Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What Makes a Good Digital Branch?

The digital branch for most libraries is their website. The library's main website serves as a portal to online databases, eBooks, and other resources. The way that this digital information is organized determines how successful a digital branch becomes. Too many times I've been navigating a library website and thought 'why on earth is this laid out this way?'

I'm guessing the answer is 'because this is what we are used to, which means it is what our patrons are used to.' I find that an unsatisfactory answer. If there is a way to make something better, why don't we?

The major driving force behind the organization of a digital branch is making information easy for patrons to access. To do this, we have to think like a patron. What information do I want when I go to a library's website? I feel like there are a few must haves:

1. Quick information about the physical library.

This includes address, phone number, email, hours, etc. You have no idea how frustrating (and how common) it is to not have this information in an obvious place. Most commercial websites have this info either at the very bottom or off to the right. If this information is not in either of those places, you are frustrating the navigator. If your library has various locations, PLEASE have a Locations tab. Don't make me go into the About and then into Contact and then into other subcategories. This guessing game is no fun and, while it only takes me a a minute to find, it may take your patrons longer and they may give up.

2. Catalog search bar.

Chances are, this is what your patron is after. I've seen this hidden under many tabs such as About, Library Services, Library Materials, and sundries. Why not just have the catalog search bar at the top of the page clearly labeled?

3. Library calendar.

From: Frisco Public Library in Frisco, Texas

Library websites are notorious for terrible calendar features. One sure fire way to confuse your patron is to have multiple ways to access the calendar or to have multiple calendar views. Pick one, simple calendar and put it in an obvious place, like, say, a calendar tab.

4. Digital collection.

From: Frisco Public Library in Frisco, Texas

This is the big one. So many times I've heard people say 'I didn't know the library had eBooks' or 'I didn't know that library had online language learning' and so on. Looking at most library websites, I can see why. Where is the big, obvious tab that says DIGITAL RESOURCES or EBOOKS?

If a library website has at least those things, hooray! But there is more you can do than just make a website that works. To create a useful digital branch, there should be other features.

1. Online reference chat.

From: Arlington Public Library in Arlington, Texas

I am a huge fan of the online reference chat. It brings the reference desk into people's homes and allows them to get information seeking assistance from their digital branch.

2. A bibliography of the databases and electronic resources organized by subject.

Listing the names of the databases from A-Z is not terribly helpful. If you organize by subject and list a brief description of the resource, people might actually use them. Screen captures of the resource or maybe the resource logo would also draw attention.

3. Patron e-resource user guides.

From: Frisco Public Library in Frisco, Texas

So you now have a big obvious link to your eBooks. Great! Confused patrons are now on Overdrive's website and not sure how to proceed. While Overdrive has a few guides of their own, it could be useful to find or make better ones that are more specific to your library. Videos are great and so are step-by-step pdfs with screen shots.

4. Videos, videos, and more videos.

Have a youtube account with book reviews, technology training, and early literacy tips. My suggestion here would be to find your most tech savvy staff member and have them be your 'video specialist'.

There are plenty of cheap and free video editing software, but as a librarian with a BFA in Video, I can't help but insist that you invest in something good-ish. I use Final Cut, but I wouldn't suggest that for libraries because I think it has too many features you would never use.

Adobe Premier would be my suggestion (and really if you can get the whole creative suite with Photoshop et al, that would be best). If this is too pricey for your library, Windows Moviemaker or iMovie will do for the basics.

For equipment, I think it is brilliant to use iPhones or iPads for everyday videos like book reviews. And screen capture software like Camtasia is best for software and database training (a free option is Screencast-O-Matic). However, I highly recommend renting nice equipment for important videos. Say your library is having an Open House or you want to make some killer Summer Reading videos.

Borrowlenses.com is a good place to get the latest camera equipment shipped right to you. This way you don't drop $1,000 on a nice camera that becomes obsolete in two years. I've used them before to get equipment to shoot by cousin's wedding video and I highly recommend. Just make sure you have someone who knows what they are doing order the equipment. You wouldn't want to forget ordering the actual camera lens or get the wrong microphones.

Here is a video I helped them make at the Frisco Public Library:

In conclusion, let's make library digital branches more accessible. But don't just stop with these ideas (or start with them if think they are a bad fit for your library). I'm a huge fan of assessments. Poll your patrons. Gather analytics from your current website. Create a better digital space for your patrons.


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