Thoughts on Web Strategy for Libraries

I think it might be time for libraries to start to think seriously about what their product actually is.

I’m an academic librarian, so my thoughts are inclined in that direction, but this is a real need for public libraries also.

Thought #1: Our products do not resemble each other

My library owns about a million books for a five-library system. About fifty thousand journal subscriptions, most of them electronic. Somewhere over a hundred thousand ebooks. Electronic information is about 80% of our collections budget, and we buy a lot of different kinds of things:

  • journal, magazine, and newspaper articles
  • indexes to scholarly literature
  • electronic reference works
  • electronic books
  • statistical data
  • government documents (free, I know, but bear with me)
  • maps
  • collections of digital texts
  • photographs and art (local and licensed)
  • dissertations and theses

This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list, not nearly comprehensive enough to cover the incredible variety of things my library (and yours) has.

One of the arguments in libraryland is whether a Google-like search is the right idea for patrons. It depends on who you ask. For almost everybody, that ship has sailed and Google’s model is *the* mental model for how search works. For librarians and some others (not including most faculty, either, by the way) our traditional search tools and methods are still favored.

Thing is, Google works because it’s searching a body of things which all resemble each other. When you click on a link you get a webpage. For mysterious reasons, mostly the thing you want appears near the top of the first page of results.

You can create a single search box for libraries, but it won’t work the same way because the content isn’t uniform or predictable or usable the same way from everywhere (yes, please ask me about linking to library resources off-campus).

Depending on which group of my patrons I’m talking to, sometimes the right tool is an index to everything that’s been published in their discipline, sometimes it’s a collection of full-text articles or books, sometimes it’s a print item on the shelves. The answer to the question comes when you are handling the material you want/need, not while you’re navigating the steps in between.

Thought #2: Our systems don’t answer user questions

We spend a lot of money on indexes to scholarly literature which are in no way related to what the library has. Factoid: at my last library we had full text access to at least some of about a third of the titles in MLA Bibliography. This essentially means that MLA Bibliography was useful chiefly as a source for ILL requests, which is OK. From a librarian’s perspective. We all have link resolvers that try to connect you from the index to our subscription services for the full text. When it works, patrons love it. When it doesn’t, patrons perceive the system as broken. The human question is “Why are you giving me a link which doesn’t work?”. Or, for that matter, a page full of them. The complexity of our systems and our vendor relationships is not something we should be inflicting upon our patrons.

Indexes are valuable data about the structure of disciplines. If they do their job patrons expect to be able to immediately read what they find. When they can’t, for whatever reason, we are creating a bad user experience for them.

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Boston area academic librarian and instructional designer. News junkie. Fan of marine mammals, October.