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of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 1    October/November 2004

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Portals in Libraries: Portal Vision
by Amos A. Lakos

Amos A. Lakos is librarian, Rosenfeld Management Library, Anderson School of Management, UCLA. He can be reached at aalakos@library.ucla.edu.

During a January 1999 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter meeting, experts in the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) identified a number of important future trends for technologies in libraries (www.ala.org/ala/lita/litaresources/toptechtrends/midwinter1999.htm). The narrative for the first trend, Customization and Personalization, includes the following: "Library users who use the Web expect customization, interactivity and customer support." Thus, this trend deals directly with issues related to library portals. The group emphasized the customer-focused approach as the trend of the future.

They mentioned the University of Washington My Gateway (www.lib.washington.edu/) and North Carolina State University's new and increasingly influential MyLibrary @NCState (http://my.lib.ncsu.edu/) as examples of customized library portals. Other library technology trends identified were also related to the possible impacts of library portal implementations focused use of digital resources, interactive help, identifying "human" libraries for support, cooperative support among libraries and more.

Customized and personalizable library portals should address these issues by being customer focused and empowering users to create personal information systems that are responsive to their individual needs. A library portal needs to leverage the library's expertise both in the form of the underlying database of resources built by librarians and through greater accessibility to those librarians.

However important building a library portal may be, in order to make a portal truly effective and useful for our customers, it has to be part of the owning institution's "enterprise" portal. No matter how "good" a library portal can be by itself, it can only be a niche information framework for a customer. Since libraries are always part of a larger organization, whether a municipality, a business or an educational institution, a library portal needs to be part of the institutional framework to be truly effective. Portals have to be understood as customer-centric frameworks that, although built for institutional purposes, are intended to enable the use of the institution's resources and services by individuals be they employees or customers. For example, a university student has many diverse needs such as admission, course information and schedules, financial support, library services and more. Building a number of independent portals will not serve these diverse needs and may not allow the institution to leverage the power of integrated systems to its advantage. What we need to develop is a one-stop-shopping service framework, based on an enterprise identity system. From this perspective, we need to understand that portals are cooperative frameworks that enable more effective service delivery as well as more effective use of the institution's human and other resources. We need to think in terms of building the library portal channels as part of the larger enterprise portal.

What Is a Portal?

When discussing and planning any portal framework, it is important to come to a common understanding of what we mean when we say portal. There are various definitions, depending on perspective, mission or function. From a mission perspective, Gerry McCartney, associate dean and chief information officer at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, recently defined portals as whatever the institution wants them to be a place that draws people to it because of what it offers and what it enables.

In a recent article in EDUCAUSE Review (July/August), Michael Looney and Peter Lyman defined Web portals as "systems which gather a variety of useful information resources into a single, 'one stop' Web page, helping the user to avoid being overwhelmed by 'infoglut' or feeling lost on the Web."

I define a portal as "a customized learning and transactional Web environment, designed purposefully to enable an individual end-user to 'personalize' the content and look of the website for his/her own individual preference."

The emphasis needs to be on the end-user as the portal's focus, as portals represent a basic change in the way information and data are presented to users on the Web, as well as a change in the way they use the Web. Portals will change the way libraries do business and enhance their capabilities to deliver services in the ways the users want them.

A portal is a Web service environment. Customization is the mechanism for the organization and the content owners to deliver Web resources to end users based on the identification and authentication system in place. The more they know about their customers, the better they can plan and the more useful the portal will be. Customization determines the initial view to the end-user.

The portal should have the capability to gradually learn and change based on how it is used by individuals. The portal changes as the status and the activity in it change. It learns as it goes. True portals are bi-directional environments that enable real time transactions, such as information, financial services or changeable scheduling.

Personalization empowers end users to use the customized services, which are delivered based on a well-designed identity management system, and to change all aspects of the framework as they wish, thereby making the service more usable. Although the institution plans and maintains the Web portal framework, the result will be many different individual portals.

Such portal environments empower and build long term relationships with customers, thereby making the enterprise more successful and more efficient. Portals will enable organizations to be more flexible as their environments and the needs of their customers evolve.

A portal should also have effective assessment and feedback loops, which should keep it well focused on delivering the right services to its customers, thereby actually keeping itself relevant and surviving.

When planning a portal, it is important to keep certain principles in mind. It has to be designed from a customer perspective it needs to be simple to use, dependable and predictable. It should be able to demonstrate value or deliver results and make the customer more self-reliant.

It is important to involve all stakeholders in portal planning and implementation and to adhere to principles and tools that allow for all units to leverage unifying technologies. For example, in the case of an academic portal, this means a single campus portal. An enterprise portal requires a single identity and authentication system, requires all components to communicate and should have capabilities that allow students, faculty and staff to complete transactions in real time. The goal of an enterprise portal is to create a framework for diverse user groups and stakeholders to work together. It has to be customer driven, capable of creating one-stop services and, by design, of building a community of interest for the long term. In the case of a university, for example, it might allow alumni to stay connected and encourage life-long learning.

For implementation, designers need to listen to the voice of the customer and develop the ability or the vision to imagine the outcomes of a portal. Leadership is crucial for the success of a portal since it provides the glue to keep all the stakeholders working together, keeping them focused on shared goals and principles. Implementation is 10% information technology and 90% leadership, planning, common culture and sustained vision, and planned process. Risk taking is a large part of successful implementation as are being externally focused and understanding e-business. To quote Nate Root, from Forrester Research, "The problem with portals is not technology, but rather organizational obstacles, defining goals, adopting a clear business plan and even how you describe different portal features."

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