Friday, 24 June 2011

Save library websites

It’s all that Gillian Hanlon’s fault. There I was, minding my own business, doing a bit of this, bit of that, arranging the odd unconference now and again and having a rant about information literacy (or more likely the lack of it) every so often.

And then Gillian asks if I’d like to run a session on library websites at the 2011 CILIPS Conference (held in Glasgow in early June).

Now, I may possibly have given the impression that I know something about websites somewhere along the line. Indeed, I have worked on website development for a fair chunk of my professional career.  However...library websites were a bit of an unknown quantity for me. I’ve looked at the odd library website (some very odd) but I’d never really paid them much attention and I’ve certainly never been involved in the development of one.

But still, a good website is a good website – the principles apply whatever the service being offered. So I said yes, not a problem. And off I went to look at library websites.

Many days later I emerged blinking into the light, with what can only be described as a heavy heart and a bit of a sare heid. With very few exceptions the UK library websites (academic and public) I looked at were pretty dire.  Indeed, I had to go to North America to find good examples for the presentation (although they certainly have their fair share of pretty dire examples as well).

What I went looking for

The presentation contended that highly effective library websites are

1.       purposeful
2.       integrated
3.       user centred
4.       content rich
5.       inclusive
6.       findable
7.       flexible and responsive

Most of the UK library websites I looked at were none of these things.

Why ever not?

Possibly because:

  • The responsibility for the library website has been foisted on someone who’s not really interested/has too  many other things to do and can’t give it much priority/is interested but doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to do much with the site.
  • The corporate web team aren’t very interested/helpful (they’ll be dealing with competing requests from across the organisation and may be able to give the library pages much attention).
  • There may be little room for maneouvere. The library web pages on a council site for example will have to comply with the overall corporate look and feel, etc.

Or any combination of the above.

Why does it matter?

Well...the current #savelibraries and related campaigns are all well and good, but they seem to miss the importance of the online face of the library.  For an increasing number of people the website will the first element of a library service they engage with – for many, the website will be only element of the library website they engage with. 

People make their minds up very quickly about websites, and their view of a website will impact their view of the rest of the service.

And, whether we like it or not, the push towards online services is going to get ever more insistent.

So what can we do?

Well, we’ve been plotting, Gillian and I. Plotting what we might do to help improve public* library websites north of the border.  It’s not a secret plot, so I can share it with you. We are looking at

  • Setting up a group for folk interested in the development of library websites/online services. Possibly a CILIP Special Interest Group, but more likely something less formal...a LinkedIn Group maybe, or a Community of Practice.
  • Creating some guidance. Or perhaps a ‘good’ library website template?
  • Offering some training on website design, usability, etc.
  • In the longer term, perhaps getting the Public Library Quality Improvement Matrix (PLQIM) updated to cover online services specifically.

(NB. This touches on a related issue of the relevance of our professional skills in areas such as web development, user experience design, etc...but that’s for another post)

In the meantime

While we’re thinking all this through, we’re going to get better informed and work out exactly what we're dealing with.

  • Gillian’s going to look at getting some questions added to the Electronic Services Survey – so we can get a better idea of what is being used in the way of Content Management Systems, which libraries have some input into the design of their websites/which are constrained by organisational set up, etc. 
  • And I’m going to have a proper look at those websites I’ve been so critical of. I didn’t study any in great detail for the purposes of the presentation, and some got little more than a cursory scan. So, in a poor man’s Better Connected, I’m going to work up a set of criteria based on those ‘seven habits of highly successful library websites’ mentioned above and review Scottish public library websites against those criteria. I’ll share these for comment here when I’ve drafted something.

If anyone would like to help with any of this...that would be much appreciated. And get in touch if you're interested in any of the stuff mentioned above (training, guidance, etc).


* we’ll tackle academic library websites at a later (unspecified) date :)


Vicky Sargent said...

Please don't reinvent any wheels. Socitm has done extensive research on the uesfulness and usability of council websites and has just published a special report on the user testing of the online offer of six local authority library services in London. Have a look at and lets see if we can collaborate in your initiative.

Vicky Sargent said...

Socitm would love to collaborate with you on this. As you may be aware, our annual Better connected report assesses council websites for usefulness and usability. This year we did a special report on libraries online, which involved a mystery shopping exercise in six London library services to test the online offer. The report can be found here Please get in touch.

Lel said...

Hi Vicky

Yep, am aware of the SOCITM reports - very timely and useful. I have read both the Better Connected reports and the library mystery shopping stuff.

I'm certainly not looking to reinvent any wheels, step on any toes or intrude on someone's patch.

It's not my intention to look at online library services in their entirety - only the basic usability/UX of the website (eg I have no intention of signing up for library cards, searching the catalogue, etc.

Happy to have a chat, but please be aware that this is something I'm doing because I'm interested - I intend making my findings freely available.

But, if you guys are up for looking at library websites/online services in Scotland in more detail, there would certainly be interest in that.

Vicky Sargent said...

I guess I may be coming across as over-sensitive about re-invention, and clearly what you are doing isn't. It sounds great, and we would love to publish your findings in the web CoP we run. The fact remains that lots of public sector money has been wasted and continues to be wasted by organisations re-researching things that are already known, when money would be better spent on the more challenging task of improving them!

Lel said...

Hi Vicky

Thanks for that. I did worry that I might be treading on toes a wee bit :)

I appreciate where you are coming from re reinventing wheels, but no public money will be spent in this case - this is something I'll be doing in my own time :) It's a librarian thing...we like to help each other out :)

But, as I mentioned in my previous response - if SOCITM were looking to do some further 'mystery shopping' in libraries, that would be really useful.


Michelangelo Viana said...

Dear Leslie,

Thanks for your text and presentation. I am a brazilian librarian and I'll use many of your ideas as basis for our new website, it is for a university at a brazilian southern state.

I am colaborator of a Portuguese-Brazilian blog, "The-Information" and would like to publish your post about libary websites in Portuguese, with all credits for you of course, if you allow it.

Thanks in advance.
Michelângelo Viana

Lel said...

Hi Michelângelo

Please use whatever is useful. And, yes, more than happy for you to translate my post.

If you've not already see it, there's also a very good summary of the presentation on the Panlibus blog: