Category Archives: technology

Library Websites: Assessing the Problems

When I first came to the SSU University Library, the number one thing I heard from people across the Library was that the website needed to be redesigned. It was hard to navigate, no one could find anything, it took too many clicks to get to what you wanted. I knew without a doubt that this was the first thing I needed to do. Of course, I didn’t want to jump in blind. I needed to know more specifically what the problems were, so I undertook a pretty extensive assessment of the existing website and of how people felt about it.

I decided to start with our Library Faculty and Staff for two reasons. First, I wanted to get a sense not only for how people perceived the existing website, but also for how they perceived the Library in general, what they thought our primary objective is, and what they thought we should be accomplishing with our website. Second, honestly, Library faculty and staff use the website more often than anyone else. We have a distinct set of needs from the website, and a unique perspective.

I created a really basic Google form to gather feedback from within the Library. I asked the following questions, with plenty of space for answers:

In your opinion, what is the main purpose of the Library website?
What is most important in the Library in general? Our collections? Our services? Our study spaces? Something else?
What do you most frequently use the Library website for?
What is your favorite part of the Library website?
What would make the Library website better?
What else should I know about the Library website?

I made the survey completely anonymous, because I wanted people to feel free to share their honest opinions. I got feedback from 13 out of 32 people in the library (40 percent). In the same period that this survey ran, I ended up having informal conversations with a lot of people addressing these same questions, although I have no way of knowing if they are the same people who filled out the survey or not.

The feedback I got from our people was insightful and thoughtful. People took the time to really think about what I was asking, and it was useful for me, as someone very new to the Library, to hear how people think about what we do. I think it was also a good opportunity for me to demonstrate that what staff and faculty think is important to me.

The one thing I would change if I created the survey again would be the second question, about the important things in the Library in general. I would probably remove the suggestions at the end of the question. I think this guided thinking more than I wanted to; I’d initially been concerned that people wouldn’t understand what I meant when I said “in general,” but I think that was a needless worry, and it would have been interesting to see how people interpreted that question.

Of course, our users are also important to me. I thought a lot about the best ways to survey our students, and I decided to start with what I called the Five-Second Survey. In retrospect, my technological limitations didn’t allow this to work quite as well as I think it could have, but I still found the insight I gained from it valuable.

The Five-Second Survey consisted of two questions that popped up on the library website when a user exited the site. The questions were “Why did you visit the Library website?” and “Were you successful?” We ran the survey for three weeks and received 162 responses. Based on an analysis of the responses, we determined that up to 151 of those who responded were using the site to access library resources.

I tried to set the survey to pop up randomly, so it wouldn’t happen every time a user left the site, but I don’t think that worked very well. I also should have tried to set a cookie so that if a user saw the pop up one day, they perhaps wouldn’t see it again until a few days later. Another flaw in this method is that often our users were leaving our website to search a database, so they were really only at the beginning of their research/library experience. I got a lot of answers like, “I haven’t been successful yet because I just got started.” My favorite response came from someone who wrote that s/he hadn’t been successful yet but knew s/he would be because, as s/he wrote, “I and this library website are awesome.”

However, I found many of the responses provided good insight into how our students think about their use of the library website, the research process, and the content they were unable to find or were dissatisfied with.

We used several other methods for assessing our library website and our students; these were the two I started with to get a quick picture of where we stood. In my next post, I’ll talk about the Design Your Library series of events I put on with our Instruction and Assessment Librarian to try to engage students and get their feedback on a variety of aspects of the Library and our services.

Planning a Website Re-Vamp, Part I

Before I started working in the Sonoma State University Library, I knew re-designing the Library website was going to be a priority. Everyone made it clear to me during the interview process that they weren’t happy with the site and that it had historically been one of the bigger challenges in the Library. Fixing the website was one of the Library’s strategic directions for the coming year and was the first task they had in mind for me when I started in September 2013.

So how did I take on that task? What did we do and what are we planning to do? I’m going to share my answers to those questions here in a series of blog posts. I’m happy with the approach that we took and I hope that my experience might be useful to some of you, especially if you’re in the position of managing a website without a ton of web experience in your skill set. I’m going to share the steps I took, the documents and reports I put together, the tools I used, and my techniques for overcoming some of the bigger challenges, which, as I’m sure you know, are rarely technical and are more about building shared understanding and meeting people’s needs. I don’t pretend that I did this perfectly, and I hope you can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I hope I can learn from my mistakes, too; in fact, part of writing this is so that I can take a step back and see where I might have done things differently.

Creating a useful website for a Library is a different beast from creating a business website. We have unique goals and priorities that don’t center around “conversions,” “subscribers,” “sales,” and all the other business terms that are usually used in writing about the web. I want to write something that will help other people who aren’t in traditional for-profit institutions to translate some of the business-speak so that it works for them and their Library and education-centered needs.

We are by no means finished with our “website redesign,” and in truth we probably never will be. Creating a useful website is a process that involves a lot of trial and error, tweaking and changing things as we go to better meet the needs of our patrons. We called the first phase of the project a Website Re-Vamp rather than a Redesign because we didn’t touch on the design portion of the site in this phase. I wanted people to understand that it was a small, first-pass project, a spruce instead of a remodel.

People had two main issues with the site that were laid out in the strategic directions, after hiring a Web Services Librarian (a.k.a., me): they wanted to reduce the number of clicks and reduce the number of silos on the site. Reducing the number of clicks it takes to get to useful information is a common goal. People have come to think that the more “clicks” a user needs to make, the worse a site is. One of the things I wanted to help people understand is that it isn’t necessarily the number of clicks that are the problem, it’s whether those clicks are taking them closer to their goal or making them feel frustrated. It’s quality not quantity, man.

The silos issue is harder to deal with. If you’ve worked in a library, you know all about the silos problem. So much of our content comes from different places and is stored in different digital homes. We have databases and catalogs and digital collections, we have metadata that don’t play well together, and we’ve made only baby steps toward bringing our content together in one easily searchable place. It’s hard to manage and difficult for our users to understand. This problem isn’t one we could solve with a website redesign, but we can make an effort to help people better understand our content and how to find it.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to walk through phase I of our project, which started in October 2013 and wrapped up in August 2014, just in time for the Fall semester to start. Some of the things we did include user testing, surveying, and card sorting, implementing version control, redesigning our information architecture, and redesigning the homepage.

Next week I’ll share the Project Scope document I created for our faculty and staff, and talk about how we decided on the scope of the project and how we communicated about what we were planning.

Kindle Library Books

The inability to check out books from my library using my Kindle irked me from the first moment I started using the Kindle. When Amazon and Overdrive announced that they were finally partnering to allow library lending on the Kindle, I was pretty excited. Sure, as a librarian I know it’s far from a perfect solution, and I don’t love the way Overdrive lending works for libraries, and I think we could do so much better, but as a patron? I was excited to be able to check out books without having to trek to the library. Anything to make acquiring reading materials easier and less expensive for me makes me happy.

Last week, when I read that lending was finally being released, I practically hovered over the Oakland Public Library’s Overdrive page, waiting for the Kindle links to appear. And when they did, whoo hoo, I was ready to start checking things out. Which is when I encountered the most annoying thing about library lending of ebooks: Holds. Seriously. I understand that Overdrive had to work with a business model that publishers would agree to, and that making these things act as much like paper copies as possible was probably a necessity for library lending of digital books to happen at all. But the fact that a library only has a certain number of “copies” of an ebook, and that I have to get in a nice long queue to borrow them? Ugh.

But that’s my whiny patron self speaking. The wait for a copy is just a fact of life of public library reading that one has to accept. It’s the cost of free books, right? It’s honestly the reason I don’t use the public library as much as I’d like to. But in the interest of experimentation, I put a few books on hold, and waited for my notification email. And I got the first one today.

Let me tell you, after several years of hearing how terrible the user experience is for library lending of ebooks, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy Kindle borrowing was. I clicked a few links, and badda bing, there was my book. The only part of the experience that wasn’t intuitive is that once you click your checkout link, the book is placed in a “cart” and you have to complete a few more steps within a particular time period before the book is actually checked out to you. This seemed kind of nonsensical to me, but I’m going to give Overdrive the benefit of the doubt and say there’s probably a good technical reason, involving how data is sent to the Amazon servers or something, for this particular step.

So, from my non-librarian, patron perspective, borrowing a library book on the Kindle was painless. The wait to read popular books from the library is the primary reason I don’t use libraries more often, so I wish there was some way we could solve this problem with digital books, but I can understand that that might be a hard sell for publishers. Frankly, from a non-librarian perspective, I want to get books wherever and however I can, preferably without having to spend a ton of money on them, because I’m a book junkie and I just don’t make that much money. I’ll take whatever lending options I have, and I love not having to schedule in a trip to the library (or even a trip to the bookstore), because I’m a busy lady.

Kindle lending from libraries makes my librarian self, though, kind anxious and nervous about the state of the ebook landscape for libraries, and whether we’re painting ourselves into a bad corner with the steps we’re taking now. I understand the potential problems and dangers, I wish we had better options, I wish we were in a better position to demand better options. That’s why I’m working with the NISO eBook Special Interest Group, to at least attempt in some way to give libraries better options. In the meantime, at least this is a step toward making library use easier for some of our patrons. And that’s not a bad thing.

Michael Porter on Library Renewal and eResources

Michael Porter presented a session with a nice, attention-grabbing title at ALA Annual: “You Mean Libraries Will Be Able to Deliver Content Better than iTunes and Netflix?” The session wasn’t really about how libraries will deliver content better than commercial providers; it was more like a rousing exhortation to libraries to start re-thinking how we own, deliver, preserve, and manage our materials as we move ever onward into the digital era. He has some interesting ideas, and it was a great, lively presentation, I think Michael has a gift for lighting a very needed fire under librarians’ collective butts.

Besides talking about the bigger picture of the library’s role in a digital content environment, I thought his narrative of how he got involved in ALA and started to make things happen in the areas he cares about was very inspiring. For everyone who thinks ALA is a big, unfeeling organization that cannot be moved, talk to Michael. He shows that ALA will respond if you push hard enough.

ALA formed a presidential task force, EQUACC (Equitable Access to Electronic Content), to investigate digital content and how its use is being restricted for libraries. (There’s some interesting stuff on the timing of this task force’s creation; it was underway and beginning work when the whole HarperCollins debacle happened, but hadn’t released any information. ALA’s delay in response was noted by many, and when EQUACC did release their report, it kind of looked like it was in response to the HarperCollins situation…at least from my admittedly small perspective). EQUACC delivered their report to ALA the day after this presentation (I have not read it yet). Their report details some very specific monetary requests they are making of ALA to begin work on problems around access to digital resources. They want to look at accessibility issues, conduct an environmental scan, deal with PR issues around e-content, and create a permanent place in the organization for these issues.

The EQUACC website has a forum that, at this point, is a bit sparse. Like any online community, it will only be built if people get in there and build it, and this could be a great place for this kind of conversation. Ultimately, though, I think it’s kind of dead in the water. People are already having these conversations on blogs, FriendFeed, Twitter, etc. ALA expecting people to have them all over again in a new place is kind of unrealistic, I think. Maybe better to aggregate comments and blog posts on these issues in one place?

Michael also talked about a few organizations who are starting to work in this area, including the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and the Harvard/Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s Digital Public Library of America project. Interestingly, he had some guarded comments about the DPLA project, including that their top-down, very monied approach doesn’t seem designed to be part of a collaborative, networked library world. One organization, COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Associations) has actually asked the Berkman Center not to use the name Digital Public Library of America because it is not, in fact, a public library. I, too, thought the DPLA project was a little strange when I first read about it. I remember thinking, “Wait, who are these people and why aren’t they working in collaboration with existing projects like Hathi?”

Here are some more general notes I have from the session; as with the rest of my ALA posts, I will be trying to pull all of this together into something coherent and meaningful in the end.

  • People will continue to access electronic content at exponentially increasing rates, and not just books and journals but music, video, games, interactive applications, and things we can’t even imagine now. Our current business models aren’t designed for this kind of content and distribution and they won’t continue to work. We need new solutions.
  • Libraries have a lot of power IF we begin to work together, and consider ourselves an aggregate organization rather than single, isolated libraries. Regional consortia have a lot more power than a bunch of libraries working alone, and it will become more and more important for us to band together in groups like this. Our best opportunities are going to come from new organizational structures like consortia, from new vendors and new partnerships.
  • Libraries need a our own distribution infrastructure like iTunes and Netflix, and it would be best if we build it ourselves.
  • We should be building archives of digital content, but we’re currently held back by restrictive copyright legislation, litigious publishers, and our own fear. If we could band together to fight restrictive copyright and litigious publishers, we’d have a better chance of winning.
  • We can’t rely on for-profit corporations to build our archives of digital content because they have no business reason to preserve after the content stops making money.
  • There are some major hurdles in the way of libraries owning, distributing, and preserving e-content, and the biggest is that the law is against us right now. The people who make the content don’t necessarily want us to have it. There was some conversation about creating new publishing models, and organizations like GlueJar and Library Renewal are doing some really interesting things in this area, but that doesn’t change the fact that the content our users want most isn’t being offered to us in ways that work for our organizations or our patrons.
  • Partnerships with publishers will be key, and we need to start thinking about how we should approach them. We have more power as a collective: if libraries as a whole, or even large library consortia, rather than individual libraries here and there, approach them, there is more incentive to listen. We need to think about what we can offer them. As it stands, they have no interest in working with us, especially large trade publishers (university presses might be more open to partnership). What can libraries give publishers in return? We need to start thinking of this so that we have something worthwhile to approach them with.
  • I think we can approach publishers either as good cops or bad cops: We can offer them something beneficial (statistics? marketing? events?) or we can threaten them with bad publicity. Or both? I’m generally not a fan of negative tactics, but in some cases you have to fight with what’s going to work.

I think there are some really interesting ways we can move forward in this area, but we have to collaborate to do it, and we have to be clear about what we need and want. Right now a lot of libraries are taking whatever they can get because they want to offer content to their patrons in the formats people want. And I completely understand that need, but I also think we might be undermining our long-term needs and goals.

There is certainly a lot to think about here, and I’m glad we have people like Michael who are passionate about these issues, who are thinking of solutions, and who are so excellent at getting other people engaged, too.

Library Renewal (the non-profit Michael and a few other folks started up to advocate for libraries’ rights in a digital age)
EQUACC (the ALA task force that was started thanks to Michael’s poking and prodding)
Libraryman (Michael’s bloggity)

Library Linked Data

Over the last year I’ve read and heard a fair amount about library linked data, and I have not yet been able to form a whole and coherent picture of what this means for libraries. I see examples, and I understand the idea and the benefits, but I don’t see how the examples and the idea and existing library records and the needs that we have for library data all come together into something cohesive. And to be honest, Saturday’s 8 am session on linked data didn’t 100% pull it together for me, either. Ross Singer and Eric Hellman gave some good examples, and perhaps I would have grasped this all a bit better if I’d been able to see during Ross Singer’s portion of the presentation, but I was sitting on the floor in the back and the slides were invisible to me. Overall, though, I still felt like the presenters were showing me how linked data worked without really showing me the why, or putting it into real, effective practice. The following is mostly transcribed from my notes; I apologize if it feels scattered and disconnected, but I kind of think most of our understanding of library linked data is scattered and disconnected right now.

I think the way I’m currently understanding linked data is that instead of having a database full of bibliographic records that consist of textual data in tagged fields, records would consist of links to “authority” records in other databases on the web in places like the Virtual International Authority File and LC Authorities. The links themselves would use various schemas in order to be descriptive. The links describe relationships, so you’d have one link that says, “This book was written by this person,” and another link that says, “This book was published by this company,” and other links that say, “This book is about this subject.” The linking syntax is a very simple subject-predicate-object syntax (Author Created Book). URIs would have to be permanent, unambiguous, and preferably using HTTP as the protocol. And it will all create a nebulous network of information and magic or something.

Some examples of descriptive schemas include BIBO (the Bibliographic Ontology), SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organization System), Good Relations (largely for e-commerce), and FOAF (Friend of a Friend). Schemas are written in the Web Ontology Language (OWL). There isn’t a notion of validation with schemas; the only constraints are logical contradictions. Vocabularies can be mixed up and used in combination to describe things as fully as possible.

At one point Eric Hellman says he was asking library school students, who were learning to work with MARC, why we use MARC, and no one had a clue. The fact is we use MARC because it was cutting edge for its time, it did what we needed it to do 50 years ago, and we haven’t been able to move away from it because we are a lumbering, lumbering dinosaur. And we have no money. And we are very invested in this format, because our bibliographic data is vast and extensive and monstrous, and it will be a pain in the arse to convert it to something else. And people are still creating individual records in our own individual systems, so moving to something new involves way too many people changing way too many bits and bytes. And I could go one about this problem, but I’ll stop now. (I in no way think these should be excuses for why we don’t make a change, by the way.)

MARC is almost entirely textual data that we translate so machines can (kind of) read it. But only old machines; new machines don’t speak this language. We no longer really need the textual data; the machines should be able to translate bits and bytes into textual displays, but we don’t need to save the textual data in our records, just links to data and identifiers. MARC records describe manifestations, tangible items, but linked data will make it easier for us to describe things using a FRBR-type hierarchy.

Records exist because we needed surrogates for our books, as the print books themselves were not possible to search. We don’t need surrogates for digital things (although there are problems with full-text searching that went unacknowledged in this session). Library content is no longer in print and is no longer in the library (although this isn’t exactly true, and I don’t think it will be completely true for awhile). The transition to eBooks will be fast, and it will happen soon, so we need to figure out what this means for our data now (ok, I do agree with this one). Hellman claims that metadata isn’t as essential as it used to be, but I disagree; I just think it’s essential for different things. It’s essential for access, preservation, and other administrative uses almost more than for discovery at this point. In other words, it’s less important for searching for information, and more important for using information.

The good news for us (I think) is that libraries aren’t the only organizations using metadata anymore. More and more, our materials will come with metadata already attached. But will it be the right metadata? The information by publishers and content creators will be different from the information needed by preservation bodies and organizations like ours responsible for providing access. But we can use some of what is provided, and merely add our own bits and bytes.

Creating linked data-based records will open up our bibliographic (and circulation?) data to search engines. If our content doesn’t appear in Google, people won’t find it. Search Engine Optimization should be foundational to how we re-think our bibliographic records. We can prepare our records for search engines by using microdata. This goes back to the need to create structured data, using schemas that search engines can understand.

Most interesting thing in my notes: The Facebook “like” button is the #1 use of the semantic web right now. It uses something called the Open Graph Protocol. We don’t use things like this in libraries (even though we should, I think): I saw a ton of people around me mouthing the word “privacy” to each other, but again, I think we need to let our patrons negotiate privacy for themselves. They can decide whether they want to click that “like” button on our pages; providing the means to do it doesn’t force them to do it.

Again, I apologize that my notes are a little all over the place. I know this is an area I’ll be giving more thought to in the coming weeks, and I have some notes up for a post on re-thinking the ILS and re-thinking bibliographic data that I’m hoping will bridge several of the ALA sessions I attended, including this one. I’d love to hear comments from anyone else who can fill me in on details I’m missing, or just ask more questions to further explore the ideas with me.