A library's web address is a significant aspect of its identity and brand. It's hard to understate the importance of having a great URL for a library website that is simple, crisp, and easily remembered. The form of your library's URL conveys an impression of the library, apart from the content of the site. Naturally, the usability, content, and presentation of a website are paramount, but the form of its URL also warrants special consideration. It leads more visitors to a library's virtual presence than its street number directs patrons to its physical facilities.
While a street address is assigned by civil authorities, there are many options for choosing the name by which an organization will be known on the web. I have seen many libraries with URLs that are overly complex and may not resonate well with their identity. Based on my experience of dealing with thousands of libraries on the web, especially through my work to maintain the libraries.org directory of libraries, I can offer some observations and suggestions for those wanting to adjust this aspect of their virtual brand.
It is essential that you not even consider changing your library's URL unless it is absolutely necessary. Your library's URL is a fundamental part of its identity, which endures not only in links throughout the web, but also physically on business cards, stationary, promotional literature, and signage. I would suggest that a library change its website address only as often as it moves its building-which is hardly ever.
That said, if your library does not have an ideal URL for its website, it may be worthwhile to change it to one that will better represent the library. But this should be the last change and should accordingly be given very careful consideration. I've assembled some tips and suggestions about devising a URL based on my observations of the good and bad ones I encounter in my research.
Organizations should create URLs that reflect their identity and are easily remembered. While it's nice to have one that is short and easy to type, it's even more important that it clearly identify your organization. If your library or library system is commonly known by its acronym, that acronym is a great candidate for your URL. Otherwise, including all or part of the text of its name can increase its strength of association. But most of all, it is essential that the URL is clean and devoid of technical artifacts.
The published URL for a library should take the simplest form possible. The ideal form looks something similar to http://mylibrary.org, avoiding any complications of specifying a path, file name, or query string. Depending on the technical environment involved, some configuration details may be needed to mask names and strings imposed by a CMS.
Also in the vein of simplicity, many organizations are moving away from the traditional www in their URL. It is easy to configure a web server so that any requests to www.mylibrary.org are automatically redirected to mylibrary.org.
Avoid including the native file name of your homepage or landing page in your published URL. The web server will present the homepage of the library through a page, such as http://mylibrary .org/index.html. However, it's always possible to configure a default page name for each directory, so that it is not necessary to specify the file name of the homepage. I have seen many libraries publish their URL with that file name, which not only breaks the rule for simplicity, but can also be a problem should the underlying technology change. The library might implement some other technical environment in the future that uses a different file extension. A clean URL is not only simpler, but it's also more technology independent.
It is even more important not to have any type of query string in the published URL for a library. I have seen many libraries with complex URLs that are artifacts of the CMS that they use. These CMS products provide many benefits in the construction and management of websites, but often assign nonintuitive names to pages. The library page within a city website might end up with a URL resembling http://mycity .gov/sitepages?id=234. I have even seen library homepages with URLs that include very long token strings.
Regardless of the URLs assigned to a page, most CMSs support the definition of shortcuts for key pages, providing the ability to present a much more friendly form. Complex or tokenized URLs may be needed for specific resources or functions within a website or web-based application. However, they should not be included in a published link.
Over time, libraries will inevitably make changes in the technology they use to construct their website. They will move from hand-built pages to CMSs or from one CMS to another. It is important, at least for key landing pages, to construct URLs that will survive these transitions. Techniques include using default pages for each content directory and not exposing technology-specific file names.
Integrity With Identity
The URL should be true to your library's organizational flavor. The top-level domain (TLD) of a URL is a fundamental indicator of the type of organization referenced in a URL: .gov for governmental entities, .org for nonprofit organizations, .edu for educational institutions, or .com for commercial organizations. Geographic domains are also common, such as mylibrary.tn.us.
Public libraries are usually established as part of their local government, although some may operate more independently. Those more tightly associated with their governmental organization may likewise have a website within that of the city or county government, such as http://mycity.gov/library. Others, which work outside such a structure, may have the freedom to operate their own web presence with a domain name of their choosing. It is common for a library to exist within the domain name of its parent organization but operate its own web service. This arrangement might lend itself to a URL such as http://library.my university.edu. All of these options work well within the tenets of simplicity and consistency of identity.
Public libraries not strictly tied to the URL of their governmental structure often opt for a .org domain, which is consistent with their status as a nonprofit organization, such as http://my library.org. Another good domain for libraries might be .info, one of the more recently established TLDs offering more specialized designations.
I have seen many libraries that operate under a URL within the .com TLD. This designation is appropriate for commercial organizations. Some may believe that .com implies distinction or prestige; rather, it designates the site as commercial, which to me seems counter to the image that most public libraries would want to convey. The .com designation properly applies to many libraries, specifically those serving corporations or other for-profit entities. But if your library is part of a governmental entity, is a nonprofit, or serves a nonprofit educational organization, operating under a .com domain name seems incongruous.
There are times when a library may end up using a .com domain as a result of relying on a platform provided by a commercial service. In the current phase of technology, libraries increasingly depend on vendor-hosted services for their websites, catalogs, or other essential components of their virtual presence. Some vendors do not offer their customers a choice in the URL through which the service is delivered. It is therefore common for a library to have a website or catalog offered through a URL such as www.mycompany.com/mylibrary.
I think that this approach devalues the identity of the library; the company offering the service is essentially promoting its brand over that of its customer libraries. Even when a service is delivered via a global platform, it is technically possible to configure such a service to be presented through the library's local URL. I worry that libraries may not know to question the form of the URL through which a hosted service is delivered and to require that the domain name system (DNS) and service configurations need to be operated through their URL and not the vendor's.
There may be some cases in which the vendor's service cannot technically be delivered through the library's local URL. For these scenarios, libraries should urge their vendors to implement any development that may be needed to fully enable libraries to subscribe to a hosted service while retaining their local URL. This requirement seems essential for hosted content environments that provide a library's basic website, but it should also apply to online catalog or discovery services.
Naturally, any URL that you might want to use for your library is subject to what is actually available in the DNS. URLs are based on a domain name that must be acquired by your organization. Your ideal domain may have already been claimed, either by another organization with the same acronym or by a company that buys and sells domains. In the latter case, you may be able to acquire it, but some may charge quite steep fees.
Never abandon a domain that your organization has ever used as its URL. Should your organization change its domain name, it is essential to maintain control over the previous one to the extent possible. If a library changes from my library.com to mylibrary.org, it should continue ownership and control of the original domain. If the library relinquishes control, it will likely be quickly acquired and turned into a website that bears a similar name to your library.
Not only does this cause confusion, but it may offer unsavory content and advertisements. Often, I have visited a link that a library previously advertised and found a site laden with threatening malware, unrelated commercial content, or other content the library would never want associated with its identity. Maintaining ownership of a domain that s no longer used means continuing to pay the annual domain registration fees, but it's a small price to pay for a large measure of reputation protection.
I expect that these tips on establishing the perfect URL are moot for most libraries. I am certainly aware that many libraries already have a gold-standard domain that is clearly cemented as part of their brand. There are others, often smaller libraries, which I observe as having a URL that seems less than ideal. For those, I hope that some of the tips offered here may be of some help as they work to shape their digital identity.