The future of Web Services isn’t the Library website

2007 September 16
by Karen

The last three weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about the role of my department in fulfilling the Libraries mission and where the department needs to go in the next 3 years. Part of getting where we want to go has been this whole site redesign process. But not in the way most of the library thinks. Most of the library sees the redesign process as about “fixing” the current website so that it is more usable, up-to-date, and attractive. For me this isn’t really what the redesign is about. In my mind, the redesign is about defining the types of content the library has to offer its users and getting that content into pieces that can be reused and repurposed elsewhere. Whether this be the university website, school or college websites, or on the Internet at large.

Why is this more important to me than the end product of the new site the public sees? Because meeting your users where they are isn’t about making them come to the library website. In considering our long term virtual presence plans, the library website is a given. People who come to the site know we exist and want to use our services. To truly be successful we have to get our content into the path of the people who wouldn’t walk through our door (physical or virtual).

We couldn’t possibly begin to do this with our old site because of its static architecture. Long term I’d like a site which has a series of web services that can be exploited by my developers but also my the university web developers and who knows who else.

In the meantime, I’m dealing with fall out from the new site because it doesn’t look exactly the same to everyone. I’m not from the graphic design side of the fence of the web design world so I think that such expectations are unrealistic and ill advised. We can’t control what technology our users have. Trying to make a site that works equally well for everyone has two consequences:

  1. Huge amounts of resources are devoted to crafting multiple permutations that have to be maintained
  2. You end up with a mediocre site that no one hates or loves.

This isn’t saying you want a site that isn’t functional. However, if you have a site that is designed for 1024×768 it isn’t going to look “right” at 800×600. Issues of screen resolution are ones that drive me the most crazy because they can’t be scripted on the server side and you have to make a choice about what resolution you are designing for. With dynamic layouts sometimes things rescale nice and sometimes they don’t.

But let’s be honest some of these issues would be resolved if users had alternate ways of accessing our data. Does the typical mobile user want the library website or a specific piece of information or tool from the library site? If faculty could do their searches without coming to the library site would they? I think the answer is yes. Focusing on content rather than look and feel will allow us to provide these different types of services. It will also allow different types of users to potentially selectively access content.

For faculty and grad students who want to do known item searching in our catalog, maybe something like LibX is the way to go. Or maybe allowing users to create their own search interface to a set of particular resources that they can embed in their browsers search bar or on their desktop as a search widget.

Ultimately, I feel like it is these kinds of services that will make of break a library’s virtual presence not the library website. And with a limited staff, this means I like to choose carefully how much time I have my small staff spend on the tradition site. Otherwise, we could spend all our time caught up in look and not enough time working to make the library meet users where they are and be a seamless part of their work processes.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. 2007 October 5

    I couldn’t agree more with almost everything you write here; in fact, this post was pointed out to me by someone who works for me and noted the similarity in tone and argument to my own comments. What pains me no end is that I, and many others, still work in organizations where many of those in positions to set tone and change directions (read: deans, directors, department heads) are still quite capable of fixing their gaze firmly on their navels and ignoring the changing world around them. Sure, they talk 2.0, and they love repeating platitudes about Net Gen students and how the library needs to be where the action is, yada yada yada. How many of them, however, are ready to leap headlong into the future, e.g.- go with an OS ILS, say no to vendor-driven metasearch/metawhatever tools, abandon original cataloging, etc. Not many, at least not in larger academic libraries. So, we’re stuck creating band-aids for dysfunctional vendor products and tweaking the library’s Website, when, in fact, that Website is largely irrelevant these days.

  2. 2007 November 21

    Excellent post, Karen. If our sites are to survive – and this is questionable in my mind, too – they need to become community sites, and be lightweight, mobile, mashable…everything they are not. I wonder if eventually the tools to do this kind of thing will be as ubiquitous as the currently-existing tools for static sites. It’s a dream, anyway, and might come too late to save us.

    This past summer I wrote a blog posting, The End of Web Design. I think you’d relate to it!

  3. 2008 October 24

    A dead-on analysis, Karen. Working on a state OPAC committee, I’ve become progressively radicalized on the issue of library web pages, databases, and opacs. What most librarians have a hard time grasping is that the war is over, and the library web page lost. We’ve done surveys to see what users are doing on our library computers. The library web page, databases, and catalog are used about 3% of the time. The percentages for people who don’t come to the library are no doubt even lower.

    Even if we could develop a library web page as simple, social, and enjoyable as Amazon (not likely), nothing would change. Users have moved on; the library not where they start a search for information. We need to get our content out to where they do, and fast.

  4. 2008 November 11

    How is the Library website design going, Karen. Most Web design usability arguments are waste of your time. All web users are unique. There are no average users. There are no simple “right” answers for most Web design questions. What works is a well-integrated design that fills a need, carefully thought out, well executed and tested.

  5. 2010 February 28
    Aline permalink

    Hi Karen, I also wonder if eventually the tools to do this kind of thing will be as ubiquitous as the currently-existing tools for static sites. It’s a dream, anyway, and might come too late to save us. ,</greetings Aline

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