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What if your library’s website solved problems?

Go look at your library’s website. Now, go look at the website of the library nearest yours. Now go look at some big city’s website. Heck, go look at most websites I’ve done.  And, while you’re looking, pretend that you’re a patron with any of the following questions/needs:

  • “I’m a sixth-grader and I have a report on zebras and I’m not going to check out any books.”
  • “I want to renew my books.”
  • “Does the library have any story times for kids with special needs?”
  • “How do I get divorce forms?”
  • “How do I get a library card?”
  • “Do you have a fax machine?”

How easy is it to find answers to these questions? If your library’s site is like most others, it’s not that simple.

Even though web designers and usability experts have know for years that people’s behavior on websites is task-driven, our sites are rarely created for that. Instead, we bombard visitors with huge, rotating carousels full of self-promotion, navigation full of jargon and meaningless terms (I’m looking at you, “Resources”) and other elements that primarily focus on either making the site looking “cool” or making things easy for in-house staff to find.

In late 2015, my agency completely shifted how it thinks about its website, and redesigned based on that shift.  Many people complimented us on the change, and some even asked how their libraries could do something similar. However, even the most enthusiastic of these inquiries quickly died off, when they realized the cultural shift it would require for their institution.  What did we change? We stopped promoting ourselves on our website–completely. The website is purely designed for the needs of our users, and the most common tasks they come to accomplish.  It doesn’t mean we don’t promote at all; rather, we changed where we promote. Now we use social media and listservs (which are often seen much more, anyway).  This change in how we think about promotion and the channels we use allowed us to create a website that focuses more on the people who use it. And those people? They’re not the agency’s staff.

I’m not making any claims that this kind of shift would be uncomplicated for a library. I recognize that there a lot of stakeholders, internally, that can derail such an effort and/or just don’t understand the need for this kind of change. After all, if you browse other library sites, you’ll see they haven’t made this shift. So why should yours?

What does this mean to me, Laura?

  • Such a change doesn’t mean that you have to go as far as we did. I think that some promotion is still going to be necessary for a library. However, look long and hard at your current website. Does it scream “PROMOTIONS” or “WE HELP SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS?”
  • Now that so many people use mobile to see the Web, the chances that they’re just browsing through your library’s website to pass the time is…oh, probably…something like 0% (Ok, I made that up, but you know it’s going to be insanely low).  If someone is coming to your library’s site at all, on a mobile device, it’s to do something specific. Why would you essentially do nothing but throw ads in the way?
  • While I, among so many others, have talked about putting users first for a long time, there are too many libraries that choose to ignore basic user experience (UX) principles in favor of what they think is the right way to go. Anecdotes are not data. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had to build something that is completely contrary to best practices and current study data. “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”–Earl Landgrebe, Watergate hearings. 

Agree? Disagree? How many roadblocks do you see to this approach?