The Ugly Truth About Library Websites

The world’s ugliest websites are not library websites. But we’re not far behind.

In the course of my work, I scan some pretty dismal exemplars of this tragic state of affairs. But let’s be frank, we’re not talking about a few bad apples. Bad websites are the norm for libraries.

Now, I won’t draw attention to specific offenders (we’re all guilty to some degree after all) as I really want to focus on what goes into good library design. Nor will I indulge my first impulse to drop a few old-school animated GIFs onto this post to illustrate my point in 16-bit fashion. Let’s keep this civil. No need to induce any migraines or sore feelings.

But in order to highlight the best design approaches to common library problems, we need to first call out the number one cause of usability disasters in the library world.


Busy bee librarians have built hives too heavy for their own good. Sooner or later, the twig of user patience will snap and the bears of irrelevance will eat us for lunch.

Here are the commonly heard refrains in library web conversations: Everyone-has-to-have-their-way, everything and the kitchen skink must be on the homepage, repeated ad nauseum from page to endless page, down the rabbit hole. If it is a thing related to the library, their must be a link!

[Your Brain Dump Here]

Clutter is a tenacious problem on any website, namely because it arises from the very sensible desire to help people find things. And for librarians, whose primary service model was built on pre-arranging materials in logical ways, this “helpfulness” seems natural and entirely appropriate.

But the short history of the Internet is littered with the failures of this approach. The clearest example was during the early Search Engine Wars between Yahoo! and Google.

Yahoo!’s approach was to organize the Internet into browsable hierarchies on top of having an okay search product (sound familiar yet?). Google, on the other hand, just focused on the search product (it had to be fast, accurate and dead simple). As you probably noticed, Google won.

Pretty much every library site follows the failed Yahoo! model. Again, this is largely due to the historical approach to pre-organizing information for people. It’s practically in our QP 624.

Meanwhile, Google continues to chip away at the loyalty of our user base. According to the 2012 Academic Library Edition of Library Journal’s Patron Profile Google is the initial choice for starting research for 76% of student respondents. The library was the first choice for 24%.

In some libraries, it’s the dreaded Web Committee that is the primary cause of clutter where the impulse to pre-organize information is compounded by group-think and organizational politics. Other times, it’s a simple lack of understanding of basic usability principles. And in some cases, the understanding of usability is there, but other considerations get in the way, such as clashing web strategies where the website is being used for purposes beyond what its architecture can handle.


The Web Committee

The solution to the Web Committee is to break this body up and do an extreme makeover. Distributed content management is definitely the goal, but this must be a curatorial process handled by professionals. Sadly, most “information professionals” don’t come out of library school with usability core to their training. From my perspective, this is a key oversight in our professional strategy and one that explains why libraries no longer lead in terms of delivering information.

As I just indicated, the replacement for the Web Committee is a Web Curator Committee. Actually, it’s less a committee than a group. Whatever you call it, here are the basic outlines of what this body should be about:

  • Small: Limit membership to one representative from each part of the library that is the main service provider for any given content. Typically, this might be one curator from instruction, one from reference, one from access services, etc.
  • Focused: Each member should be a knowledgable expert from their department, that knows the audience their content addresses and the key services being offered. And that one person, will have sole responsibility for the pages they are assigned.
  • Skilled: Each member will either come trained in usability or be trained to do their job well. In my library, this group has been given a measure of informal training, including webinars from usability experts and readings. Plus they get to hear me rant from time to time ;P

Once you have this group in place, it becomes much easier for distributed content management to happen and happen usably. The idea is that the group meets quarterly to keep on the same page but largely they work independently. Most importantly, curators are dynamite at keeping the clutter at bay as these people serve as ambassadors to their departments and often have more trust than, say, someone from an external web team. Their role, then, is to gather input on updating content and then edit ruthlessly using their arsenal of best practices and understanding of the library’s content strategy.

Usability? What Usability?

In many libraries, usability is a new concept. As I mentioned, training in usability principles is not (yet) core to our profession, so if you or someone you care about is one of these people, here are the basic principles of design you should consider.

Four good starting places:

  1. Dan Brown of EightShapes has a great webinar on the principles of good web design. Watch it (or scan the slideshow) and you’re already halfway done.
  2. Usability guru, Jakob Nielsen is slightly more detailed (and ironically, not the most elegant design-wise)
  3. Also, of course, Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, is an easy classic that is simultaneously funny.
  4. Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web takes you step by step on how to build a framework to do content right.

Mission Creep

Sometimes library leadership knows all about usability…but then there’s what they do for a living. Let’s face it, the top brass are wheeling and dealing, fighting the good fight on a level that we lower down the organization can’t even comprehend. The library website, to some library leaders, is, yes, a discovery layer that needs to be usable, but also a tool in winning friends and allies and keeping the budgets healthy. Thus, we get the library site that is at once a tool for 99.9% of our users to find things, but also built around a host of other purposes.

This can result in lots of content…trough-fulls of it…and it all must be on the homepage.

Until this is managed appropriately, this problem can best be described as mission creep. More complicated than either of the other two causes of clutter, mission creep is actually quite common. In cases of mission creep, it’s important to turn to experts like Kristina Halvorson. While Halvorson is a stickler for holding the line on runaway content, she also understands that business goals are key to content strategy. And if your leadership’s business strategy requires lots of links to keep the lights on, ultimately, your site must provide this.

For the usability purists, this is a hard truth to face. But there are creative options open to us. Consider the following:

  1. As Dan Brown might say, break the navigation. Create content areas on your site that allow you to put new links or images or even blocks of text that meet any business needs your library might have down the road.
  2. Another Dan Brown turism: Growth Happens, so plan for it.Build your architecture so that it anticipates “runnaway growth” in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your typical library user. This can include planning for sub-sites or handing over a menu to meet changing missions.
  3. Let search save you. Fortunately, many, many people prefer using your search box than browsing your pre-organized links. If all else fails, make sure your search tool is central, easily reachable and works.

There are places where professional usability-minded web managers need to draw the line, however:

  1. The left-most menu item is sacrosanct. This should be considered the easiest, most usable spot on your site and every effort should be made to keep it free of content that can mislead or confuse users with too many dead-end options.
  2. The little arm of the F: The above the fold, below the nav bar area just to the right of your left rail is critical. This is where your search must be on your homepage and if you do this, all the clutter in the world will not stop most users from ignoring everything else and getting to your resources. Unfortunately, many users will find your website deeper in the navigation, having come from a link somewhere else, but again, that’s when creativity in design (such as in your navigation) can help save the user.

Best in Show

So what does good design look like? A pretty nice implementation of a clean, usable library site is at the ETH Bibliothek in Switzerland.

The first thing you’ll notice about this library website is that it doesn’t look anything like your library website. You’ll note the slick, modern design that looks like something out of Mountain View or Cupertino, not the Web Committee.

You’ll see that it has the search box visible right smack on the small arm of the F-pattern and that this box appears on every page in exactly the same place.

You’ll also note that this site has a lot of content (look at the fat footer site map). See? Clearly the architect had to build for lots of needs, but used an ingenious technique for meeting those demands, while keeping the site smooth and simple.

So, to sum up: the library world needs a good, strong shot of usability…or else. And the real heroes that will save our users and our relevancy to the world, are the leaders in this area.

5 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth About Library Websites

  1. Thanks, that’s a good post. Creepcontrol and preparing for the eventual growth is key here. Plus your analysis of the heart of this problem (read: librarianship) i agree with.

  2. Pingback: Website Clutter and Possible Solutions | GovDesign

  3. Ugh, I was talking about this only the other day! I think you are talking about US libraries – in the UK libraries are run by county councils so we have the added problem that we have to stick with the layout of the county council website. Not always a bad thing. Not always a good thing. It’s kind of embarrassing, really – our raison d’etre is information and we can’t transmit our own information effectively in the most modern way!

  4. Pingback: Why library websites should not be designed by committee – Reblog of “The Ugly Truth About Library Websites” | usable libraries

  5. Pingback: The State of the Library Website | Fail!lab

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s