Features – Virtual Tours and Law Library Websites

Rhonda Hankins, Jamail Center for Legal Research, Tarlton Law Library, University of Texas at Austin School of Law


As technology continues to expand the possible and Web masters become more sophisticated, more academic law library Web sites are offering visitors the option of a “virtual tour.” Even a cursory glance at these virtual tours indicates that a standardized format has yet to develop. The term is used to describe a wide variety of presentations ranging from straightforward tutorials and slide shows to multimedia extravaganzas with panoramic video footage and interactive floor plans. Whatever presentation style a virtual tour assumes, though, rest assured that putting it together for the Web took a significant investment in time and skill if done in-house, and a considerable financial outlay if done by a consultant. Given the chronic budget constraints of most academic libraries, clearly establishing the purpose of these virtual tours before embarking on such an ambitious endeavor is critical. What is the informational value of the virtual tour? Who is the intended audience and what message is supposed to be conveyed? Will the probable visitors have the necessary bandwidth, plug-ins, and skills to take advantage of the virtual tour or will it be a source of delay, frustration, and confusion? Can the information be presented more efficiently in a simpler format? What makes the virtual tour a necessary addition to the law library’s Web site? Once these questions are answered, then money and effort in updating a Web site will more likely be used productively.

To date no definitive studies on the costs and benefits of virtual tours have been done, and no comprehensive analysis of the usages and missions of virtual tours at academic law library Web sites in the United States exists. Even usability expert Jakob Nielsen has conducted only one in-depth user test of a virtual tour. He analyzed the tour of the Sydney Opera House, which scored very poorly. According to Nielsen, the users got lost and couldn’t find their way around the Opera House. “There were too many features and people could not figure out how to relate the various pieces of information that appeared in different places of the display, depending on when in the panoramic movie they pointed,” he added.

Although this paper delineates some of the special features possible with a virtual tour and some of the usability issues that might be taken into consideration in creating a virtual tour, its goal is limited to trying to encourage a more systematic study of the possible benefits, issues, and variables involved in introducing virtual tours on law library Web sites. As Web masters hone their skills and technology improves to allow for a seemingly infinite number of bells and whistles to be added to Web sites, it is important to stop and think about the ultimate purpose of the Web site.
“Understanding the structure and organization of information permits you to extract value and significance from it,” counsels Richard Saul Wurman in Information Anxiety 2. Such advice is useful to keep in mind when considering the creation of a virtual tour. Just because something can be done technologically doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be done. Likewise, just because something has never been done before on a Web site doesn’t mean it is inappropriate. The key to an effective virtual tour seems to lie in understanding your users and designing a tour that meet their needs, expectations, and capabilities.

Multimedia Presentations

It is no surprise that the American Association of Law Libraries gave the virtual tour at the Web site of Seattle University Law Library, the Excellence in Marketing Award in the Best Use of Technology category this year since it is a multimedia presentation second to none. As the press release announcing the launch of the virtual tour explained: “…the tour allows visitors to view the library from all directions, click on areas for more information, and follow arrows from one section of the library to another.” The tour begins in the public services area of the Library. Viewers can use their mouse to rotate the panoramic image, click on highlighted areas for more information, or click on an arrow to move to another location. As the view turns, the pointer in the map below also turns, indicating the direction on the floor the viewer is facing. Viewers can even “go to” the Library Administrative Offices and watch an interview with Executive Law Librarian Kristin Cheney. Since a significant portion of the collection remains unavailable online, Cheney says that one purpose of the virtual tour is to attract students into the physical library. “…the intellectual discourse and sense of community generated by in-person contact with our highly skilled library staff can never be replicated in a virtual world,” she added.

“The tour has been successful in helping orient new students to the library and helping existing students find specific items and places in the library. It was also intended to be aimed at potential students and, in that regard, has been quite successful,” added Steve Burnett, the Associate Dean for Information Services at Seattle University Law Library. But Seattle’s Web site is still a work in progress as there are plans to ultimately couple the virtual tour with a broader building and art tour and an online orientation program.

Baylor Law School also offers an impressive virtual tour of the entire law school facility, including the law library, at http://law.baylor.edu/New_Building/virtualtour.htm. This comprehensive tour includes panoramic shots, interactive floor plans, a detailed textual tour, and a slideshow. “We wanted to give viewers numerous perspectives so that they could really develop a feel for the facility,” explained Matthew C. Cordon, Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor of Law at Baylor Law School who was involved with the Web redesign process from beginning to end. “The virtual tour was designed so that Web viewers actually feel as if they have physically visited the building,” he explained. Since the development of the virtual tour corresponded with the opening of the $33 million Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center, Baylor Law School has quite an impressive facility to showcase. “Because we really overhauled most of the old site, we were able to modify the focus of the site to place much greater attention on the new facility,” Cordon said. “The other sections of the Web site all refer to the new facility, and, in turn, these references direct viewers to the virtual tour pages through the use of numerous hyperlinks.”

The Donald E. Pray Law Library at The University of Oklahoma Law School is part of the virtual tour of the law school community and it is available at http://www.law.ou.edu/virtour/. Like the other panoramic virtual tours, special plug-ins are required and without a high-speed Internet connection, the download could be quite slow. The panoramic view of the facilities is much more impressive than still photographs, however. “The virtual tour is a marketing device, nothing more,” explained Linda Murray Ryan, Assistant Dean of Library and Information Resources at St. John’s University Law School. Since prospective applicants have commented positively about virtual tours during focus groups recently conducted at St. Johns, it would seem that virtual tours are also an effective marketing tool. “While we may think that ‘looks’ are not important and that prospective students should make the decision on which schools to apply to on purely academic factors, these focus groups and comments we have overheard from prospects and their parents in our building indicate that the facility does matter.” In fact, the admissions dean at St. John’s University Law School is encouraging Ryan to include a virtual tour on their Web site that includes not only the library but other attractive areas of the building as well such as their new moot courtroom.

“If you have a nice facility, this is a nice way to show it off not only to prospective students but prospective employees as well,” she noted. “Obviously, it comes down to the appearance of your physical space and whether it is attractive enough to showcase in this way. I would certainly not want the virtual tour to convey a less than accurate visual image of the facility, as many still shots in view books often do. ”Ryan added that the virtual tour is probably less valuable in terms of helping patrons actually find a physical object in the library or learn about the arrangement of the collection. “I would prefer having something I could hold in my hand as I walked around rather than having to first study the floor plan on a web site,” she said.

Interactive Floor Plans

A number of academic law libraries have interactive floor plans of some sort on their Web sites, and these are often labeled virtual tours. An attractive and practical virtual tour of this type can be found at The Honorable Thomas E. Brennan Law Library’s Web site at http://www.cooley.edu/library/tour/1LimitedAccessDesk.htm. This tour presents easy-to-read interactive floor plans, photographs, and some text that addresses frequently asked questions. As this link indicates, the floor plan for the first floor clearly identifies the location of study areas, the emergency exit, and the elevator. In addition, the floor plan for the first floor offers a number of interactive options. Click on the Reference Desk in the floor plan, for example, and the screen gives the hours that a reference librarian is available, the location of the desk, and a photograph of the area. In addition, hyperlinks are provided that allow the visitor to email a question to the reference librarian or access the list of reference librarians and their phone numbers.

“While we do continue to have some printed library aids,” explained Duane Strojny, the Associate Dean for Library and Instructional Support,” the virtual map is easily accessible from any COOLCAT station in the building. It offers detailed explanations and pictures so a person looking at it can say ‘It looks just like the website.’” Though clearly meeting pragmatic needs of patrons, Strojny indicated that the map can also be used as a PR tool. “Our studies have shown that a high percentage of our students rely on the website to assist in making a decision to apply to and attend Cooley. The Library is often referred to as the crown jewel of the campus and we want people to be able to see what we offer,” he said.

The Web site of the Harry and Diane Rinker Law Library at Chapman University School of Law also has a virtual tour of the facilities. This virtual tour includes extensive text descriptions and explanations of the facilities and services accompanied by photographs and interactive floor plans at http://www.chapman.edu/law/library/f_tour2.html. On this Web site, mousing over the images prompts pop-ups of descriptions of the area and photographs.

Interactive floor plans are also posted on The University of Wisconsin Law Library Web site at http://library.law.wisc.edu/information/tour/. Hyperlinks to learn more detailed information about the reference services or circulation policies at the library are provided.

While not a virtual tour per se, Judith F. Anspach, the Associate Dean for Information Resources at Hofstra University, mentioned an innovative use of the Web that expands the online catalog of the Barbara and Maurice Deane Law Library. When presenting the results of a search on the Lexicat Catalog, not only is the usual bibliographic information provided but a hyperlink labeled “Locate in Library” links directly to a floor plan of the Deane library showing the exact location of the shelves where the title is located. For example, a search on the title American Jurisprudence, 1870-1970 in the online catalog, shows that the title is found in two locations on campus. Clicking on the link “Locate in Library” produces a map of the floor plans of the library with the stacks where the volume is located highlighted (see this link). All of the titles in the Dean Library link to floor plans with their exact location identified, a great convenience for accessing the physical materials.


The library tour offered through the intranet of the Loyola Law School Web site is unique in that it offers a video introduction to the tour by Library Director Robert Nissenbaum followed by an informative slideshow that gives an overview of the eight subject areas taught in the first semester of legal research. In the video clip, Nissenbaum welcomes patrons to the library and takes the opportunity to explain some library policies. The slideshow introduces primary and secondary sources and shows the location of specific titles in the William M. Rains Law Library. By the end of the presentation, students should have a basic understanding of Federal statutes, the Index to Legal Periodicals, Reporters, Digests, Citators, and the U.S. Code. Because the presentation not only explains the sources but also shows photographs of the covers and their location in the library, this slideshow serves a pragmatic function as well. Even newcomers to the library will feel more comfortable in the physical location if they have watched this tutorial beforehand.

The “virtual” tour of the NYU Law Library’s resources for researching federal legislative history, accessible at http://www.law.nyu.edu/lawyeringprogram/virtualtour/legist/, is another excellent example of a useful online tutorial. The tour directs visitors through a particular example of statutory research and introduces research strategies and resources that will facilitate in producing a legislative history. The photographs that complement the text might help newcomers better identify the actual resources once inside the physical library.

Slide shows

Many academic law libraries offer a slide show of still photographs of their facilities on the library Web site or as part of the law school virtual tour. These slide shows are an effective way to convey the atmosphere of the law library, to highlight any special features of the facility, and to provide links to practical information such as opening hours or circulation policies.


As this brief overview of virtual tours of academic law library in the United States suggests, the Web offers a myriad of interesting and exciting new ways to showcase a facility, a collection, or services offered. Virtual tours offer a tremendous flexibility in that they need not be restricted by the physical structure. Hyperlinks also allow virtual tours to be designed for a variety of patrons with different purposes. As technology and the skills of Web masters continue to improve, virtual tours are likely to develop in new and creative ways.

Jakob Nielsen does caution, however, that law libraries might be prudent to invest resources in advanced types of virtual tours since they usually score poorly elsewhere. Nielsen stresses the need for beginning with task analysis of what law students and other users need. “Do they need to find where certain info is stored in the library? Then maybe an interactive floor plan linked to a search engine or topic taxonomy would do better,” he suggests. “Is there a desire to impress prospective students with the quality and ambiance of the library? Maybe attractive photographs would be better: invest the money in getting a good photographer to shoot the place and not in technology.” As always with good information architecture, keeping the users in the forefront is paramount. With that caveat in mind, the possibilities do seem endless for the effective use of virtual tours.

*First published in Noter Up, August 2003, edited by Tobe Liebert.

Posted in: Features, Library Marketing, Training, Virtual Library