The Library Web Site of the Future: thanks but no thanks.

Steven J. Bell has a piece in the February 17 Inside Higher Ed titled, “The Library Web Site of the Future.” Since we’re currently in the early stages of completely overhauling our current web site, I read it with some interest. (Take note that, as of this reading, the comments are not particularly charitable toward librarians.)

And then I had to blog about it, because, wow. Lots to think about here.

Bell’s point, as best I can summarize it, is that the concept of the library web site as portal to the library’s information resources is outdated and should be done away with. We know, he argues, that neither scholars nor students actually use the library web site as a portal to academic information. Instead, faculty use their own workarounds (primarily bookmarks directly into scholarly databases, but also email journal alerts and publishers’ web sites) to obtain the research they need for their work, and students use…well, students use Google. We should give up on making the library web site a portal to research, and instead take a cue from the recent changes that have swept through college and university home pages, which have become marketing tools to attract prospective students. Emphasize the human aspect of the library – the people who work there, the services, help, and support they provide – and tell the story of the library’s central role in the campus community. Instead of demanding that students and faculty come to our web site to access information, we should go where they are, placing links to individually-selected databases within course web pages and courseware applications, and by creating customized research guides à la LibGuides.

That’s the best summary I can make of the article. Now, there’s a lot to unpack here, and I have some minor quibbles with smaller points that he makes along the way, which I’m going to omit, because this post is already way too long as it is.

We’re so retro, we’re cool!

MPOW is embarking on a long-overdue redesign of our web page. Our current page, we believe, uses far too much screen real estate on the “What’s New At The Library” section, and squishes the essential functionality of the site (search for books, search for articles, etc.) over into an almost undifferentiated, jargon-filled, difficult to read and navigate left-hand navigation bar. We’re looking to reverse the balance between newsy stuff and functional stuff, to make it much much easier for students to locate and use the tools that we have available for them. We’re looking for a web presence more like that of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, or Augsburg College, or Colorado College, with their very clear “Search,” “Find,” “Help,” and “I’m looking for” language.

But wait! Isn’t that precisely what Bell is saying we shouldn’t do? He writes that “[n]ews about the library’s programs, events, or new resources are often crammed into a corner of the page, are limited to small bits of text…” That’s exactly what we’re aiming for: moving the news out of the way so that students can find and use the catalog and databases more efficiently.

Is this another pendulum-swing phenomenon? Like, some years back it was all the rage to put a library’s news and events front and center, and then suddenly everyone said, “but wait, the library web page is about finding stuff so we should make that the most prominent thing on the page!” And then a few years after that, everyone said, “no no no, the library is about community and telling our story and putting a human face on information, so we should emphasize that!” If so, my library may be racing to catch up with last year’s trend.

Faculty as catalyst

The key to Bell’s proposed solution is the faculty’s willingness to collaborate with librarians. In order for libraries to get rid of the “library web site as portal” concept, we need to ensure that access to our collections and resources is available elsewhere, and the “elsewhere” that Bell proposes is within individual course pages. This requires faculty to take the initiative to integrate those resources and work with librarians. It also assumes that all faculty use course web pages or courseware tools for all of their classes which, for a wide variety of reasons, I don’t think can safely be assumed. In addition to taking the initiative, Bell claims that “…faculty need to increase their personal awareness of library e-resource content…”

Now admittedly, Bell appears to be aware of how ambitious his proposal is, with regard to faculty. But really, he’s completely overturning the model of the faculty’s relationship with the library that has existed for a very long time. Previously, for faculty the library was just there, and you used it and directed your students to it, and maybe you put a few books or articles on reserve if all your students were going to need to read them at the same time. If a student came to you and asked for help on research, perhaps you suggested a particular book that you knew of as a starting point, or recommended that they search in JSTOR (regardless of whether JSTOR actually was the most appropriate database for the subject, or whether the library even had a subscription to JSTOR).

I’m beginning to think that I’m prematurely cynical, but I’m always skeptical of anything library-related that relies on faculty to take initiative. And I’m not even speaking as a librarian at a research-focused school whose faculty have the stereotypical blinders to anything outside their research labs. I’m at a small college with a strong teaching orientation. Bell proposes to alleviate some of the burden on faculty by an aggressive program of librarian outreach, that could “eliminate any faculty excuses for not integrating the library into their course.” And that leads us to the next problem with his model…

Scalability

Faculty outreach takes work. Lots and lots and lots of work. And that’s setting aside all the debates about faculty opinions of librarians, librarians’ status relative to faculty and tenure, etc. Here at Saint Mary’s College, we have seven full-time tenure-track librarians, for a faculty of about 180. My extremely unscientific assessment is that the serious, thorough outreach necessary to make Bell’s model work, would be just barely possible here, with all the librarians (including our cataloger, our library director, etc.) working hard at it. My former place of work, by contrast, currently has seven reference subject specialists, three permanent distance-ed specialists, and seven permanent collection management subject specialists. This gives them a grand total of 17 potential library-outreach-providers for a faculty of just over 2000. The prospect of doing thorough outreach with those numbers seems…not promising.

But what does it do?

Bell refers to the changes that have occurred in college and university web pages over the past several years, as administrations increasingly viewed them as marketing vehicles to attract potential students, rather than information tools for students, faculty, and staff currently on campus. Previously, you went to your college’s home page to find the academic calendar to see when Spring Break is this year, find a link to the women’s lacrosse team schedule, see what campus jobs were currently open, or even (gasp!) find a link to the library. All that has been shunted to the margins in favor of portraits of current students, special material for parents, and “imagine yourself here!” language.

Which is all well and good if the target audience is, in fact, prospective students rather than current students and, if, in fact, all that other information is readily accessible to current students, faculty, and staff. The most common complaint I have heard about redesigned college web pages, from current students, faculty, and staff, however, is “I can’t find any of the information I need on this stupid page!”

If that’s what we’ll get from a wholesale marketing makeover of the library’s web page, well, count me out.

While I have no doubt that a marketing transformation of the library web page would correctly identify current campus residents as the target audience, I still worry about what provision such a transformed page would make for students who erroneously came to the library web page expecting it to be a portal to the library’s information resources. The last thing I would want to overhear on campus is, “yeah, I went to the library home page to try to find books for my assignment, but all I could find was photos of the librarians and stuff about the exhibits they have on display.”

I have no problem with Bell’s call for integrating library tools and resources more closely into course web pages and courseware sites, and in fact that’s something that I hope to be able to do a lot of in the very near future. But I think that can’t be the only, or even the primary, mode of entry into those tools and resources. Bell says the library web site should “emphasize the value of and invite stronger relationships with faculty and students.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, but all the warm fuzzy feelings we engender in our faculty and students will disappear in a heartbeat if, when they do come to us looking for serious research tools, they can’t find them.

Conclusion

So to sum up, Bell is proposing a completely new conceptual model for what the library web site is, and more importantly, what it does and what students and faculty can and should do with it. That model hinges on faculty taking initiative and responsibility for integrating research tools and library collections into their courses, thereby creating a whole new model for the faculty’s relationship to the library. Bell’s model also hinges on an enormous amount of individualized collaboration between librarians and faculty, which is hard to envision on the scale of a large research university. Perhaps I’m cynical and jaded beyond what is appropriate for someone relatively new to the profession, but I’m dubious on all counts.

We’ll still be overhauling our library’s web site, but we’ll be doing it old-school, trying to do the best job we can of connecting our students and faculty with the information they need.

Update, March 2010: Our new website has been live for a good six months now, so I’ve changed the link above that says “our current website” to a screenshot of what the old website used to look like. Ironically, “news” is still front-and-center in the design, but at the very least, I think we can safely say that the navigation (which now appears on every page, what a concept!) is clearer and less jargon-filled than the previous version.  Here’s to small improvements!

One Comment

  1. Posted March 19, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Catherine,

    Coming late to this, I was puzzled about what to make of Bell’s argument, so I went looking for some sensible reactions. Lo and behold, the most sensible is written by you, old friend.

    Bell makes some good points. I like it when people stake out a bold position that’s slightly crazy but is interesting. Still, I don’t think library websites are the Titanic for all the reasons you explain so well. Also just because many faculty are going straight to JSTOR et. al. and many students are going to Google, it does not follow that no one is going to the library website to find collections. If you are running Ford, you don’t stop making cars when Toyota starts outselling you. You keep making cars, try to offer something different from Toyota, and try to keep some customers. You certainly don’t turn Ford into some other kind of company — that’s a bizarre reaction to competition.

    Later,
    Josh Boyer

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