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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Strategies for Creating a Unified Web Presence

Smart Libraries Newsletter [November 2016]

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Libraries provide a complex set of information resources through their websites, which are often centered on their catalog or discovery services. Their collections are increasingly diverse, spanning physical and digital formats, and they provide a variety of tools for their users to explore and gain access to these collections. It can be quite a challenge to bring together all of the components on a website in a consistent presentational design and with unified content access. In many cases, the discovery service is powered by an entirely separate application from the website itself. This difference in back-end technologies can assert almost jarring differences in the way that patrons interact with the discovery service or catalog relative to the other aspects of the site. Other components, such as those that manage events, directories, or other specialized services, likewise impose their own user interface conventions.

Such fragmentation detracts from the usability and coherence of the website. Almost all other types of web destinations embody a consistency in presentation and functionality throughout. Any differences in technologies used to drive the different compartments of the site are usually not at all conspicuous. I see this quality of consistency as an important aspect of usability. Users don't have to wonder where they are when suddenly things look and feel different as they navigate to another part of the site.

To the extent possible, libraries work to smooth out the differences in the user interfaces associated with the applications that power the varied services which comprise their web presence. In most cases, each of these applications can be configured with common style sheets, banners and other page header elements, and footers. These techniques can lend a superficial similarity in the look of diverse applications, but don't really address the more fundamental differences in user interfaces and in their isolated functionality.

One of the shortfalls of many library websites with functionality delivered by multiple back-end applications lies in a fragmented user experience. The most egregious example can be found in the way that a library's online catalog or discovery services provides a substantially different user experience compared to the rest of the website. While most libraries will configure these search tools with their own logo or banner, it may not be possible to adjust most of the presentational elements to conform with what has been defined for the broader website.

The different components of a library website often reveal their fragmentation through the scope of search. When presented with a search box, it is natural for users to expect it to address all aspects of content referenced throughout the site. This implied expectation is often not met in library websites. Although many libraries have implemented a discovery service that works well to provide access to an increasingly comprehensive representation of its collection resources, many gaps persist relative to other aspects of the site. One of the most obvious and common omissions is the textual content of the website itself. All of the descriptions of the library, current events, opening hours, programs, or other featured content often aren't indexed in the main catalog or search tool. Many libraries offer an additional search box for website content. Creating truly comprehensive search functionality that addresses content managed by different applications can be quite challenging. It seems beneficial to not only avoid the complexity or confusion of multiple search tools, but it also presents important opportunities for users to receive information about relevant library services as they explore collections.

A variety of techniques can be implemented to avoid some of these problems of fragmentation. Locally-crafted or vendor-provided discovery tools can be populated with content from a wide variety of applications and repositories. Special attention should be given to include basic website content and data from event management systems, or other specialized applications. Presentational uniformity can be improved through aggressive use of style sheets or code inclusions to make each of the interfaces used within the library's web presence look and operate more consistently.

Another approach might include the creation of a comprehensive presentation layer, which serves as the library's website. The library website would not use the native interfaces of its underlying systems or components. Rather, it accesses the content or functionality of these systems through APIs and presents the content through its unified web presence. This model has the potential to create a fully-customized website for a library, avoiding the fragmentation imposed by linking to external interfaces. It also represents a high degree of technical difficulty and may be limited by the absence of APIs in the underlying applications.

The genre of library-oriented content management environments or portals also aims to blur the lines between discovery interfaces and library websites. These products include a discovery interface able to replace the native online catalog associated with the integrated library system (ILS) supplemented by an additional set of tools to deliver the other elements commonly included on library websites. A variety of products fall within this genre of library portals. Axiell introduced Arena in 2007 to provide a front-end for its diverse family of systems for managing libraries, archives, and museums. Infor Libraries released Iguana to provide both catalog and website functionality in 2009. This category of comprehensive library portal did not gain traction as quickly in North America. Following its success with its BiblioCore discovery service for public libraries, BiblioCommons created BiblioCMS, initially in partnership with Chicago Public Library. BiblioCMS was completed in 2014. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features a new addition to this genre called Stacks. This product emerges from a Canadian company, Hybrid Global, which has worked with many library clients in addition to its work in other government and business sectors to create customized websites based on Drupal technologies. Stacks has a close relationship with EBSCO Information Services, which serves as its exclusive partner for sales and support.

It is interesting to see a variety of new products and services emerging to help libraries deploy their websites and related services in more cohesive ways. Some libraries will have the technical or financial resources to program their own customized environments, which will be able to integrate their online catalogs, discovery services, and other underlying content sources. Others may prefer to work with a platform able to deploy a customized website that integrates diverse resources through non-technical means. While these portal management products may have some limitations, many libraries may see benefits in achieving a more unified website that can be configured and maintained without the intervention of developers or other technical personnel.

View Citation
Publication Year:2016
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 36 Number 11
Issue:November 2016
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:22262
Last Update:2023-01-19 23:15:48
Date Created:2017-02-17 08:47:44