The State of the Library Website

T’was a time when the Library Website was an abomination. Those dark days have lightened significantly. But new clouds have appeared on the horizon.

Darkest Before the Dawn

In the dark ages of Library Websites, users suffered under UX regimes that were rigid, unhelpful and confusing. This was before responsive design became a standard in the library world. It was before search engine optimization started to creep into Library meetings. It was before user experience became an actual librarian job title.

We’ve come a long way since I wrote The Ugly Truth About Library Websites. Most libraries have evolved beyond the old “website as pamphlet” paradigm to one that is dynamic and focused on user tasks.

Public libraries have deployed platforms like BiblioCommons to serve responsive, task-oriented interfaces that integrate their catalogs, programming and website into a single social platform. Books, digital resources, programs and even loanable equipment are all accessible via a single search. What’s more, the critical social networking aspects of library life are also embedded along the user’s path. Celebrated examples of this integrated solution include the San Francisco Public Library and Chicago Public Library. Queens is also hard at work to develop a custom solution.

In the academic realm, libraries have turned to unified discovery layers like WorldCat Discovery and EBSCO Discovery Service to simplify (Googlize) the research process. These systems put a single-search box front and center that access resources on the shelf, but also all those electronic resources that make up the bulk of academic budgets.

And while there are still many laggards, few libraries ignore these problems outright.

The Storm Ahead

While the general state of online library interfaces has improved, the unforgiving, hyperbolic curve of change continues to press forward. And libraries cannot stay put. Indeed, we need to quicken our pace and prepare our organizations for ongoing recalibration as the tempo of change increases.

The biggest problem for library websites, is that there is little future for the library website. That’s because people will get less and less information through web browsers. Indeed, consider how often you use a web browser on your phone versus an app. Developments in AI, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will compound that trend.

If you’re like Chris Milk, videographer and VR evangelist, you see the writing on the wall. The modes of how we experience information are about to undergo a fundamental revolution. Milk likens the current state of VR to the old black and white silent films at the dawn of motion pictures.

I’d extend this line of thinking to the web page. Within a decade or two, I expect people will look back on web pages as a brief, transitory medium bridging print information to linked data. And as our AI, VR and AR technologies take off, they will liberate information from the old print paradigms altogether.

In short, people will interact with information in more direct ways. They will ask a computer to provide them the answer. They will virtually travel to a “space” where they can experience the information they seek.

Get Ready to Re-invent the Library…again

So where does the library fit into this virtualized and automated future?

One possibility is that the good work to transform library data into linked data will enable us to survive this revolution. In fact, it may be our best hope.

Another hope is that we continue to emphasize the library as a social space for people to come together around ideas. Whether its a virtual library space or a physical one, the library can be the place in both local and global communities where people meet their universal thirst for connecting with others. The modes of those ideas (books, ebooks, videos, games) will matter far less than the act of connecting.

In a sense, you could define the future online library as something between an MMORPG, Meetup.com and the TED conference.

So, the library website is vastly improved, but we won’t have long to rest on our laurels.

Ready Player One? Put on your VR goggles. Call up Siri. Start rethinking everything you know about the Library website.

 

 

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.

Clutter

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.

Solutions

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.

Responsive Design Now Ordinary

I had a great time at Matthew Reidsma’s talk on Responsive Design last week here in Chicago. But as I explored the concepts on a MAMP install of WordPress, I was startled to see just how ordinary Responsive has become. That’s because the default themes of WordPress are now responsive (and have been since last year’s Twenty Eleven Theme). Talk about “un-sexying” a technology!

It’s actually quite funny (and yet not funny) because I know many people (not in WordPress) who are working really hard to create responsive CSS using media queries from scratch. And this can be quite a job, because you really need to think differently about content, styling, design and even HTML. In fact, the whole enterprise of building a website is turned upside down…assuming you believe (as I do) that the simplest approach to building a responsive site is a Mobile First strategy.

WordPress (and some Drupal themes) just took all the mystery away, I suppose. If you’re fortunate to be able to use WordPress, responsive is just baked into the system and you can instantly see how it will look on different screen sizes by just dragging your browser window in and out.

Once again, this CMS impresses me for its elegance at solving the user experience issues of our day. Hats off to the WP community.

The Library Website Will Disappear

A new year always elicits thoughts about the future, but this month, my library has been considering our next strategic plan, which has focused those thoughts for me on my library and the profession in general.

Since I’m principally charged with managing the online aspects of my library, I come to these kinds of discussions focused on web platforms, online communication and consumer technology trends. One of the biggest trends (you may have noticed) has been the adoption of mobile, touch screen devices like iPhones and tablets. I include even Microsoft’s attempt at reinventing the PC with its Surface Tablet, despite early failures to woo consumers. And given this apparently irresistable move toward mobile, tablet-like computing, I have to ask: what does this ultimately mean for the library’s web properties: our websites, our online instruction guides, our discovery systems and our digital collections?

Palo Alto Venture Capital firm KPCB recently explored this very issue in their 2012 Internet Trends Report. Some major insights from their report include:

  • Mobile traffic is now 13% of all global Internet traffic, up from just 1% in 2009. In some countries, like India, mobile Internet traffic has surpassed desktop traffic.
  • Almost 1/3 of US adults own a tablet or e-reader
  • Together, iOS and Android are 45% of the OS market share, vs. 35% for Windows
  • The install base of Tablets + Smartphones will surpass PCs + Notebooks this year

But one trend that stands out in KPCB’s analysis is that of the Asset-Light generation. A long-form definition can be found via a very Asset-Light resource: Quib.ly. But to put it more succinctly, being asset-light means your lifestyle is one less reliant on physical commodities and personal know-how, but instead, relies on cloud and crowd-sourcing just about everything. You don’t carry around notepads, you don’t buy maps, you don’t rely on “experts” for medical advice or which movie to see next. Asset-lighters, meet their needs by streaming, connecting and sharing.

From KPCB’s perspective, this is quite important in terms of where the web is heading. Some notable examples relavent to libraries include: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Amazon Textbook Rental and of course, good-ole Wikipedia.

So, socially, we’re moving toward a very different economy and radically different means of information distribution, especially when it comes to learning.

Add to this, two major and imminent innovations and you will get a glimpse at just how different the world will be in only 5 years:

  1. Wearable devices, especially eyeware will give people the ability to navigate the Internet by voice command, gesture and all through lenses fixed to their faces. Status: Google Glasses are expected to enter the market in early 2013 and Apple won’t be far behind.
  2. Artificially-intelligent agents will not quite resemble HAL from 2001, but be very capable of understanding your vocal commands and then ferreting quite reliable answers to your questions or carrying out mundane tasks, like creating appointments or sending messages for you. Status: Did you see IBM Watson slaughter Jeopardy’s world champions or used SIRI on your iPhone?

So, the way we gather information and where we go to get it is already changing. And the interfaces are already being revolutionized and that pace will accelerate dramatically over the next 5 years as voice and sight overtake the the very impractical and immobile keyboard…even the touchscreen may be reduced to the point where iPads seem like a whimsical dead-end much like 8 track or Beta tapes.

All of these changes will have an immediate effect on the core of our current Internet paradigm: the Web Page.

Text and links with a smattering of images have been the key content types of of web pages since Tim Berners Lee first formulated the WWW. Mobile devices have changed all that. Not only do they steer away from typical web interfaces in favor of “apps,” they actually de-link parts of the web from each other. The result, in most cases is a much more curated and manageable Internet.

And this is important for libraries, whose pages are almost hard-wired around interconnecting pages together in rather daunting tangles of hyperlinks, portals and gateways. Unfortunately, this paradigm is increasingly less relevant to today’s devices and today’s Asset-lighters, who expect a web page to cut through the clutter and get them the answer. In fact, they want an app to do the heavy-lifting for them.

And add to this, semi-intelligent software agents and a re-conceived commercial Internet based around voice and sight and you can see how much work libraries have ahead of them.

The users 5 years from now that enter our libraries’ virtual spaces, will expect a curated, largely automated experience. Already, we see this on the ground where incoming students are completely beside themselves in the antiquated library environment. One recent Facebook post on my library’s newsfeed noted: “The Library has a website?”

Another telling anecdote: One colleague of mine defined her job as teaching people to fish. I then asked: How many people actually go fishing anymore. Fishing to them is dropping by the supermarket. Full-stop.

The world is just getting too complicated for people to be expected to take the time to find information on their own. Information will continue to be a commodity, yes. Information will continue to badger the human mind. But AI servants and wildly different means of gathering information, will mean that single individuals will never have to tackle almost any information problem alone. The crowd, the bots and the apps will do the fishing.

And the web page will be like Matrix code that few ever need to concern themselves with. Get ready…

Rolling out Campus Guides

We began implementing Campus Guides (LibGuides CMS) this week. Two projects will kick-off this new platform for us:

  1. Building out new informational pages that target specific campus groups (faculty will come first)
  2. Redesigning the “LibGuides” workflow for guide publication by using groups for admin purposes

The informational pages have been a usability disaster for some time, but we had delayed doing anything about this because our current CMS is it’s own kind of disaster. Now that we have Campus Guides, though, we can implement some information architectural changes and interface enhancements (using JQuery) to vastly improve the utility of these kinds of pages.

An admin group that requires admin access to edit content will serve as the content management system for things like navigation boxes, Jquery features and other code-intensive objects that non-technical staff should not be touching. Another group will house the “guides” themselves, where librarians can access templates embedded with the admin group’s content.

We’ll be doing something similar with our traditional libguides content: creating an admin group that contains the “steal this guide” content with things like canned search boxes, book feeds, etc. We’ll also be creating a Test group for these libguides where interesting features can be explored without allowing others to copy such content. Once these tests are approved as public content, we can then simply place that new content into the “steal this guide” group for use across the system.

I’m curious if others out there have tried this approach. On paper it looks great. We shall see…

SharePoint: A Square Peg in a Round World

My university is moving its entire web content management system over to Microsoft SharePoint, and so I thought it would be a good idea to dive into the platform to get ready. My recent experience with a sandbox SharePoint installation on a hosted server has answered some questions, and made me appreciate some of SharePoint’s power, but in many ways, my initial concerns remain.

It almost goes without saying that anything Microsoft is going to be clunky. The once-enigmatic Tech Titan has not aged well. The list of failures is legion: Internet Explorer, XP, Vista, Window Mobile…As a result, many people have gone Mac or Android, Mozilla or Chrome.

It didn’t help that during its heyday, Microsoft’s market strategy focused on forcing the world of round pegs to conform to its square peg model. So the public at large has been fleeing in droves and the once mighty emperor is left naked on the stage as was the case at this year’s CES keynote given by MSFT CEO Steve “I’m going to F**kin’ Kill Google” Ballmer. Ouch.

Sadly, MSFT remains fairly entrenched in business and education, even as the precipitous flight of employees and students to anything not-Microsoft carries on. And so, we’re left with this disconnect between the ecosystem of our users and the ecosystem of IT departments. Long-term, this will get sorted out in a way that is highly unlikely to favor Microsoft, but in the transition period, we all must do what we can to fit those square pegs into their assigned holes.

Such was my primary mission for Project Spork, a multi-pronged CMS exploration that tested different CMS against a selection of requirements from our library’s production site. In this project, we built three prototyope sites in LibGuides, Drupal and SharePoint.

SporkSP (the SharePoint version) started off with a large dose of suspended disbelief as I waded through a product that was originally designed as a document-oriented wiki. It bears noting that the WCMS components in SharePoint were only later added when Microsoft realized that many of its Intranet customers were applying SharePoint to Internet problems. And this really shows when you start trying to create an institutional website with it.

Like Drupal and other CMS systems, if you come from a hand-coding/Dreamweaver background, you’re going to be put off right away. But in SharePoint, it’s much easier than in Drupal to code the old-fashioned way. However, while you can easily jump into codeview in SharePoint Designer, there is never any guarantee that the wiki-oriented SharePoint won’t strip out your code and drive you batty with security warnings.

SharePoint’s real strength, however, is in its database tools. With one click, you can connect SharePoint to an XML file, RSS feed, REST web services or external database (of almost any flavor). You can even easily make SharePoint the database editor for your external SQL database. And once you’ve made the connections to that data, SharePoint seamlessly integrates the database with the rest of your site. On this level, it blows Drupal away.

But lest you forget that you are working in a Microsoft product, let me recall the list of “Microsoft” issues that come up with this tool:

  1. IE is required to create pages and carry out many editing tasks within the browser due to certain Active X-based features
  2. You must install Silverlight for no better reason than the controls in the browser are built with Silverlight. In other words, without Silverlight, you can’t work effectively in a SharePoint site.
  3. And of course, nothing is straightforward:
    • CSS class and ID names are frightfully machine-oriented and even change!
    • If you build a relational database (or something that feels like a relational database) in SharePoint (say in your test environment) you cannot move it without all the lookup fields being broken.
    • The development tools are divided between the IE interface and SharePoint Designer. Meaning you are constantly jumping between them and it is never clear where a given feature will be found. For example, you have to create a database in SharePoint Designer, but then create the lookup fields within IE…say what?

But if I had to pick the worst FAIL of them all, it would be the wonky way SharePoint requires you to integrate external widgets and tools into your SharePoint site. Again, to be fair, SharePoint was designed as a wiki-like tool that focused on internally held documents. So tyring to bring in external web features was not ever built into the initial product. As a consequence, the most straightforward way to do so is through an iFrame…yuck!

For example, bringing in our WorldCat Local Search Box required the iFrame method, because SharePoint strips out the search form when you place the code directly into the page html. Okay, so you use an iFrame. But this method ensures that, one, you will need to host the form html and styling on an external server, and two, that iFrames are always fraught with display issues across browsers and devices.

Later investigation suggests that the more stable way around this, is by developing web parts that can display external content. But that requires that you learn .Net and Visual Studio…just to put a search form on a web page, folks.

For a site whose most important feature (the Library Catalog) needs to be brought in through an iFrame or some other even more heavy-handed method…well, that would normally be a deal breaker for any library comparing its requirements against a CMS.

I’m sure that Campus IT can solve some of these kinds of issues for us. But that brings up my final point: using this platform means that a Library web team will almost always be reliant on Campus IT for things that they would otherwise be able to do with ease. Or, alternatively, be forced to learn to develop for SharePoint. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but when you’re trying to keep pace with libraries that use more intuitive platforms (PHP, MySQL, Drupal, WordPress, etc.), well that means you’re likely to play catch up for years.

Library web services are always changing and will undoubtedly change even faster as we speed into the increasingly shifting landscape of e-readers, mobile devices, etc. The whole reason that librarians got into the IT business to start with, was because only they are familiar with their boutique technologies enough to make them all play nicely together.

SharePoint never had the library ecosystem in mind. Indeed, it never had web design in mind. Stil, you can use it to build very beautiful web pages that allow multiple users to edit them. The very nicely done pages that have already been deployed in SharePoint  at my institution testify to how well this product can work in some cases. But as a tool that improves the productivity of library web teams and library system teams, it fails.

Goodbye MARC. Hello RDF!

This just in: The Library of Congress has officially called for the replacement of MARC with a more web-friendly metadata schema.

The new bibliographic framework project will be focused on the Web environment, Linked Data principles and mechanisms, and the Resource Description Framework (RDF) as a basic data model.  The protocols and ideas behind Linked Data are natural exchange mechanisms for the Web that have found substantial resonance even beyond the cultural heritage sector.

I’m not expert in MARC, but I’ve seen enough to recall the sound of nails scratching that other fading technology known as a chalkboard every time I have to work with it.

As Library of Congress puts it very well in their statement, MARC was designed before the Internet and is seriously showing its age. Moreover, (and this part I certainly can’t confirm), they say that the emerging RDA standard (weren’t they talking about that when I was in Librarian school?), will likely fail if libraries don’t replace MARC.

Like the blurb above states, a new framework will allow linkages between digital records in libraries and other online resources much in the way that non-library systems are interlinked via URIs. That is, if you go to your library’s “catalog” you’ll be able to navigate seamlessly from the library record of a given article, say on Elvis, to an IMDB listing of Elvis’ filmography or to a distributed collection of images of Elvis.

Now that would truly do justice to the King. I can’t wait.