June 21, 2008

Step By Step to Information Nexus

By Huwe, Terence K

I TEND TO REGARD LIBRARY WEBSITESAS THE MOST IMPORTANT GATEWAY TO OUR WORLD, INCLUDING THE PHYSICAL LIBRARIES WE MANAGE. Library websites play an interesting role in the universe of digital resources we now take for granted. We rely upon them daily, yet we seem to have much to complain about. Many colleagues of mine are quick to find fault with large research library websites, citing poor usability and missing interactive applications. Worse still, they argue, is the stodgy webmaster who keeps too tight a rein on data owners who want to create a dynamic site out of a departmental page. These two beefs I cite are valid, and the full list of complaints is long. Yet the very "Dullsville" websites that receive such complaints are nonetheless workhorses that refer very heavy traffic to content in demand. Even with all of the complaints you could gather to create a "diss session" on library websites, the fact remains: They work.

Here's one local factoid. My colleague John Kupersmith recently reviewed traffic on some resource pages he oversees. One of the resources was not linked to the University of California- Berkeley Library's main page, while others were. Download traffic for that site was just a few hundred, while the linked sites averaged nearly 30,000 downloads over the same period.

Connectivity is the name of the game. Two years ago Google's Sergey Brin dropped in on a class at UC Berkeley's iSchool, to talk informally about a variety of topics. He made the point that Google's search approach can quickly distinguish between resources in the Berkeley region and locate quality content at sites like UC Berkeley's library, versus local information for the City of Berkeley. Brin's point was that referral traffic, original content, and the scope of web "holdings" pushed the University's sites to the top. Usability, whatever its state, was a factor but not a deterrent to overall success.

Radical, Yes-But Carefully, Please

I think the majority of information professionals are looking for some bold new changes in our static websites. In my view, both the critics and current custodians of library webs have something to offer to the process. Library webs came of age early on, emphasizing stability in a volatile era. Static referral sites that aggregated links to deep resources such as digital archives, databases, and original research were great examples of good design at the turn of the century. Indeed, they have been a huge success over the long term, creating thematic and topical directories that put high- quality content in front of web users. That success began in the mid- 1990s and continues to this day. The e-metrics we can extract from traffic logs are astonishing, fascinating, and enormously useful in political and budgetary contexts. So whatever their shortcomings, I tend to regard library websites as the most important gateway to our world, including the physical libraries we manage.

At the same time, I am all for change and growth. Indeed, I've taken advantage of every workaround I can find that enables us to add new services without having to bring in third parties. It's another long list: blogs, wikis, Meebo, podcasts, library domains in social networks, delicio. us tagging-the list goes on and on. These services reside elsewhere, they're free, and they dovetail perfectly with a welldesigned library website. They add considerable value even to mediocre sites that aren't keeping up with the times. They can do this thanks to enterprising staff who want to experiment and who will take the risks necessary to pull together web environments that may run on many servers but are linked underneath it all to that good old library website.

In my opinion, the profession has stretched the life span of the static web without really trying to-everything interactive that we might want to do we can do for free on the "open" web. Locally built content, such as digital libraries, appears at a slower pace, unless institutions partner with vendors who offer repository solutions in a box. When I survey the web landscape of academic libraries, I see legions of web activists, often working independently within big organizations to push the design envelope (examples follow). When the institutions catch up with these change agents, they can add their institutional imprimatur to new Web 2.0 services that coexist with high-quality content, such as ejournals and repositories. Then relevance-ranking search services such as the "Big G" often push download traffic to the top of the heap.

That's when the static web suddenly morphs into a more dynamic kind of beast. Of equal importance, that moment of adoption often creates opportunities for grass-roots training alongside it, by enabling web "geniuses" on staff to get involved in bringing everybody else upto-speed. So far it's worked pretty well. I like this trend because it nurtures the fundamental "subversiveness" of social networking, and, indeed, our long-standing public service goals: to push value to the places where it is needed the most.

However, I think the time has come to reframe how we see our big, static websites. To do that, we need to understand that the technological challenges are linked to the organizational cultures of our parent institutions. With that in mind, I'm going to offer examples of services that boost the value of the library website. As always, I pay special attention to the link between organizational behavior and technology planning. After all, Library 2.0 is a social movement, and healthy social movements require the involvement of all stakeholders.

Continuous Learning: Spread It Around

There are those who try every new service that's free on the web, and there are those who wait. Here's a line I've been hearing a lot: "My 'first life' is so busy I don't have time for a 'Second Life.'" Point taken -you can't force continuous learning. But you can enable self-starters and questing spirits to flourish on the fringes of the organizational chart. Social bookmarking is a great example, and del.icio.us has sustained popularity. Its overall goal is to take the process of bookmarking the web and make individuals' selections public (judiciously, of course). This practice can add a lot of value to branch library sites that follow narrow topics and offer web links. Even though social bookmarking has been around for a couple of years now, just this past winter the campus library here at Berkeley offered a lunchtime del.icio.us course for staff members. Individual activity was endorsed by the organization, and the word spread.

Continuous learning may seem like an obvious principal, but it is not always easy to adopt a stance of continuous learning at the organization level. That's why self-starters play a crucial role in the mainstreaming of new applications. Instant messaging offers another example. Get started fast by adding Meebo to your site, and you're up and running. Meanwhile, the larger organization can sort out how to handle massive amounts of instant messaging based on the experience of a few.

Usability Do's and Don'ts

Even though web development has always been a locus for trying far-out design ideas, I'd say that current development streams are diverging quickly. Commercial and corporate sites look very streamlined, even dumbed-down, and they're exceedingly cookie- friendly It's much more common for this design approach to overlook compatibility issues with older browsers, which means more microscopic text to adjust for, outof-line images, and graphics- dependent displays that just make sites harder to use. There was a time, not so long ago, when multiple browser checks, printfriendly testing, and all-text pages were the norm, and you could pretty much count on performance. Actually, you still can: It's all still there on the library web. But it comes at a price.

The formerly fashionable "tip of the iceberg" design approach, which calls for putting as many links as possible on the entry page, can be taken too far. It also easily lends itself to specialized language and jargon that John Q. Websurfer might not grasp at first glance. These features can be too clunky, but they can persist for years. The saving grace of tip-of-the-iceberg design is its dependence on lists of links-lots of lists. Users can at least peruse the lists, even if they can't fathom the difference between "Electronic Resources" and "Ejournals."

But as I said, I fall in the middle-I think there's a place for the tip of the iceberg, the long list, PHP-generated pages, and add- ons such as blogs. But getting the mix right remains an art and not necessarily one that every web programmer masters. Here are a few 25- cent design suggestions that emphasize connections between old design and new functionality, as well as between the designer and the user.

* Balance Graphics and Text-With all the bandwidth and speed we have nowadays, it's easy to forget that graphics-dependent displays can go wrong fast. Firefox solves many problems-but not all-due to its flexibility. Every page on a site should be understandable with or without flashy graphics. If you doubt this design principle, just take a look at architectural firms' sites or fancy condominium sales sites.

* Explain Interactivity Ahead of the Entry Point-It can be frustrating to be reading and click on a link to be plunged into a new domain that pops up chat boxes, search boxes, comments boxes, and so on. Tell users where they are going before they make the leap. * Form a Usability Testing Community-Alot of users just suffer as they surf without saying anything, until asked. Most communities of practice, such as universities, companies, or agencies, can rustle up a few users for lunch to talk about how they search. Never doubt the power of this step; what you learn may be a big surprise. Here's one example: Alibrary near where I live conducted a turnstile survey on how users get library assistance (email, chat, start with Google, etc.). Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would like to start by talking to a librarian.

Wait a minute! They're supposed to like being online more, right? Welcome to the age of the counterintuitive.

The Web as Organization Builder

I've found over time that when organizations craft websites, they are forced to focus on the "story" they want to tell the public. This dynamic process forces the leadership to get serious about their goals and how they wish to be perceived. The requirement to update a website can trigger some healthy self-assessment on the part of the firm and lead in some new directions. In this regard, the web itself becomes an organizational change agent. It becomes an even more powerful agent of change when it draws on the best aspects of successive design ideas, input from many different types of people, and, most of all, its frequent users. It is most powerful when organizations allow activist employees to make daring choices in web design and lead the staff forward.

Designers who can find lasting value in yesterday's fads and put them to use for today's users are the vanguard of a new kind of employee: the information activist. What's left is for organizations to empower those designers, mainstream them, and bring content and people together.



Terence K. Huwe is director of library and information resources at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley. His responsibilities include library administration, reference, and overseeing web services. His email address is [email protected]

Copyright Information Today, Inc. Jun 2008

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