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?

Online Workshops & E-Courses for Librarians: A Brain Dump

For a while now, I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a series of web-based courses for library staff. I’ve taught traditional courses before in classrooms, and I’ve taught courses over web conference as well, but they’ve always been on the behalf of professional library organizations. What I have in mind is similar, but a bit different.

I’ve taken a few web-based courses from photographers and lifestyle bloggers in the past, and while I’ve had mixed success with some of the courses, but that was more about me and the my struggles with depression and anxiety than the courses themselves. Yet no matter how I did in the course, I often leave them wondering whether a similar course delivery method would work for delivering continuing education/professional development for librarians.

If you’re not familiar with how these courses operate, have a look at Karen Walrond’s Gratitude 2012 project and Vivienne McMaster’s photography e-courses. What these courses seem to have in common is that they’re delivered electronically, there’s generally a low registration cost, there’s a fair amount of introspection, self-improvement, and self-directed learning involved, and, especially in Vivienne’s courses, there’s often a social component as well, as participants gather in a central online space to share their work and build community.

The reason these courses are so attractive to me is that there’s a low barrier for entry. Participants wouldn’t need to be a part of a professional organization, and they wouldn’t need to pay hundreds of dollars to participate. I’d intentionally keep the prices on the low-ish side — under $100 for some courses — to make them more attractive.

Ideally, the courses would be offered asynchronously so that participants could complete the lessons at their own pace. If desired, they can share what they’ve learned with me, but the idea here is to get participants to go through the tasks as designed on their own. If participants wanted to share their work with others in the course, I could make sure that a central online repository/discussion space was available where they could do exactly that. The great part about this (for me) is that the participants wouldn’t only be learning from me, we’d all be learning from each other.

I’m not certain whether there’s a lot of demand for these kinds of courses for professionals, but I know there’s a cottage industry of independent bloggers/photographers/communities of practice where this kind of instruction is going on. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking at this as potential revenue stream as well. Yes, I could absolutely use the money, but more than that, I’m interested in delivering courses independent of professional organizations, so that more people can benefit from the information being made available.

Is there any merit to this? If you’ve delivered a similar course — whether it’s related to libraries or not — what things should I consider before taking this on?

The Time for Libraries is Now

I know that a fair amount of the folks who stop by here on a regular basis aren’t librarians or information professionals, and as a result, I’ve mostly kept the library-related posts here to a minimum.

Today I saw a slide deck that I wanted to share with those of you who don’t use libraries, or whose idea of what libraries (and library staff) are capable of may be a bit out of date. Yes, there are 87 slides, but you’ll go through them pretty quickly, I promise.

In May 2012, it’ll be seven, no, eight years since I graduated from library school. The things I was interested in – content creation, blogging, using emerging technologies, and usability – weren’t a huge part of the curriculum when I started back in 2002. A huge shift has happened in a relatively short amount of time, and more than ever, librarians are talking about user experience and customer experience. Librarians have always hacked information, but it seems to me that a lot more of us are interested in getting our hands dirty with code and making stuff more awesome. People from outside the profession with an interest in open data are looking at us and pointing fingers, asking us why we still keep our information locked away in proprietary silos.

I’m encouraged. I’m excited.

But I still want more.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was looking to make a career change, and I suggested that he think about going to library school. The profession needed more people like him – gregarious, outgoing go-getters who bring a new perspective and a different face to the profession (this profession needs to racially diversify like whoa, but that’s the subject of another post). He’ll be graduating this spring, and he’s already working as an academic librarian in Louisiana, and if I can be completely self serving for a moment, I couldn’t be more proud of him.

Libraries need more people like this — more people like you — to work for us. I’m not going to beat the drum for an LIS education, because I have my own issues with the diploma mill mentality, churning out graduates into a market where the jobs are few and far between. What I would like to see, however, is more community partnerships where tech professionals volunteer to build applications for cash- and resource-strapped libraries: something like Google’s Summer of Code, or Code for America, but just for public libraries.

Libraries can make this happen by becoming more open than we’ve ever been before. Not only in terms of space (although that is really important), but we need to identify ways that we can remove whatever roadblocks exist between us and community partners who are ready and willing to help us take on our technological challenges. If there is a community organization that teaches computer courses that target a particular demographic, bring them in on a volunteer basis and let them teach your basics courses for a while. It’ll free up library staff to focus on other things (like community engagement, for example) and to get back to much needed professional development. If we could be guaranteed 10 hours a week to work on a fun project of our own, I believe we would see some truly innovative service models, programs, and technological solutions.

But what’s the best way to reach out? That’s something I’ll be trying to suss out over the next little while.

Libraries, Here's Your Opportunity