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.

 

 

W3C’s CSS Framework Review

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 3.19.41 PMI’m a longtime Bootstrap fan, but recently I cheated on my old framework. Now I’m all excited by the W3C’s new framework.

Like Bootstrap, the W3C’s framework comes with lots of nifty utilities and plug and play classes and UI features. Even if you have a good CMS, you’ll find many of their code libraries quite handy.

And if you’re CMS-deficient, this framework will save you time and headaches!

Why a Framework?

Frameworks are great for saving time. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for standard UI chunks like navigation, image positioning, responsive design, etc.

All you need to do is reference the framework in your code and you can start calling the classes to make your site pop.

And this is really great since not all well-meaning web teams have an eye for good design. Most quality frameworks look really nice, and they get updated periodically to keep up with design trends.

And coming from this well-known standards body, you can also be assured that the W3C’s framework complies with all the nitty-gritty standards all websites should aspire to.

Things to Love

Some of the things I fell in love with include:

  • CSS-driven navigation menus. There’s really no good reason to rely on JavaScript for a responsive, interactive navigation menu. The W3C agrees.
  • Icon support. This framework allows you to choose from three popular icon sets to bring icons right into your interface.
  • Image support: Lots of great image styling including circular cropping, shadowing, etc.
  • Cards. Gotta love cards in your websites and this framework has some very nice looking card designs for you to use.
  • Built-in colors. Nuff sed.
  • Animations. There are plenty of other nice touches like buttons that lift off the screen, elements that drop into place and much more.

I give it a big thumbs up!

Check it out at the W3C.org.

 

 

Separate Beds for ContentDM

separate beds for contentdmI tried to make things work, but in the end, short of a divorce, I told ContentDM if things were going to work out between us, we had to sleep in separate beds.

There’s been a lot of talk about “Breaking up with ContentDM” but for a library with limited tech staff to develop our own digital library platform, calling it quits isn’t in the cards…no matter how abusive ContentDM is to us.

Abusive? Well, let’s list it here to be on record:

  • As of this writing core functionalities like the image viewer and search do not work in IE10 due to Compatibility Mode (but then again IE10 users are just asking for it…time to move on folks!)
  • phrase search doesn’t work well
  • stop words are not stopped which is especially bad since phrase searching doesn’t fix this
  • commonly used JQuery UI features cannot be used in custom pages without conflicting with the Advanced Search drop down
  • Worst of all, once you upload a JS or CSS file, it’s in there for good…no deletions are possible!
  • Objects that are composed of an image layer and an OCR text layer do not display correctly in Firefox (but that’s probably more on Mozilla than OCLC)

So, I knew it was time to draw a line in the bedroom when our attempts at customizing the user experience within the ContentDM web configuration toolset went terribly wrong.

Our JQuery almost always caused conflicts, our attempts at responsive design went horribly wrong within the very unresponsive framework of ContentDM and the way ContentDM is structured (with separate CSS/JS uploads for each customized collection) spelled long-term disaster for managing change.

Then came the latest release update when even more went wrong (largely in IE10).

In the end, I couldn’t take it anymore and called up OCLC and begged them to reset the whole site to default configurations, so we could at least start fresh without concerns that legacy JS and CSS were going to cause problems (as I believe they were). They were very helpful and in a matter of 2 hours, had our collections all reset.

We’re doing it differently now as we roll out phased customizations.

Here are our hard-learned best practices:

  • Never upload any custom CSS or JS to ContentDM…at least until OCLC creates a way to delete these. Instead, where you need such things, simply upload a reference file that points to externally hosted files, which you can edit/delete as needed
  • For the system header, upload your banner image and resist the urge to include any navigation HTML. Instead, use the system menu creation tool. You can use your externally hosted CSS file (reference globally) to style these links (but if you have drop downs you need to given them using this method)
  • Use a meta tag redirect to force ContentDM to redirect traffic to your externally hosted home page since ContentDM doesn’t allow you to replace the home page completely with an external page without resorting to this trick. Probably not great for SEO, but avoids the aggravations we endured for so long
  • Use the custom page tools for your collection pages that allow you to replace the whole page (including the header and footer) with an externally hosted page. In our case, we are doing this for the really important collections, but others, we manage directly within ContentDM.
  • Put any custom interface features into your externally hosted pages and develop to your hearts content

The result: users can now enjoy JQuery-powered interface features and more responsive designs from the home page down to the individual collection pages. If you want to add proven page-turning or timeline technologies in your collection pages, you can now do so without worry. The users only deal with ContentDM once they enter search result or image viewer pages.

To help with the browser issues, we will be deploying browser checks that will deliver messages to users coming to our site with IE or Firefox, hoping to head off bad user experiences with one-time, cookie-based messages. In other words, the first time you come to our site with one of these known problem browsers (for ContentDM), you’ll be urged to use Safari or Chrome.

Conceivably, you could use a CMS like WordPress or Drupal to manage your custom pages and start adding timeline, mapping and other plugins as you like. We’ll probably work toward this in 2014 or 2015.

Speaking of user disruption, the other cool thing about separating most of your digital library GUI from ContentDM, is that you can work in test environments, out of sight, and only update the public pages when you’ve thoroughly tested them. This was impossible when we tried to work in ContentDM itself. And when things went wrong, the users in our DL saw every thing in plain sight.

View the current production version of our Digital Collections.

Yeah, separate beds are just what the doctor ordered. Post any questions in the comments as I’m sure I raced through many of the details…