Spending Time On Other Academic Library Websites to Make Yours Better

As librarians we constantly strive to ensure that our websites are easy to navigate and our language is relatively jargon-free. This can be a challenge when there are so many resources and services to highlight and also a wide variety of users such as underclassmen, grad students, research faculty and members of the wider community.

We are constantly tweaking and improving our sites in accordance with best practices, but an objective look at our own pages is often impossible because repeated use has conditioned us to behave in a certain way. We know exactly where to look for what we want. This is one reason why focus groups with new users are crucial for website redesigns.

I was reminded of these points as I perused another library site and came across a sentence that casually referred to the name of the the local catalog, the state-wide consortium and a local FAQ-type help service. Our website has nearly identical pages explaining our corresponding services, and as a librarian I was able to quickly understand what it was about, but seeing acronyms that meant absolutely nothing to me still made me step back and scratch my head for a second. It seemed foreign to me in a way my own library’s pages never could be, no matter how objective I tried to be.

And what if I were a student at that school? Would those acronyms lose me forever? In the age of apps and bite-sized pieces of content, research is increasingly showing that users take a quick scan of a new site and decide almost immediately if they want to stay or go. And if they go, they most often don’t return.

Also, what about navigation? On my own site I know all of the quick clicks to our catalog, to the research guides, to the A-Z Databases list. But many users not only don’t know where those links are, but even what the various services mean?.

This also had me eager to explore other “foreign” sites and try to approach them as I would as a student.

I don’t propose any grand suggestions to these major issues, but I do suggest that spending more time on “foreign” library sites can make a big difference; for helping break you out of the habits you’ve developed on your own site; for putting you in the shoes of a novice user; and for exposing you to a wide variety of possibilities for organizing an academic library website (or public, special, etc.).

Here’s an academic library game you can play to start to do this.

1. Go to a random university homepage. Get to library site as fast as possible. (Sometimes more difficult than you might assume!)

2. Once on the library site, see how quickly you can navigate to a series of pages. Suggestions:

  •         The local catalog
  •         The research/subject guides
  •         The state-wide consortium catalog
  •         The A-Z database list
  •         A list of databases by subjcect
  •         An email address for subject liasons
  •         etc. etc.

You can also ask yourself, what’s on this front page that I don’t care about/doesn’t seem necessary? What should be more prominently displayed? What jargon (local or otherwise) isn’t adequately explained. With these questions you’ll also be much more open-minded than on your own website.

This type of game can help you view a library site as a student and find barriers, which is impossible on your own site due to the fact that you use it every day, and it also makes you more well-versed in online systems and might give some fresh ideas as to what works and what doesn’t when you’re talking academic library websites.