A couple of years ago my colleague Kevin Gilbertson and I wrote an article Librarians as Experts: Using the Web to Assert Our Value. It was mostly something fun for us to do: a way to share our thoughts about library websites with the world. (Though, whatever you do, don’t look at the PDF. The artistic direction doesn’t match the tone of the article.)
And time and time again I come back to this idea and think about how easy it is to undervalue one of the most important things the library does: maintain a useful and meaningful web presence.
People will come to the website that might never come through our doors (just think of all the study abroad and distance learning students, those students who are in disciplines that primarily use electronic texts, or students who have a mental block about libraries, for example.) For these users, the website is the library.
And they’re largely right about that assumption: the website is a branch of the physical library. I was going to say “just another” branch, but that’s not quite right. The website is certainly that, but it’s used by every user regardless of the branch they prefer. But the website is more than that. It’s a marketing tool to let people know what we really do. It’s an educational device that can make finding information more (or sometimes less) intuitive. The website can introduce the larger community to the experts in the library, connect people to content, and it can answer questions.
The website ought to reflect the actual experience of the web or it will seem dated. If users come to a website and it looks dated or is difficult to use, they will draw logical conclusions about the physical building based on that experience, whether or not those conclusions have any grounding in reality. And if something as basic as our web presence seems dated, then what conclusion is the user to draw about our information, our services, or our space? In an online, mobile, and media rich world, the site needs to be at least seemingly related to the time in which it exists.
At my previous institution I led a strategic planning group on instruction. (Which, by the way, was great fun.) The first part of that process was to do an environmental scan of the libraries at peer and aspirational university as well as a scan of peer and aspirational libraries’ programs to see how we compared. And the way we did that? Scouring their websites for information about staffing, programmatic goals, services around instruction, etc. If we couldn’t locate something indicating the strength of a program online, it might as well not have been a strong program. And we know that wasn’t always the case, but that was the information we had to go on.
Kevin and I were talking about taking up the article mentioned above and updating it for 2013. (After all, two years is an eternity in the web.) But I’m not sure we’ll actually find the time for that. Even so, the last few lines of the article still hold up for me:
In a time when people are questioning the role of libraries and the reason for librarians, we should be thinking strategically about what we offer our institutions and about specific outcomes we hope to provide. If we are information experts, as we are, we should be sitting at the table whenever information topics are addressed.
But to sit at that table, we might need to redefine our roles within the university, and we certainly need to make known the realm of our expertise and contributions. The website is a place where we can influence the discussion, as anyone who wishes to use our resources must use the site.
Thinking carefully and strategically about the messages we’re conveying on websites, both in organization and in content, can allow us to send a carefully crafted message to our larger institutions, helping them understand our role in the larger professional discussions and the specific things we can do with them.
As information experts, we need to apply our expertise to our own websites, to convey the full picture of our professional value to our larger communities.
So to me the website is fundamentally about providing access to information and representing our services, but it’s also a strategic place to reframe libraries and what libraries can offer. But to do so takes concentrated effort, time, and a belief in its value. It takes time and energy spent on design, information architecture, web programming, and usability. That, I believe, is time well spent.