ALA – value vs. return

My last Council meeting as an At Large Councilor is in New Orleans. When I’m at home, I say “Good riddance!” but when I’m in Council meetings, especially if something worthwhile is happening that I feel a part of, I feel proud to serve. The committment to service is one of the things that I really enjoy about my membership in ALA, but I think that’s more about me and my priorities than ALA. ALA gives me a good place to be a helper at a national level. Meredith was over for dinner last weekend and we talked about ALA, among other things. I can’t say that’s what sparked this long and passionate post of hers about ALA [with some follow-up by Dorothea here] , but I know that some of the topics ring very true to me as well. My issues in specific are what I perceive to be the relatively lax standards in library school accreditation and the misrepresentation of the current job market both of which are contributing to a glutted market and a lot of fresh-out-of-school students who are having a hard time finding work at the same time as ALA is hiking their dues by 30% over three years.

And, of course, the web site. I completely accept the “Mistakes were made.” reasoning for why the site is the way it is. What I don’t understand is the absolute lack of anyone seeming to try to make it better, now. Basic things like shorter URLs, accessbility issues like ALT and title tags, and clearer navigation don’t need to wait for a redesign to be slowly added and implemented site-wide. We’re still seeing URLs like this one for one of the main pages on the site, broken links like the ones down the side of this page (B Roll, Downloadable Photos, Contacts, Feedback) and a 404 page that refers to the “new” website and instructs you to email someone who will get back to you within a week. The Member and Customer Service center link in the footer to a sitemap page and the FAQ (which you can get to by going to, but the “cite this page” link says otherwise) talks about the next conference occurring in January 2006. ALA does a lot of things right, don’t get me wrong, but their sites seem designed and populated with content by people who do not use the web. When PayPal is the dominant way of paying for things online, the ALA Online Donation form looks like this. Library 2.0 is all about continual feedback and improvement, not this sort of “let’s make a list of everything that’s wrong and fix it when we do the redesign.” It’s not normal for a lot of library professionals to be continually evaluating and tweaking, but that’s what maintaining always-on presence requires.

The question remains, how to you serve a completely diverse group of information professionals, some of whom don’t even own a computer and others who maintain elaborate online communities and are involved in creating the next generation of library technology? I have no idea. I can sort of gesture in an “Ug, ug.” way and point to who I think is doing it right, and similarly indicate who I think is doing things wrong. I can join governing bodies and try to put in my $.02 and hope that I see change in my lifetime. I live in a rural area, I’m not against change coming slowly. On the other hand, when you know change comes slowly and you see the lumbering steamship that is ALA coming to a fork in the road and teeter on the brink of, say, another bad website design, or more public statements about the librarian shortage, well I just feel that I have to say something.

British Medical Association library also affected in London blast

The British Medical Association and their library have some information on their web site about how their operations have been affected by the bombing of last week. Here is a first person account of someone who was in the British Library after they had secured the building. The library had wifil, so he was able to alert family and friends that he was okay.

Library Journal Redesign

Library Journal’s redesign is up and available. I can’t say I’m too impressed, though I am a tough customer. Here is my bulleted list of critique following my first 15 minutes on the LJ site

  • no rss feeds
  • search delivers a segmented results set, subscriber-only pages come up first, then pages available to anyone, lower on the screen. This doesn’t seem like a sure-fire way to get more subscribers, just to alienate non-subscribers [example]
  • searching in the “reviews” section leads to a subcribe page for anyone not logged in as a subscriber
  • URLs are still long and unclean [example]
  • no 404 page [example]
  • fixed width columns make site hard to read at large text sizes and require a lot of scrolling
  • empty content areas [example]
  • ads are giant and blinky, this may be necessary in today’s tough times but blinky ads, banner ads, text ads, and parent company ads and logos make the home page a mishmash of colors and sizes making it very hard to figure out where the important content is
  • Search our reviews section is non-functional. Search boxes are available, but all searches redirect to the LJ home page [example]
  • The privacy policy and terms of use pages seem broken on at least some sub-pages [example]

Some of these critiques are just bugs that I’m sure will be fixed fairly quickly and are standard in brand new sites. Others have more to do with the actual structure of the site and what it’s set up to do. Library Journal has always had good printable templates and pretty great writing. However, a web site that has almost thirty sections and forty topics [accessible via pulldown menus] really could benefit from an information architect, or some groupings more like the site map, which is my favorite page on the site so far. Does it validate? No. Is it accessible? No. Since LJ is a business and not a library, they can take the risk of losing the business of people who can’t use or understand their site. Public libraries aren’t so fortunate, and this site is not a great example of a 2005 web site of an otherwise pretty nice looking magazine.

26 steps for effective web presence in libraries

Michael and the Librarian in Black have each posted their lists of Ten [Alternative for LiB] Steps to Effective Web Presence for Libraries. Here is my short list that builds on these, with particular attention to what I’ve learned from the web site building process in Vermont.

  1. Be accessible. If your public library web site doesn’t work for some of your users, it doesn’t work. This means visually impaired, cognitively impaired, new, and old-time users. This means ALT tagging images, using clean code, not using fixed font sizes or tables for anything that isn’t tabular data and a lot more. Crunch the numbers from your web site stats to see who is using the site, and how. Investigate which parts of the site get traffic, and which don’t. If your vendors aren’t creating web content with this in mind, apply pressure, lots of it.
  2. Be human. The web site is open more hours than the library and is a location on its own as well as being a representation of the library. Use photos to make the digital more recognizable. Give patrons ways to interact with the library [link link link to new programs, events, building news, board of trustee meetings, press releases and employee news] in the way they are comfortable with [email, IM, Skype, blog comments, mail form…] Bring the web site into the library in addition to bringing the library to the web site. Make your library web site the home page on your public access computers, or make a simple version that takes users to most-used sites.
  3. Be honest. The library web site can not and will not do all the things that patrons and staff and trustees want it to do, nor should it. Make sure you have a clear web site purpose and communicate that purpose both through actions and words. If the site doesn’t do something, say why it doesn’t and whether that idea is “in the hopper” or not part of the web site vision. If it’s a money issue, say that, if it’s a staffing issue, say that. Let your mission statement guide the site and try to overcome obstacles when it can’t.
  4. Be inclusive. Your library web site is part of an online community and an offline community. You need to interact with local businesses and people and events the same way you link to sites on the web. Allow public feedback on the site and respond publicly. We can’t all edit the library web site, but we can all be part of the process. Use community members as advisors in content areas. Do user testing. If your library has a blog, comment on other library blogs. If your library uses Flickr, upload some photos to some of the library groups and make contact with other libraries. Your web site should do things that a handout or flyer can’t do.
  5. Be an advocate. Think about new technology in terms of your users and apply it when it’s appropriate. You are the professional and you should be able to both respect the traditions of your institution at the same time as you investigate new directions and try some things out. Every web site addition isn’t necessarily going to stay in the collection for 100 years, experiment and take a few risks, remembering to communicate what you’re doing as you’re doing it.

I’m not longer at the Rutland Free Library, but I tried to bring some of these ideas to the site I designed for them.