Looking Critically at Library Specific Web Tools

Throughout the practicum I am participating in a recurring topic of discussion has been the quality of the tools utilized by many public and academic libraries. These tools are often designed and marketed specifically for libraries, and therefore supported only by libraries and their staff. Many of these programs, subscriptions and softwares mimic other more universal tools, and yet these domain-specific interfaces are implemented in their place. Tools that fall into this category are content management systems (CMS) and publishing systems such as LibGuides or Omeka, mobile app platforms like Boopsie, and the plethora of databases and skins utilized for library homepages and catalogs.

The rationale behind utilizing these library-specific tools is defendable: these tools are installed and running in libraries throughout the country, they tend to be relatively inexpensive and often they — initially — require a limited amount of programming knowledge to get off of the ground. What this translates to in practice however, is that the ‘library-web’ feels very different from where most library patrons spend the majority of their time online (the rest of the internet). Additional ramifications include the fractioning of support and the limiting of the pool of potential library technology workers.

Siloing the Support Pool

Implementing these tools essentially silos library resources and technology workers. By not utilizing the same tools and practices that the rest of the technology industry has adopted, libraries are forcing their technology workers to become masters of a small subset of programs. The customization of an Omeka theme or a LibGuides theme can require a significant knowledge not only of CSS, HTML and JavaScript, but also of the specific architecture of a content management system.

Further isolating the librarians and IT workers customizing and supporting these systems is the limited availability of troubleshooting forums and resources devoted to customizing and installing these domain specific tools. Programmers and web developers who work with more universally implemented languages and platforms can rely on the help of developers who work in a wide variety of domains through online help forums like Stack Overflow, and they can even share, borrow or help to communally build projects, programs and repositories through GitHub. Although some help can be found on library specific products through these websites, most users of these tools are stuck relying on whatever limited documentation is available through the product website itself. Alternatively, motivated workers might be able to connect directly with other librarians and IT departments to share code and tips.

A broader issue is also how the implementation of these domain specific systems affect the potential hiring pool. Relying solely on these library specific tools can alienate or discourage workers from other technology fields from applying or being accepted into development and maintenance positions in libraries. Additionally, by only stressing these tools in Library Information Science masters programs, we run the risk as a profession of limiting the reach of MLIS candidates into a wider set of related fields.

Creating an Unnecessary Divide Between the World Wide Web and Library Web

Online library resources should stand out because they present patrons with unique resources, relevant reference materials and personalized help. Unfortunately outdated interfaces, broken links from half-finished system updates and shoddy navigation can mask the true purpose behind a library’s creation of an online resource or collection.

Although it is powerful to be able to place web publishing into the hands of all librarians, faculty and archivists, it is also important that these resources represent these knowledge and information workers in the best light: sites should be updated on a regular basis, links need to be checked periodically and an adoption of generally accepted webtrends (mobile or responsive designs and basic UX principles) can help to make a patron’s interaction with an online library resource memorable for the right reasons. Unfortunately, many library focused tools and subscriptions are slow to adopt these principles and designs, therefore forcing librarians and library staff to either wait for an update to the system or attempt to patch or edit the system’s design using the limited troubleshooting resources available.

How Else Can We Approach Web Technology in Libraries?

The challenges that utilizing some of these popular library-targeted services create does not necessarily mean that libraries need to abort using them. Instead it is important to consider all of these tools with a skeptical, critical and realistic outlook. If the goal of purchasing or continuing a subscription to a tool works within the confines of what it is truly capable of then the tool is a great match, however if the goal is to stretch a tool (enable librarians to make their own personal webpages with LibGuides or use Omeka to create the library’s landing page) then the added effort, time and knowledge required to make this endeavor truly successful should be considered. What initially might appear to be cheap and easy can become a time consuming and potentially expensive project if significant changes need to be applied. Conversely, it might be helpful to think about if investing the time and effort into truly adopting and understanding a single system (especially a CMS) is possible or preferable to using a variety of CMSs to manage different parts of a library’s online ecosystem.

Another question libraries may want to ask is how many people need to be able to access, update and publish directly to a website and how often. Additionally, how important is it to your library and librarians that everyone self publishes and takes total ownership of their contributions to the library’s online resources? If the answer is that everyone needs or wants to self publish then a style guide, basic HTML and CSS training and an introduction to user focused design can go a long way to ensuring that this newly created resource is consistent, updated and well maintained. If the goal is for librarians to be content creators, but not designers or publishers then it might be worthwhile to investigate non-library specific tools and programs that can be easily maintained by a small team of developers and designers. Using a non domain-specific tool could open up new possibilities and can allow for greater customization.

There are also many well supported and entirely free projects, tools and sites that the library community could benefit from adopting and utilizing. With a little bit of effort and a server, it’s entirely possible to create, host and publish a digital collection using MAMP and Twitter’s Bootstrap. Drupal, like Omeka is an open source CMS, however it is utilized by a wider variety of fields. GitHub encompasses many of the ideals of the Library Information Science profession, and is already being used by a number of large academic and public libraries! If as a profession we adopt and nurture these open source or free tools we can benefit from not only our community members, but also from a wide breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm fueled by developers, designers and researches from other relevant professions.

Originally published on the Practicum Blog

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