Digital Strategy for Libraries: The Library Website

Where does your library website fit within your organization? Is ownership and maintenance the responsibility of one department (or one person), or are responsibilities spread throughout the organization? Is it considered part of systems/IT, or was the responsibility tacked on to another tangentially related department because they had the capacity to handle it?

These days, just about every library of any size has a website. Public library websites tend to focus on promoting library programs and services, increasing community awareness of the library, and providing an efficient channel through which patrons can connect with our collections.

vancouver public library website screen capture

When I first started working in public libraries, I used to believe that the public library website should be managed just as any other branch was managed. I thought the library website was — or could be — the centre of the online community that we were convinced would come our way if properly managed. Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to manage a large-scale library website, and my thinking has shifted drastically.

Our library website is not a community space. Short of our electronic collections (managed by vendors) and the library catalogue, we don’t participate in the daily transfer of materials like library branches do. While the public can reserve space in the physical library for meetings and the like, the online spaces at my library are not open to the public. The administrative responsibility for the website lies with the rest of the organization, not with the public, even though we claim that our site is designed with the public in mind.

I think most public library websites are marketing vehicles. Their primary purpose is to drive community interest in the library’s collections and services, to promote the library as an idea and as a community centre. Library websites are customer-oriented portals that have to balance the customer’s information needs with the library’s mission statement and objectives.

edmonton public library website

As a marketing channel, the control and oversight of a library website should rest with a library’s marketing and communications department. Backend responsibilities (CMS implementation, front- and back-end web development, and server infrastructure) are rightly placed with the systems/IT department, but responsibility for content strategy should lie with a team that understands users and their requirements. Effective marketing requires a carefully planned strategy that is designed to bring about a desired change (increase in circulation, increase in program attendance, increase in municipal/government/private funding). I don’t think training staff how to use the CMS, how to format content for the web, or how to publish videos to YouTube is sufficient anymore.

We’re experts at gaining awareness, but I think it’s time we shifted our thinking to “how can we build influence?” Traditionally, I think there has been a lot of tension between public libraries and business thinking, but I’m happy to see that tension eroding somewhat. Libraries and librarians captured the credibility market long ago, though some of that influence has eroded somewhat thanks to the widespread adoption of search engines and the increased availability of the Internet. It’s time we started focusing on how we can convert that trust into real influence, and how to wield these weapons of influence, persuasion, and social validation to inspire and motivate people into action.

Part of that transition means moving into the marketing department. Another part is hiring someone whose job it is to figure out how to best communicate the library’s mission, priorities, and goals, to help them develop, as Erin Kissane writes, “realistic, sustainable, and measurable publishing plans that keep their content on track in the long term.” (library) (a book apart) We should continue to focus on user experience and usability (and if you aren’t focusing on that yet, you should be), but instead of an army of one, our organizations may be better served by a team of professionals from all disciplines – marketing, user experience, content strategy, business intelligence – who act as a team of traffic controllers to make sure that all of the content on our websites is going into the right channels at the right time for the maximum effectiveness.

I’ll probably keep thinking and writing about this as time passes. Right now I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of building a digital services dream team, so be on the lookout for that post.

How is your digital services department organized? What roles do you have in your organization? What roles are missing? How would you build a better team?