Internet Tools and the Docent
Philadelphia Zoological Garden
Unlike the councils at many or most institutions, the PZG Docent Council is a quasi-independent organization. We do not report to nor does any particular member of the zoo staff guide us. However, we do coordinate closely with the various departments, particularly with Education, Animal, Conservation and Veterinary. Our president is an ex-officio member of the Zoo Board with voting rights and attends all Zoo Board meetings. The Zoo does have a Volunteer Coordinator with whom we are in continuous contact but she does not have any control authority.
Planning for our website began in the spring of 1996 with the site going on-line in September of that year. This docent was “volunteered” by the president of the zoo to be a member of the planning committee and to be responsible for the animal portion of the site. As a result of our planning the site was divided into two functional parts: General Information about the zoo and its various departments and Animal Information. Animal Information became the function of the Docent Council under my direct supervision and responsibility. Some of the department pages such as Conservation contain extensive information.
The animal side, in turn, has two main sections. One contains Fact Sheets based upon those in our Red Book and the other allows for questions to be sent to the zoo under the title of Ask A Docent.
Until this spring, a consultant who acted as Webmaster managed the mechanics of the site. We have since brought the site in-house and are interviewing for an individual to serve on staff in this function. All control is now local and changes or additions to the site can be made with ease.
Fact Sheets are data sheets prepared by docents for individual animals currently or previously in our collection. There are also sheets on the history of the zoo, conservation, art and architecture and much more. The contained information is taken from many sources and, when the sheet is completed, reviewed by the appropriate curator. A number of these sheets have been edited for appropriateness and formatted for our website. Our Webmaster then installed them into the site. Over time, additional sheets are being created and installed.
AAD–Ask A Docent
This may be the unique function of our site. The site is set up to encourage individuals to send animal questions of any kind to us for a reply. We have received questions from all over the world, literally from AZ, AustraliaZimbabwe, with Mongolia included. We have even received questions from Philadelphia and, very possibly, from the cities in which your zoos are located.
In 1999 we received and replied to 2,155 questions. In June when this document was prepared we were approximately 9% ahead of the previous year’s equivalent period.
Here Is How We Do It
I function with the titles of Computer Chairman and Docent Website Coordinator. As Coordinator, I supervise the efforts of 30 docents who have particularly volunteered to take part in this function. This is in addition to their regular docent responsibilities. Each of these docents has a computer at home with e-mail connections. Ten members of this group additionally act as captains with responsibilities for one month of activity.
When the AAD question box is selected, completed and sent by the questioner, the e-address shown is that of the zoo. An automatic acknowledgement is returned to the questioner. The next step is that the zoo address is automatically changed to that of the captain for that month, who receives it at home. The captain then reviews the question and forwards it to one of the group for reply. Our goal is to return a reply within three days, and most are. If that is not possible a personal note is sent by the docent stating that she or he is working on the question and that they will receive an answer as soon as the research is completed.
When the answer is sent, two copies are included. One goes to the captain to confirm that the questioner received a reply and the second comes to me. Here I act as editor but after the fact. I review each reply for noticeable error (there are hardly ever any that I see), for the tone of the reply (almost always fine) and for any direction that may be appropriate. After receiving over 5,000 questions we have yet to find ourselves with a problem.
The captains and the group have been instructed to send any professional questions to me. These include questions from veterinarians, college faculty and from other zoos and zookeepers. I review these and send them to the appropriate staff member such as one of our veterinarians or to a curator. They reply either directly or to me for forwarding over my name. Questions of the “Your animals don’t look happy” type are also sent to me for review and they then go to the appropriate staff for response.
Other Uses of Our Computers
At the time of writing (June), just under 70% of our docents had e-mail capabilities. We now use this as a means of distributing information to them. When, for example, our Special Events chairperson receives an urgent request, she formats her need and sends it to me. In turn I send it to the appropriate group or to the entire council. My address book contains the e-mail addresses of all docents and is arranged in a number of different groupings. If our Special Events chairperson needs help on a Wednesday, I can send it to the Wednesday docents with a single click. If our president wants to distribute a message to all docents I can do that with just a few clicks.
Information that should go to all docents is distributed in two ways: via e-mail and on printed copies placed in our office mailboxes for those without e-mail. Not only does this method allow us to interchange information quickly and easily, it significantly reduces the cost of paper, copier time, occasional postage, telephone tag and more.
The Magic of the Computer Disk
Over time the more interesting answers, not necessarily the most difficult, have been gathered from the answer copies that I receive and organized on my computer. All of our Fact Sheets have been computerized and are also in my computer and our docent office computer. In turn I have copied all of this material to CDs and distributed them to each computerized docent plus all senior staff and members of the zoo board. For those who like to know this sort of thing the CD contains 1,069 files requiring 38 MB of space. Once loaded into the hard drive, references to a particular animal is had by the click of a button.
Questions? Ask this docent. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 856-428-3668.