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Transforming the Library Website: You and the IT Crowd


Holly Hebert
Adult Services Librarian
Brentwood Public Library

J. Michael Lindsay
Electronic Resources Librarian
Preston Medical Library, University of Tennessee

Amy York
Web Services Librarian
Walker Library, Middle Tennessee State University

 


Originally presented at the 2012 Tennessee Library Association conference. 

 

Introduction

In the library world, we are sometimes fortunate enough to have our own IT department who caters to all of our needs like a doting mother, often anticipating what we need before we know it ourselves, and also giving us the freedom we need to grow into our best selves . Others of us are not so lucky. Even among the lucky ones, we sometimes have to submit to the will of an external IT department:  the campus, the city, the county folk. And, well, you know IT. They are sometimes brilliant, sometimes bumbling, always overworked and understaffed, sometimes oblivious or unconcerned, and they usually wield a great deal of power over many things, including your website. We will describe our experiences working with (and in spite of) our institutional IT departments on website changes and redesigns.

A library website is not like other sites your IT department might oversee.  It is dynamic and interactive, and it is as important to many of your patrons as the physical building (in the case of distance education students, it is far more important), so to the greatest extent possible, control over the library site should stay in the library, with the people who understand libraries and their users.

The greatest degree of control belongs to libraries that manage website design and content changes on their own server. While you may be expected to work within an institutional template, you are otherwise free to explore all of the programming and styling options that you are capable of enacting. Of course, not all libraries have the resources or the staff knowledge to maintain a server, so many are hosted on an institutional server.

Libraries whose websites are hosted on the institutional server will experience varying levels of website autonomy.  Ideally, such libraries will be given free reign within the confines of the content management system to design and update their main content. This includes the freedom to create and use secondary stylesheets, as well as the ability to utilize server-side scripts for things such as search boxes, rotating images, and more. This freedom depends on the sophistication of the CMS or server and on the openness of IT. Content management systems come with built-in author permission levels, so libraries must negotiate with IT to gain the types of privileges that they want and need.

Some libraries, particularly small public libraries, may not “touch” their own websites at all. Instead, they may have to submit change requests to the IT department. I (Amy) recall running across this situation with my local county recycling office when an electronics recycling program I had read about in the newspaper didn’t appear on the department’s website.  I called the recycling office to ask about it and the manager told me she had put in a website change request with the county IT department months before, but it hadn’t been completed yet. Because of the ever-evolving nature of library resources and services, this could be a real problem. Whether the issue is a lack of trust on the side of the parent organization or a lack of confidence on the part of library staff, this lack of control must be avoided at all costs.

Many new opportunities and challenges arise when a library decides it is time to redesign the library website. In the following pages we will describe our experiences transforming our libraries’ online presence.

Case Study 1: Brentwood Public Library (Holly Hebert)

As with many other public libraries, Brentwood has had a library website for almost 20 years.  During that time it has changed in many ways, including how it is managed, upgraded and edited. At various points we have had our own stand alone website, and at others we have operated within a CMS provided by the city. Since our library is part of the city government of Brentwood, TN, we have always worked with the information technology department to provide our patrons with the best website we could give them.

Currently, we are using a CMS that has not been upgraded in at least 5 years. It is used by all the departments of the city, so it is not tailored for use by a library.  We have no in-house dedicated IT staff that work on the website, nor do we have a full-time staff member to work on it, so we have formed a website committee to get the work done (see fig. 1).  The committee meets monthly and discusses which area to work on and to provide feedback on changes. Currently, the office manager and adult services librarian do most of the actual editing that is decided on by the committee.

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Figure 1. Many people are involved in the maintenance and design of the Brentwood Public Library website. 

The main struggle in our situation is how to provide a website that is modern, interactive and useful for our patrons while working within the parameters of the city.  The information technology department is primarily concerned (rightly so) with security and control.  Websites must be secure these days and that is a daily struggle for most organizations.  Also, they want some control over how we edit and grow the site to make sure that it meets the criteria set by the city.  Since we can’t run out and launch our own website, we need some workarounds to “spice up” our pages.

Tools

Figure 2 shows some of the services that we utilize in desingning our site.  We buy stock photos from Freedigitalphotos.net, which is a great low-cost option for small organizations who don’t have professional photographers on site.

Our CMS does not have a blog feature built in.  To get around this we have used Widgetbox to bring our blog from Blogger into the main page of our website.  In the absence of a streaming photo gallery we have embedded a Picasa slide show on some of our pages. We also wanted more colorful buttons for patrons to click on so we bought the Likno software which allows us to update the look of our pages with more modern button images.

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Figure 2. Some of the tools used to design the Brentwood Public Library site. 

Of course, we also make use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and Pinterest, which can be accessed from our website and vice versa.  Deciding which social media to use is a matter of trial and error.  We find that patrons often take to something that we don’t anticipate and vice versa.

The Future

As with any online resource, we expect most applications to change as we go along since a website is not a static entity but an ever-changing portal of information. By the end of this year we hope to have migrated to Polaris for our online catalog.  The Polaris platform provides more space to build features right into the OPAC that previously would have been housed on our CMS. We anticipate moving over several pieces of information from our web pages to the OPAC to make a more seamless site for our patrons. We are also anticipating a long awaited upgrade to our CMS that might include new features that we currently have to import from other sources.

Tips for working with other departments

As with any organization, working with a team requires effort and hard work. We aren’t always going to see eye to eye and there will be struggles between departments.  Here are some tips that we use when working with our information technology department.

  • Make friends: know what the IT folks like to read, watch on TV, etc. so that you can make small talk before getting down to business.
  • Educate yourself: Stay up-to-date on website design and learn new things.
  • Be proactive.
  • Think outside the box.
  • Show that you are trustworthy: don’t do anything irresponsible!
  • Don’t give up!

Case Study 2: Preston Medical Library at the University of Tennessee Medical School, Knoxville (J. Michael Lindsay)

Introduction and Background      

When I came to Preston Medical Library, the current website had been in place for a few years, and the general opinion was that the design could use some freshening up.  A redesign of the website had been discussed since around 2008, but did not really get underway until 2009.  An initial plan for revamping the website was introduced on September 14th, 2009, and we went live with the new site on May 26th of 2010.

Redesigning a website can be an overwhelming undertaking.  Therefore, it is important to take time to research what your users want and use, to think about what your goals are for the website, and to thoroughly plan the implementation and rollout of the new site.  There were two main ways in which Preston Medical Library began this process.  We surveyed our users to find out what they used, and we researched web design.

User Survey

Library faculty collaborated with me to design a brief, 8 question survey in Survey Monkey to gain a better understanding of our users.

  • Do you recommend Preston Medical Library as a resource to students, colleagues or patients?
  • What is your role at UT Medical Center?
  • How often do you use the Preston Medical Library website?
  • What do you most frequently use the website for?
  • What features of the website do you like best? (i.e., What are we doing right?)
  • Do you have difficulty finding any of our resources via the website?
  • What would you change about the website if you could?
  •  Please leave your contact information if you would like to go into more detail about our website.

The major takeaways from the survey were that users came to the library website for four major reasons: article searching, to check their email (we include a link to the hospital webmail on our home page), to search for eBooks, and to research Evidence Based Medicine information. 

Research     

In addition to surveys, gaining a broader perspective was very valuable.  I had the good fortune of being a part of the University of Tennessee Libraries’ Virtual Library Study Committee, which was then examining ways of revitalizing the University of Tennessee website in advance of the rollout of Primo, a federated search product.  Committee meetings gave participants a chance to share research on web design, and included a review of Design Talk: Understanding the Roles of Usability Practitioners, Web Designers, and Web Developers in User-Centered Web Design (Reef, 2008).  This educated me on the numerous specialties that are dedicated to improving design and creating web pages that are usable and attractive.  This small, very readable book was also helpful in formulating the library’s aims in updating the website, and maintaining focus on users.

Setting Goals

After this research was concluded, it was time to take a look at our website, and to determine some goals.  The library decided on our goals for the project:  increasing the findability and usability of library resources, and to make the website more accessible to consumers and more attractive to contributors.  Figure 3, below, is a screenshot of our previous home page.

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Figure 3. Preston Medical Library Home Page, 2009 (Close Up).

Our research indicated that users would benefit from more access points and from a greater focus on the tasks that they wanted to perform.  Many of our pages had consisted of annotated lists of links, and users had to do a fair amount of scrolling and clicking around to get at what they were looking for. 

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Figure 4: Current Awareness Services page

Implementation and Challenges

After completing our plan and beginning to work toward implementing it we began to be more aware of the limitations that were imposed on us, both those that were purely technical as well as those that were imposed by IT’s interpretation of the standard template. The University of Tennessee uses a standard template which limits the colors that we can use and other aspects of the site.  The aim of this is to maintain a look and feel that is consistent across all UT sites.  After taking a class in Adobe Dreamweaver CS3, I had become aware of the possibilities; exploding menus, tabs, and other ways of presenting information on a website through the use of widgets.  It was with some disappointment that I learned that I would not be able to experiment with these skills on our new website.  However, even with these limitations, the library was able to make dynamic, positive changes which increased the usability of our site. 

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Figure 5:  Preston Medical Library new home page

As shown in Figure 5 above, the site consists of menus to the left and right of the page, as well as a bar at the top.  These are all a consistent part of the template.  The library’s canvas, the area that could be modified, consisted of the area in the center.  We implemented search boxes for PubMed, electronic journals, and eBooks.  Pages were created that focused on specific patron groups (medical residents, fellows, Faculty, nurses, etc.).

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Figure 6: Preston Medical Library Home Page, (Close Up).

We added more access points (see fig. 6) so that users can find immediate answers to specific questions such as the location of the library or our hours.  Users can access services, such as requesting an article or a search, from the front page of the website as well. Another improvement over the previous site was the addition of consistent navigation of resources pages (see fig. 7), offering users numerous access points to needed information in their specialty.  

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Figure 7: Resources in Anesthesia page

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Figure 8: The library added LibGuides in 2012.

Next Steps

With the massive growth in the use of mobile internet, the library website could quickly become obsolete if it is not available in a mobile optimized format.  This was one of the reasons Preston Medical Library began using LibGuides in 2012 (see fig. 8).  LibGuides offer the ability to quickly and easily create pages that can include images, video, maps, and RSS feeds.  The pages are also more interactive, allowing users to rate sources that the library lists and to make comments.  One of the best aspects of using LibGuides is that when guides are published, they are automatically available in mobile-optimized format.

Keeping your library’s website current and useful requires innovative thinking and a lot of work.  Knowing your users and providing them with value will help your library stay ahead of the game.

Case Study 3: MTSU (Amy York)

In 2011, the James E. Walker Library at MTSU embarked on a mission to revamp a 6-year-old website design (see fig. 1). Although the site design was still working fairly well for us, it was in need a few navigational tweaks. Campus IT had larger plans, though, as the library had flown under their radar for the past few years while they moved the rest of campus into a content management system, leaving us looking very different from all of the other MTSU pages. When the MTSU Foundation director commented that we looked like “some rogue website,” IT decided that it was our turn to conform.

Old MTSU website design

Figure 9. The MTSU Walker Library website design from 2005-2011.

While we were willing to do the redesign, we had a few problems. First, our web librarian position was vacant. Second, we had an interim dean. And third, we had a perpetually short-staffed systems department. When the interim dean and the systems librarian were on the verge of handing the entire project to IT – basically letting them dump our existing content into the new template on the campus CMS -- I volunteered to assume the role of web librarian and lead the migration myself. The library website is far too important to be trusted entirely to an outside entity.

Although I had had longstanding reservations about moving our website off of our server, the benefits of working within a CMS were attractive (we had traditionally worked in Dreamweaver). Headers, footers, and menu elements could be fixed, while main content could be parceled out to different groups in the library. And while it was feasible for us to remain outside of the campus CMS and yet conform to the campus template, the head of the IT web unit was quite adamant that we move into the CMS. With all of this in mind, I requested a test space within the CMS and set to work.

It quickly became apparent that the campus CMS was not going to work for us. It was an extremely clunky, unsophisticated application and would not allow the use of PHP or SQL, was not friendly with javascript or references to external style sheets, and wouldn’t allow us to create our own secondary templates. We have a much larger web presence and more dynamic content than other units on campus, so things that were not such a big deal for other departments were big problems for us. The CMS was being phased out the next year and IT was looking at new vendors, anyway, so we made a case for staying on our own server, and IT agreed. We said that we would revisit the idea when they acquired the new CMS, but for now, we are staying put with a header, footer, navigation and other style elements that match the rest of the MTSU pages, and we continue to build the site in Dreamweaver (see fig. 10).

Figure 10. The new Walker Library website in the MTSU-approved template.

Major navigational changes on our homepage include left-side navigation, a hallmark of all MTSU pages, rather than top navigation. Drop down menus can cause accessibility problems, so MTSU prefers to have all links listed out on the left. The library has hundreds of pages, so we don’t list them all. Instead, we have category links. We did individually list some important links, such as hours and the staff directory, in the main content area on our homepage. Another change from old to new is that we moved the search box to the top and pushed our news to the bottom. Subject guides are more visible with a scrolling select box. The major drawback to this design is the ample top space occupied by MTSU links (partly cut off in this screenshot) which pushes our content down considerably. There are rumors that the university is working on a design change, so we may once again find ourselves scrambling to conform, but I like the fact that by being outside of the CMS, we cannot be pushed automatically into a design that is not library-friendly (one that perhaps utlizes the entire top half of the screen display for university content.)

So what can you do to get your way when it comes to redesigning your library website? First, you need to know what design features you absolutely need. You can better make your case if you are able to submit a prototype. If you don’t have access to a server for testing, draw it up with multimedia software.

Second, try to make an ally in IT. He or she may not be in the top rungs of the leadership, but perhaps someone in the trenches can see your perspective and advise you on how to make your case. I was able to find someone in IT who understood that the library needs are different than other departments on campus, and he was willing and able to help us explain our needs to his boss.

And finally, cultivate your expertise. If you are going to convince IT that your library can handle its own website, you need to know the basics of website design and construction. The most important basic elements are HTML and CSS. Free web-based tutorials, such as those offered at W3Schools Online Web Tutorials can get you started. Also, look at the source code of sites you like to figure out how they were built.

There are also free and open source web-design software downloads such as Wordpress -- which is actually a blogging software, but works well as a CMS -- which can take some of the pressure off of hand-coding everything. LibGuides is another alternative for hosting library websites. It is not free, but it is fairly inexpensive for small library systems.

Maintaining your website is not always easy, but it is at least as important as maintaining your physical building. Make sure you have a say in how it is presented to the world.

Conclusion

Your library website is just as important as your library building, and for some of your users, it is far more important. Many of your users may rarely, if ever, step foot inside your building, but they may be accessing your ebooks, databases, and other online tools on a frequent basis. Your website can also drive more users to your physical library by helping you highlight new materials and programs. It is absolutely essential that you maintain a fresh, appealing, and dynamic web presence, and no one is better at doing that than the library staff, themselves. While you may need to rely on a larger IT entity to host your website or do some upfront website infrastructure work, libraries should be in control of their own content. You and the IT crowd can have a successful partnership if you stand your ground, make your case, and know your stuff!

References

Reeb, B. (2008). Design talk: understanding the roles of usability practitioners, web designers, and web developers in user-centered web design. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

W3Schools Online Web Tutorials. (n.d.). W3Schools Online Web Tutorials. Retrieved August 29, 2012, from http://www.w3schools.com.

 

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