Today's libraries operate in a dual existence, divided between in-person and online services. In the business realm it's not at all unusual to have brick-and-mortar establishments and to offer ecommerce on the web. Library-asplace and the delivery of excellent service to patrons visiting in person remains the heart of most libraries. I think the need to deliver the library's content and services both physically and virtually is just part of our reality. The online presence of a library is increasingly important and demands the same degree of creative thinking and planning as that devoted to its physical facilities and activities. This month's column explores some issues related to attracting a growing and engaged community of patrons surrounding the library's web presence.
Libraries compete in an ever-more-crowded information landscape on the web. With so many commercial interests providing information products, libraries have to devote considerable effort to draw in their patrons from the many alternatives. It's hard to get noticed these days. There's a lot of competition: Google Scholar, Amazon, and Wikipedia, just to name some obvious examples.
I think that we all know that we can't take a passive approach; we have to take proactive measures in the design of a website to draw in library patrons. In the same way that libraries invest in great buildings to attract library patrons and provide spaces well-suited for the multitudinous ways they use their services and collections, the website also needs to be wellhoned. Let's explore some of the ways that we can transform the library's web presence into a destination that your users will want to visit frequently as they travel the web in daily life.
Content Is King
Content is a natural area of excellence for libraries. It's what we do. Libraries spend enormous resources acquiring content on behalf of our constituents. Convenient and efficient access to exceptional content should make libraries top web destinations. To the extent that we feel that our websites don't get the levels of traffic we expect, increased access to content can drive visitor counts upward. Anything that impedes access to content or that fails to deliver content in ways that visitors can easily navigate will decrease activity relative to the site's potential.
In my continual exploration of library websites related to the upkeep of lib-web-cats, I observe many chock-full of content but not necessarily the kind that reels in new visitors. Librarians like to fill their websites with pages of information that spell out their policies, rules, organizational structure, and strategic plans. Housekeeping information, especially the parts that help funnel visitors into the physical library, can't be neglected altogether, but it should be short and sweet. I know from a study of website analytics that librarians often spend incredible amounts of time creating pages rarely visited.
The information that users want, in my view, involves the content of our collections in all its various forms but especially ready-to-eat items such as fulltext articles, photographs, and audio and video clips. It's this kind of research content that has the most potential to draw users to library websites.
Libraries should pull out all the stops when it comes to original local information and research content, giving it prominent position and funneling in visitors through any means available. Locally digitized collections of photos, newspaper clippings, news footage, and genealogical records represent content that will attract users like magnets to your site if the collections are well-exposed on the web.
Community Is Queen
You'd have to live on another planet not to know that a fundamental shift has happened on the web. It's no longer only about serving up pages of static content but also about engagement, community, and participation. Librarians are just beginning to find ways to make their web presence more community-oriented. We have had personalization and self-service features for a while. Most library catalogs have the ability for users to sign in, get lists of items available for checkout, and perform renewals. Some libraries have implemented ecommerce features to pay fees and fines.
Real community engagement goes beyond that. Some of the new-generation library catalog interfaces have some Web 2.0-style features such as the ability to rate and review collection items. I see hundreds of library websites that have sprouted blogs. However, even these features have yet to hit the kind of critical mass characteristic of vibrant online communities. The few library catalogs that offer patrons the opportunity to express their own ratings and reviews show only a minimal level of participation. I see many blog posts, but few elicit comments.
It's not that I necessarily expect the library web presence to ever displace social networking hotspots such as Facebook or Linkedln, but we do need to ratchet up our social engagement a notch or two if we want to be on the radar of web-sawy patrons. The web destinations that enjoy the most success-the likes of Amazon, eBay, YouTube, and Facebook-trade in community as much as content.
We're clearly in the early days of building communities around libraries on the web. The technologies that enable this kind of activity are nascent. Still, I'm optimistic that library websites will gain higher levels of community participation over time.
Location, Location, Location ...
In the same way that the location of real estate drives its economic value, the positioning of a website determines its mission value and impact. A self-enclosed website without organic virtual connections is destined for neglect. It's important to place the library's website, and the content and services therein, along the natural paths traveled by its patrons on the web. If the library website lives on a dead-end road that takes a detailed map to find, only the most persistent potential patron will successfully arrive at the destination. Rather, libraries should live on busy thoroughfares; they should be in the way and get bumped into.
Academic libraries especially have opportunities to set up shop among the establishments frequented by their patrons. Daily life in academia these days involves a number of popular-or even mandatory-destinations. A college or university's main webpage in most cases receives more visits by far than any other site throughout the organization. Libraries should aim for the most prominent position possible on that page. I'm delighted when I go to the top-level page of a college or university where the link to the library easily catches my eye. On the other hand, I've visited some academic institutions' websites where finding the library exercises my best puzzlesolving skills.
Having great connectivity to the library from a virtual learning environment or courseware system rates an even higher value. Increasingly, academic institutions funnel activities through these systems: Students rely on them to receive and turn in assignments, get reading lists, view course syllabi, and read articles placed on reserve. It's ever more important for the library to be well-represented in these applications that have a captive audience of their core clientele. The positing here needs to go beyond a simple link to the library's website or catalog. An even better approach involves the embedding of library content and services in very granular and targeted ways of direct relevance to the context at hand. Examples of this approach might include RSS feeds or dynamically generated lists that syndicate library content to enrolled students tailored to the discipline of a course, or even to the specific topics covered in each lecture; access to relevant full-text content from subscribed resources; and links to images of relevant primary materials such as scanned images of manuscripts and photos. Opportunities abound; they can be more easily implemented to the extent that the courseware systems and the content systems employed by the library can communicate through shared protocols, which in today's technologies usually involves a service-oriented architecture.
Constructing pathways to the library via links and web services isn't enough. Access to destinations on the web today happens increasingly through search. Users today fully expect to type a few words into a search box to find where they want to go on the web. If your site doesn't show up near the top ofthat list, you're practically invisible.
Increasing the visibility of a library website and the individual collections therein can dramatically increase the numbers of visitors. In a previous column (April 2006) I wrote about how we were able to substantially increase the interest and activity levels of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive by proactively exposing its metadata to the global search engines, especially Google. This technique involves providing mechanisms to facilitate the efficient and systematic harvesting of metadata from the contents of the website and designing the pages to funnel users into the site as they search the open web. The Sitemap Protocol, originally proposed by Google (www.sitemap.org), has recently been adopted by other search engines, including Yahoo! and Microsoft Live. It's not enough to get the pages harvested and indexed. The pages also need to be optimized to result in the best possible page rank. Here again, content is king. The more that a page delivers identifiable high-value content, the higher page rank it will naturally receive.
The importance of search applies at the local level as well as the global. Libraries should have a good handle on how they are positioned within the search engines of their organizations, and, to the extent possible, they should maximize their findabilty. I've come across many university, municipal, corporate, or county websites where the library can't be found through its search facility. Local search engines can be quirky; finding ways to give key library resources top page ranking can be very challenging.
Increasing the interest and activity of a library website isn't a theoretical exercise-it's practical and measurable. Tools abound for measuring website performance. My January 2008 column focused on this very issue. My favorite tool for monitoring web activity continues to be Google Analytics. It gives me the ability to know at a glance all the different usage patterns I need to see to understand the health of the sites I monitor. Google Analytics, for example, allows me to watch the daily performance of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive's site, which depends on high levels of activity for its very survival. Much of the income that supports its operations derives from loan requests of items from its collections, and the numbers of requests correspond directly to overall usage levels. Google Analytics allows me to track specific goals, such as successful user registrations, video views, loan requests, and completed checkouts. It can even calculate the economic value of site performance-based successful ecommerce transactions. For my Library Technology Guides site, I'm able to watch daily site performance variations based on new content postings.
I find myself tracking the performance of my websites the way that investors monitor the stock prices of their prize companies. I'm not sure how much one can do to boost stock prices, but you can take measures to increase your web statistics. It's all about actionable change. Once you've established the benchmark of a site's normal performance, you can begin making incremental changes designed to improve some aspect of the site. Such changes might involve navigation within the site, addition of new content resources, or especially search engine optimization activities. Does the change prove the hypothesis? If you see an increase, the change was for the good. If not, take a step back and try something else. This incremental approach of actionable change results in a pattern of continual improvement that should translate into increased interest and activity of the website and higher relevancy for the library itself.