The world is changing, the web is changing and libraries are changing along with them. Commercial behemoths like Amazon, Google and Facebook, together with significant advancements in technical infrastructure and consumer technology, have established a new set of expectations for even casual users of the web. These expectations have created new mental models of how things ought to work, and why—not just online, either. The Internet of Things may not yet be fully realized but we clearly see its imminent appearance in our daily lives.
Within libraries, has our collective concept of the intention and purpose of the library website evolved as well? How should the significant changes in how the web works, what websites do and how we interact with them also impact how we manage, assess and maintain library websites?
In some cases it has been easier to say what the library website is not – a catalog, a fixed-form document, a repository—although it facilitates access to these things, and perhaps makes them discoverable. What, then, is the library website? As academic librarians, we define it as follows.
The library website is an integrated representation of the library, providing continuously updated content and tools to engage with the academic mission of the college/university.
It is constructed and maintained for the benefit of the user. Value is placed on consumption of content by the user rather than production of content by staff.
Moving from a negative definition to a positive definition empowers both stewards of and contributors to the website to participate in an ongoing conversation about how to respond proactively to the future, our changing needs and expectations and, chiefly, to our users’ changing needs and expectations. Web content management systems have moved from being just another content silo to being a key part of library service infrastructure. Building on this forward momentum enables progress to a better, more context-sensitive user experience for all as we consider our content independent of its platform.
It is just this reimagining of how and why the library website contributes value, and what role it fulfills within the organization in terms of our larger goals for connecting with our local constituencies—supporting research and teaching through providing access to resources and expertise—that demands a new model for library web governance.
Emerging disciplines like content strategy and a surge of interest in user experience design and design thinking give us new tools to reflect on our practice and even to redefine what constitutes best practice in the area of web librarianship.
Historically, libraries have managed websites through committees and task forces. Appointments to these governing bodies were frequently driven by a desire to ensure adequate balance across the organizational chart, and to varying degrees by individuals’ interest and expertise. As such, we must acknowledge the role of internal politics as a variable factor in these groups’ ability to succeed—one might be working either with, or against, the wind. Librarians, particularly in groups of this kind, notoriously prefer consensus-driven decision making.
The role of expertise is largely taken for granted across most library units; that is, not just anyone is qualified to perform a range of essential duties, from cataloging to instruction to server administration to website management.1 Consciously according ourselves and our colleagues the trust to employ their unique expertise allows individuals to flourish and enlarges the capacity of the organization and the profession. In the context of web design and governance, consensus is a blocker to nimble, standards-based, user-focused action. Collaborative processes, in which all voices are heard, together with empirical data are essential inputs for effective decision-making by domain experts in web librarianship as in other areas of library operations.
Web librarianship, through bridging and unifying individual and collaborative contributions to better enable discovery, supports the overall mission of libraries in the context of the following critical function:
providing multiple systems and/or interfaces
to browse, identify, locate, obtain and use
spaces, collections, and services,
either known or previously unknown to the searcher
with the goal of enabling completion of an information-related task or goal.
The scope of content potentially relevant to the user’s discovery journey encompasses the hours a particular library is open on a given day up to and including advanced scholarship, and all points between. This perhaps revives in the reader’s mind the concept of library website as portal – that analogy has its strengths and weaknesses, to be sure. Ultimately, success for a library website may be defined as the degree to which it enables seamless passage; the user’s journey only briefly intersects with our systems and services, and we should permit her to continue on to her desired information destination without unnecessary inconvenience or interference. A friction-free experience of this kind requires a holistic vision and relies on thoughtful stewardship and effective governance of meaningful content – in other words, on a specific and cultivated expertise, situated within the context of library practice. Welcome to a new web librarianship.
Courtney Greene McDonald (@xocg) is Head of Discovery & Research Services at the Indiana University Libraries in Bloomington. A technoluddite at heart, she’s equally likely to be leafing through the NUC to answer a reference question as she is to be knee-deep in a config file. She presents and writes about user experience in libraries, and is the author of Putting the User First: 30 Strategies for Transforming Library Services (ACRL 2014). She’s also a full–time word nerd and gourmand, a fair–weather gardener, and an aspiring world traveler.
Anne Haines (@annehaines) is the Web Content Specialist for the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries. She loves creating webforms in Drupal, talking to people about how to make their writing work better on the web, and sitting in endless meetings. (Okay, maybe not so much that last one.) You can find her hanging out at the intersection of content strategy and librarianship, singing a doo-wop tune underneath the streetlight.
Rachael Cohen (@RachaelCohen1) is the Discovery User Experience Librarian at Indiana University Bloomington Libraries, where she is the product owner for the library catalog discovery layer and manages the web-scale discovery service. When she’s not negotiating with developers, catalogers, and public service people you can find her hoarding books and Googling for her family.
- While it is safe to say that all library staff have amassed significant experience in personal web use, not all staff are equally equipped with the growing variety of skillsets and technical mastery necessary to oversee and steward a thriving website. ↩