iCONN News

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Web Librarians' Roundtable - Redesigning library websites

Maria Miranda, of Miranda Creative, spoke at yesterday's Web Librarians Roundtable (don't forget to check out the web librarians' blog at http://weblibrarians.blogspot.com) about redesigning your library's website. Since so many people attended, I'm guessing a lot of us are interested in the topic these days and - for those of you who didn't get a chance to be there- I figured I'd give you a rundown of the presentation with my own spin on it all!

The most important point - one that you'd think we'd all sort of get by now, but then again, it never hurts to hear it again - is that the website is your new "front door"! (I would add to that - and the side door, back door, and emergency exits!) With hyperlinking, we can't control the usage of our sites and the path that our audiences take through our sites, but that shouldn't matter - every page should be as clearly presented as the home page, with salient information, such as the address and phone number of your organization being in the footer.

It was clear from her presentation, in which she reviewed many of the CLC members' sites in a cursory fashion, that we're not all at the best possible front door stage yet. (Think about what our iCONN Marketing Survey told us - only 20% of the general public in CT has gone to their library's website! And don't you think that disappointing experiences with library websites have led patrons to underestimate the technology and services they can access through the library... heck, how many people who finally get to our websites ever come back?)

Another key point that I think I should note before anyone gets too upset is that websites are always evolving, so redesign is a constant and does not mean that there's anything inherently wrong in what you've developed in the past - it just means that it's not meeting your audience's current needs. (Heck, I see that Miranda's website is undergoing some evolution itself!)

Oh, and here's a great insight, I might add - a quote from Maria Miranda:
"You know what a camel is, right? ... a camel is a horse designed by a committee." So if you're working on site redesign, you do want to be somewhat inclusive in the process, but don't let compromises and too many opinions turn your site into a camel. User-centered design is a good key to avoiding this problem. Work with your key audiences to develop something that meets their needs. Don't just go off of your own "instincts" as to what makes sense to you or your committee &/or looks good to you or your committee. Don't just talk to fellow library staff members - talk to the audience that you want to use the website to get ideas about terminology, what's intuitive for navigation, and what the most important information is to the user. Then get them there quickly. It doesn't all have to be on the first page, however -- in fact, too busy (particularly too text-heavy) a home page will be an immediate turnoff & frustration to audiences.

Text-heaviness was a common problem noted by Ms. Miranda in the webpages she showed from various CT libraries' websites. She talked about the power of photography and images. She even suggested that it would be worthwhile for libraries to spend the approx. $300 / annually (I haven't fact checked, but I think that I transcribed this info correctly) it takes to subscribe to a great stock photo outlet, such as photos.com. A professional photographer could be expensive, but might be a worthwhile investment for many institutions. If it's not possible, take photos with a good quality digital camera around the library. I'm sure that you'd have to work out how to get permission to use images of your patrons for the website, but I'm equally sure that it's quite doable.

Though there's a lot more "meat" to the presentation than I can cover here, including some interesting ideas about how to promote your redesigned website once it's nearly complete/readied for the "go live" date, there's one really important footnote to the presentation - throughout her talk, Maria said that she'd visited many Ct. libraries' websites of late and that she'd rarely found a "welcoming" home page. She strongly suggested a "Welcome to xxx Library" statement on the home page, ideally with current photos of the library or library use by patrons or staff. It's part of the friendly, warm, welcoming atmosphere public libraries should be offering patrons.

Finally, I wanted to raise the issue of why we don't prioritize web work in a professional way in the library world. Instead, it seems like libraries throughout the state (actually, that's not fair, it's throughout the nation, probably the world) just add web work as one more assignment (as though it's a simple project to build, maintain, and evolve web services for libraries) for people whose expertise is in information retrieval, circulation, and/or cataloging? It's as if library administrators all too often don't respect the world of web technology in all of its fast-evolving complexity. It's not simple html, Dreamweaver, or Front Page. Web development and web services encompass a set of programming languages and concepts that are as complex as AACR2 and MARC formats.

I know that there's a basic economic issue governing this lack of web professionalism, and I do think that we want to move more librarians into web professionals, rather than somehow getting our field out of web work, but I think we have to acknowledge that it is a specialty unto itself. It's not just a "fun" assignment (though I agree that web work can be extremely satisfying!) - ultimately, web development is a crucial means of communicating with, and providing services, to our patrons. So take your web-literate librarians, or those who can & want to be, and move them to the next level - give them tools to move them further into web programming, content preparation, and/or web design (the primary tools being time and training!). Might I suggest that it would be good to reduce their other duties, as well, and to prioritize this aspect of their work? Also, consider which pieces of your web development should be outsourced to specialists.

We also need to get our MLIS programs up to snuff. There's no reason why anyone graduating Library School should fail to know HTML (not just how to use WYSIWYG editors, though that's a good start). Ideally, MLS programs would even require you to take other programming/systems courses... XML, Javascript, MySQL, PHP, Apache, Linux, for example, could be part of the web librarian "track".

So there's a lot to think about as we engage with our library websites. Still, I'd hate to have anyone who was at the roundtable (or who's reading this) feel badly because their site was pointed out as needing improvement or for them to feel overwhelmed because there's so much work that needs to be done to improve it. Instead, I'd suggest that librarians concentrate on how this web development work will better serve their patrons. Remember, redesign=evolution.

And, for those libraries that realize that they're too small to devote time to website work, think about doing something to reduce the programming/design burden and just concentrate your limited web time & expertise to customizing (adding content to) existing products/systems. For example, Miranda Creative is creating a set of Dreamweaver-based website templates for libraries. Libraries can then customize them using nothing more than Macromedia's Contribute (or DW, if you already have it, but if you don't DW is so expensive and Contribute is much less $ & easier to learn). Think about buying into something like that. Or a content management system. More on that another time.

[BTW, if you're doing a site redesign, I want to remind you that you can hyperlink to individual iCONN databases, as well as the whole kit-and-kaboodle. For the individual URLs, go to our page http://www.iconn.org/staff/urltable.aspx.]

Don't forget, there will be another webmasters' roundtable coming up in about month(?), so keep an eye on the Connecticut Library Consortium's website for more information (meeting notices are usually published on CONNTECH, too). Get involved & good luck with your own web efforts. Remember, even Miranda's website could use some work - all of ours could!

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