Do you put the same amount of effort into your library’s online presence as you do your physical space? The reality is that your users can get just as much out of your online channels as they do inside the four walls of your library space. (OK, nearly as much.) You should be using your library website and social media to highlight the library collection and your services. Both will allow you to use your community connections to get feedback. These connections can open doors for donors, sponsors, and volunteers who can make a difference for your students.
Since you don’t have a team of professional web designers, consider making small changes one at a time. The learning curve of a completely revamped website is much steeper than for a piece-by-piece refinement.
What do your users need?
But before you can make any changes, you need to figure out what your students, staff, parents, and community is looking for. You can do that with:
Surveys. Easy to administer and analyze, Google Forms, Survey Monkey, and Survey Gizmo gather opinions.
Focus Groups. If you do not have a library advisory group made up of students, staff, parents, and community members, create one. They are invaluable in all phases of your work.
Interviews. Ask your users how well the website works for them and what they’d like to see changed.
Usability Test. Set up some usage scenarios and video a few users trying to find what’s needed using the library’s website. Screen recording software (such as Screencast-o-matic) can capture clicks and mouse movements, along with voice recording.
Personas. Create a persona for each type of user you encounter, then put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine their needs.
What is the purpose of any library website? Users visit a library website for standard Information, like your operating hours and phone number, catalog, databases, and maybe links to educational websites. Unfortunately, many library websites are stale storehouses of information, with little or no thought paid to user experience.
While the specific needs of your particular library users should always be top of mind, experts agree on four general attributes that, if you pay attention to them, can’t help but make for a good user experience.
Functionality. Top-notch library websites are those that work as people have come to expect websites to work.This is good news, because you can use the layout of websites you personally like as a template. Turn to Facebook, Twitter, and/or YouTube for layout ideas. Also, take a look at Reedy High School in the Frisco (TX) ISD. Nancy Jo Lambert, a librarian in that district in Frisco, Texas, has created an engaging, fun presence by emulating features of popular sites. Other excellent examples of school library websites in Texas include Ingleside ISD, Alamo Heights ISD, Lovejoy HS, Granbury HS, and Castleberry Elementary.
Clarity. You are probably the only librarian who will use your website! Simplify wording to help visitors feel welcome. Another way to encourage that feeling of belonging is by avoiding negative phrases. Who visits the library website to find out what they are not allowed to do? Try focusing on the positive—namely, what visitors can do. Doug Johnson’s Blue Skunk blog post expresses the value of positive communication well. To further up the personal feel of your site, write directly to the user (“We can help you with your projects!” not “The library can assist with projects.”) and avoid long blocks of text.
While there are some common library terms that most users understand, in the cause of making visitors feel like they belong, sidestep jargon. Here are suggested workarounds.
Acronyms & brand names:JSTOR, OPAC, etc.
Spell out Acronyms
Eliminate Brand Names when possible
Find Articles, Find Pictures, Find Videos, Etc.
Online Card Catalog
Find Library Books, Magazines, etc.
Search for Books
Borrow Materials from other Libraries
Request Items from Other Libraries
Websites (with descriptions)
Pathfinder, Website Collection
Intuitive navigation. Clunky navigating is the most common complaint about websites. Many well-meaning librarians put everything a person might possibly need on the home page, only creating a cluttered mess. Instead, build specific pages within your site for certain purposes. Link to those pages from the home page. The most common style for navigation is the “F” pattern, with links across the top of the page and down the left side. This set-up will seem familiar to most users. Use a template to keep your navigation style consistent on every page within your site.
Use large, simple text and icons to direct folks to pages within your site. Remove anything on your site that does not serve a clear purpose. Clip Art adds no value whatsoever, and stock photos are often seen as inauthentic. Instead, use actual photos of your space, staff, collection, and users (without students’ faces visible, or with parental permission in writing). Blurring faces of students is another option. Any time you use an image, be sure to include an ALT tag. Doing so will provide a clear text alternative of the image for screen reader users. If your library is part of a public institution, this is an Americans with Disabilities Act requirement for websites.
Fresh and fun. Part of the reason social media is so addictive is because the platforms are always fresh. Your website content must be current and fresh as well. Set a calendar reminder, perhaps monthly, to review and remove stale or outdated content.
Speaking of social media, creating a library social media account is a great way to connect users with your offerings. It’s easy to put icons on your site that will link directly to your library’s social media feeds.You don’t have to be on every platform; just use at least one often. Parents tend to convene on Facebook, whereas students generally favor SnapChat and Instagram. Twitter is great to connect with your professional learning network! YouTube appeals across the board, and is ideal for posting tutorials, library videos, and student work.
The first step, though, is checking your district’s social media policy. If your district does not have a policy, offer to create one.
Leverage your site to serve teachers and the larger community
Use your website to offer the library’s work spaces for grade level, department, or team meetings. Consider using open calendars where staff can book meetings.This reinforces that the library belongs to everyone, and it keeps you from having to manage the calendar.
Whether they ask you to or not, curate helpful websites with annotations for faculty. This will establish the library website—and by extension, the librarian—as the go-to source for educators.
Another service you can provide via your site is curating information for parents and the community, including resources covering childcare, summer camps, student internships, social services, and jobs for teens.
You probably have reading clubs and other events, and maybe even a maker space. Why not show those on your library website? Seeing those can drive home the point that the library as not just “a nice place,” but vital to the educational mission of your school.
Link databases to your site
Contact each of your database vendors and do three things. First, get IP authentication for your school or district. Then create consistent, memorable usernames and passwords for remote access. Lastly, ask for video tutorials on how to use their product.
To get the passwords out to your users, put them behind the main log-in screen, or print them on bookmarks or other handouts.
Your site can establish your library’s brand
Whether you realize it or not, your library is a brand. Promote it by using your logo on your website and social media pages (as well as on emails, newsletters, and the like). Along with your logo, be transparent by including your library’s mission and/or vision statement in your email signature and home page. Don’t have a library logo? That makes a great student contest!
If you’re creating your online presence from scratch, you’ll have enough on your plate getting started with advice above. But once you’re comfortable with it—which will likely happen sooner than you think—you will want to think about optimizing your content for mobile. Most users, especially teens and young adults, will access your website on a mobile device.
Another step you may want to look into down the line is setting up polls and surveys on your site. Also, regularly analyze how your site is being used as you go with a service such as Google Analytics. This will allow you to spot patterns and adjust along with user needs.
Finding the time
By now, you may be thinking, “although this all sounds great, where will I get the time?” Think about your daily routine. Just “because we have always” done something is a terrible reason to continue doing it. If an activity does not directly support your district/campus goals, stop doing it. Taking inventory every year could be one example. Are there clerical tasks such as shelving or book repair that you could delegate to volunteers or student aides? The time spent in setting up these assistants will be returned many times over. Also look for things that, while you have to do them, can be done more efficiently. For example, keep your email program closed and check it only twice a day.
We all want to provide excellent library services for our users, to be more integrated into the fabric of our communities, and to impact student engagement and achievement. A terrific online presence can help you accomplish all these things. It is not easy, but will make your proud. Start small, learn from others, and make your online presence a priority. Your students, staff, and community deserve it!
Len Bryan is the school program coordinator of the Library Development and Networking Division of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.