Libraries straddle the digital and physical worlds and aim to provide the best mix of content and services for their communities. This bicameral reality isn't specific to libraries—most other commercial and nonprofit organizations divide their efforts between their physical establishments, where they provide in-person sales or services, and their web or mobile presence, which is available from anywhere at any time.
Libraries have a long history of implementing technologies for managing their physical collections and creating great buildings to house their materials, provide services, and serve as important community centers. But more than ever, the digital experience that libraries provide via the web plays a vital role. It has the potential to reach a wider audience, is increasingly the core delivery mechanism for electronic content, and can also help drive increased use of the organization's physical facilities.
State of the Art
Libraries operate with limited resources and so must strategically allocate funding and personnel. Both the physical and virtual aspects of the library require continual investment. Overall, it seems like libraries devote a disproportionate level of their investments in technology to managing physical collections and facilities at the expense of creating a compelling and effective digital presence. Neither side of the equation can be neglected. Libraries need to make substantial investments in the content, services, and technologies behind the digital experience they offer to their users, proportionate to the use, current impact, and future growth potential that are relative to the physical facilities and collections.
The technology components and other infrastructure needed to manage print collections can be considered mature and readily available from multiple commercial vendors and open source projects. The ILS emerged in the mid-1970s and has continually evolved to encompass practically any imaginable feature related to acquiring, describing, managing, and lending physical materials.
I often see the emphasis on new technology procurements continue to remain heavily weighted toward features used by library personnel, especially technical services and circulation. When it comes to developing technologies and infrastructure, the greatest needs and opportunities can be found in the digital domain. There are many gaps in the potential suite of services that can be offered as well as in delivering them through more coherent interfaces.
The trends related to physical and digital aspects of library service vary according to many different factors. Public, academic, school, and special libraries have each seen distinct patterns. Academic libraries saw a dramatic transition from mostly print to mostly electronic collections from the early 2000s. Electronic publishing, once established, became dominant in scholarly journals.
Public libraries continue to acquire and lend mostly physical materials, although interest in ebooks, audiobooks, and streaming video has accelerated in recent years. Many corporate, legal, and medical libraries or information centers operate exclusively virtually with no physical service points. While each sector follows its own trajectory, each is evolving toward higher proportions of digital involvement and the diminishment of its physical aspects over time. I don't see these trends ending in the eventual decline of physical libraries, but rather as an evolving change emphasizing more electronic content and digital services.
The technology for delivering the library's digital presence has become increasingly complex. Not only do libraries provide an expanding array of services from their websites, but user expectations for the quality of design and user experience require them to reach an exceptionally high level to meet even basic expectation of today's web-savvy users. Popular destinations in the social media and ecommerce arena acclimate the general public to expect easy use and an elegant style.
Delivering a successful digital experience for libraries requires a sophisticated suite of skills and technologies. While libraries are usually able to present web-based content with similar banners and color schemes, it is much more challenging to achieve consistency in their interface design and in underlying data schemes. The library website can no longer be thought of as a CMS for publishing content on the web, presented through a consistent set of branding templates and navigational elements. While this approach represents an important advancement beyond the previous generation of standalone webpages, it falls short of current needs, in which the library website must function as an integration hub for a diverse suite of applications with personalized communications channels with its users. The current phase of library website design moves away from the fragmented style of linking to services that each have their own interfaces and silos of functionality and content to a more comprehensive application interacting with multiple services behind the scenes to provide a unified digital experience for library users.
Challenges and Opportunities
A variety of technical challenges must be overcome to leverage content managed in other applications or services through the library's website or portal. As with most other current technologies, APIs enable the interoperability needed to provide content and functionality through a consistent user interface. There are many ways that APIs can be leveraged to present functionality or content from an external system for presentation through the main library website. It is important to accomplish comprehensive integration permeating the user's experience from any entry point to the fulfillment of the task at hand. Let's look at some of the possible integrations—each with its own challenges.
Displaying library hours
This data can be derived from the operating hours set in the circulation policies used for loan rules. Tapping into this data not only ensures the currency of the display, but it also avoids redundant data entry.
Programs and events can be featured in many aspects of the library's digital presence. It's not necessarily sufficient to relegate their presentation to a tab on the website, but it's also helpful to present relevant event listings in other contexts such as topical sections or in search results.
Providing seamless access
The goal should be for single and persistent logon throughout the entire site, since it can be frustrating for users to have to sign in separately as they traverse the site. Integrating external modules and components
Even though some aspects of the site may be powered by independent applications, users should not have to be aware of these arrangements. A key challenge for library websites lies in bringing together the many different behind-the-scenes components into a smooth and consistent interface. I often observe that these diverse components are conspicuous to the user, since each has its own interface conventions, independent functionality, and content formats.
Improving search and discovery
While discovery services for library collections have improved dramatically over recent years, comprehensive search remains a challenge. It's still relatively rare to see content from relevant sources beyond the catalog included in search results. Content from subject guides, events, newsletters, blogs, or other sources is often within the scope of the query, but not in the answer display. Even when included, it is incredibly difficult to bring up non-collection content in a discovery service powered by keyword search.
Preserving the library's brand
In many cases, users access content from external sources acquired for them by the library, but they don't necessarily view it as library content. Since libraries devote substantial portions of their resources to acquiring content, reminding users of this support at the point of use can help strengthen the library's position among the communities and institutions it serves.
Strengthening the library's connection with its virtual visitors
It's also vital to consider the digital experience beyond the immediate transaction. As users peruse the library's site, there are opportunities to promote other resources or services of potential interest. The key challenge lies in finding ways to identify the specific topics or issues each patron might want to explore. In some cases, these interests might be inferred from previous interactions on the site, although these may be weak predictors of future interests. Any clues that can be gained regarding the interests of a user are important ingredients for delivering personalized services, one of the key goals to a modern digital experience.
Establishing multiple communications channels
Enticing users to log on can help the library provide better services. When users supply their preferred email, text, or social media contact information, the library will have the potential to deliver personalized content and messaging. These communications channels can be used to respond to requests for information or service, but they can also help drive targeted invitations for events or notifications of new collection materials within identified areas of interest. Libraries are increasingly interested in using more sophisticated targeted messaging campaigns as part of their outreach strategies rather than one-size-fits-all newsletters or email blasts.
Delivering the Digital Experience
These issues represent only a few of the challenges that remain in the ongoing refinements of the ways that libraries deliver a unified and sophisticated digital experience for their users. The library's virtual presence as a solution that fully integrates all the content and services spanning multiple underlying web-based services is a complex business application.
Libraries increasingly expect a more comprehensive and unified approach for managing their collections and operations, and library services platforms aim to deliver unified management of collection resources. However, the same level of unified infrastructure is needed for delivering a library's digital experience.
Achieving the next stage of integration and unification throughout a library's digital presence will not be an easy or inexpensive undertaking. Just as libraries have proven able to invest in ever more sophisticated products for managing collection resources, the next phase of advancement may require making new investments in technology and infrastructure to support a modern digital experience for library users. Products and services that are able to deliver a modern digital experience for libraries will take different forms.
The genre of library-specific content management products exists, but remains fairly narrow. BiblioCommons has created BiblioWeb and BiblioCore products with the specific goals of supporting a modern digital experience for public libraries, focusing on discovery and distributing modularized content through multiple channels. Stacks, now part of EBSCO Information Services, provides a library-specific content management and discovery environment, which has been implemented by many different types of libraries. Axiell Arena and Infor Iguana are library portal products that were created in Europe. Communico has developed an integrated suite of applications for public libraries that brings together multiple applications into a unified experience.
Website development has traditionally been an area in which libraries prefer to create their own solutions. This development is often based on underlying content management platforms such as Drupal or WordPress. While these platforms provide a solid foundation for a library website, substantial design and development are required to build out a comprehensive website. The design and development of a library website include many layers of design, usability testing, and technical implementation.
Bringing in content and functionality from other products and services into a unified interface means another layer of programming and technical integration. The effort to create a great library web presence is not only complex, but it has a short shelf life. The preferred styles and conventions of the web continually change. Supporting mobile devices via responsive design and apps is an essential requirement. To remain relevant, a library will need to revamp its site every few years. In some rounds, the modernization might be mostly cosmetic, but it is also important to continually reengineer the underlying infrastructure to keep up with current technologies.
Don't underestimate the level of skills and resources required to develop, maintain, and continually redevelop a library website that delivers an outstanding digital experience.
The transition of the library website to a complex application delivering a sophisticated digital experience will naturally require substantial effort and resources. Some libraries may have the many different areas of expertise available from within their ranks. Others may need to rely on external consultants or vended products. While it may seem onerous to libraries to have to increase their investments in technology, delivering an excellent digital experience for library users stands out as a critical area with great potential to have a positive impact on their clientele and the community they serve.