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Girl scratching head, looking at racing hurdleI was recently asked to talk to a SLIS class for the University of Illinois, concerning  what I do and what real-world advice I might care to impart to a class full of potential web librarians and developers.  One of the things that I shared were the major challenges that I typically face in my job.

Being in a tech position means that keeping up is a must, and “keeping up” is a moving target.  It’s a huge challenge, and I don’t always feel like I’m conquering it.   However, that’s not one of the things that raises my blood pressure.  In every job, there are obstacles that one enjoys working around, and then there are those that make one want to pull one’s hair out.  I’m betting many of you, readers, have encountered some of these as well?

I’ve narrowed mine down to three things:

  1. Design by Committee Hell:  Whenever I teach a web-related course, it’s amazing to me how many times I can ask the question “How many of you have had to deal with design by committee?” and nearly always get depressing stories in reply.  Virtually no one has anything good to say about it.  And, well they shouldn’t.  It’s a horrible way to work on a website.   Where I work, we even make it clear up front that we can’t work with this model.  In our experience, it has pretty much always meant additional costs for the client library, because timelines and prototypes go on and on.  Nobody’s happy.  I once spoke to a library director, explaining to her why we don’t work with this model, and she laughed, and said:  “Oh don’t worry!  I plan to do design by dictatorship.”  I’ve used that line often, now.  That’s not to say that library staff can’t give input, but there has to be someone, at the library’s end, who can draw a needed line in the sand, and say “Nope, that’s not happening.”  Despite our clear warnings, some of this is, sadly, unavoidable, as some libraries still have to deal with the demands of other forces, such as library boards or what I’ve come to term the “Terrible Territorial Librarian.*”
  2. Kitchen Sink Syndrome:   This is what I call the tendency of libraries to want to stuff everything onto the homepage (everything but the kitchen sink…).  Whether it’s databases, the navigation, programs…it doesn’t matter.  There is an unrealistic belief that everything libraries do and offer is equally important to visitors.  Which, of course, is absolute baloney, and results in cluttered sites with poor usability.  Decisions about what goes up front and what options users really care about are not made with any kind of data, but are generally shoved aside, in favor of anecdotal evidence or the demands of the “Terrible Territorial Librarian.*”  I spend a fair amount of time working with libraries to avoid this website disease, but the political barriers can be hefty, even for a motivated client.
  3. Special Snowflake Syndrome:  I’ve written a bit about this beforebut it’s an ongoing battle.  I still have library staff that say to me things like:  “Oh our patrons are used to finding the catalog button over here.  They’ll all go crazy if you move it!”  Or, try to convince me that their search function should go in the footer, because they don’t think their patrons will use it.  As if, somehow, the only site that visitors ever use on the Internet is that of the library, and they don’t carry any other experiences or expectations with them when they come.   I’m guessing that at least part of this mentality comes from how libraries develop collections–they’re created and curated for a specific community.  However, that argument can rarely be made for a library’s website.  There are conventions now:  the Internet has rules.  Your patrons are great, but they aren’t unique enough to break those rules. Sorry.

Do you run into these?  What other challenges do web folks run into ?        


*This could be an actual librarian, a staff member, administrator or, heck, the board member who thinks they run the library.  The gist being, it’s someone who favors keeping their personal control over whatever part of the website they’ve traditionally ruled, over actually making things easier for users.