business card stock, and a hole punch, I made tags to attach tothe cookie packets. As FrontPage 2000 and Publisher 2000 are both Microsoftproducts, I was able to use the same design theme from the ISL intranetsite¢I thought this was a nice way to tie the packets to the home page.The tag had the name of the library, a picture of Darcy, and a thank youfrom Darcy and me. I wrote the name of each recipient on the back of thetag to ease the distribution process.

That Monday, the vice president of the Data Center drew the name ofthe gift certificate winner from the database list generated from the guestbook. I awarded the certificate and distributed the consolation prizes.Giving out the prizes gave me the opportunity to meet everyone who tookthe tour, some of whom were online library users I·d never met. I foundit interesting that people tended to take the virtual tour in clusters¢ifone person took the time to take the tour, it was very likely that thosein adjoining cubicles did so as well.

From the time I came up with the idea until the last cookie was distributedwas a total of 6 weeks. It was a lot of work for me, especially as a sololibrarian. But since our office allows staggered starting times and I getto the office very early, I had a couple of uninterrupted hours a day towork on the open house without falling too far behind with my regular work.

When the cookie crumbs were finally swept away, and I had respondedto the comments in the guest book, I thought about the open house and howit had increased the visibility of the library. The virtual open housewas something new and different; people responded well to it. It was aneffective, yet easy, way to reach people on three different shifts. I·mcertain that I reached more people than I would have through a regularopen house, and the custom cookies caught the attention of those who didnot participate. About a quarter of my total users participated. Becauseof the open house, many users are more aware of my library·s services.For me, it was a great experience, and so well-received that I now haveto worry about how to top it next year!
 
 

Elizabeth A. Bumgarner has worked as the information systems librarianat Time Customer Service in Tampa, Florida for 15 years. She has an M.L.S.from Rosary College Graduate School of Library and Information Sciencein River Forest, IL. Her e-mail address is Liz.Bumgarner@custserv.com.