Redesigning A Public Library Website

Web Design

My library is in the midst of redesigning its website, a monumental task I am lucky to be involved in.  I do not mean for that last sentence to sound sarcastic. I really am excited, because I enjoy web design and staff are eager and open to new ideas.

It has been my casual observation that even though public libraries rely heavily on their website to represent the institution online, there seems to be an overall lack of inspiration. Most public library websites I visit seem overstuffed, hard to navigate, and simply bland. There are always exceptions to the rule. Matt Anderson has put together a list of 20 Great Public Library websites and there’s even a Library Website Hall of Fame on the Library Success wiki. I have my own personal favorites:

Salt Lake City Public Library- So simple and clean
Prefab Library- Not a specific library’s site, but a new library website service by Influx. I am a huge fan of the navigation and its responsive design.
New York Public Library- Still on the fence about whether I like the recent redesign, but I give them credit for experimentation. Clearly inspired by Pinterest and/or Windows 8.

In the planning stages of our redesign I read Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski which argues that it is best to think of the mobile experience first as opposed to the afterthought it usually is. This is important not only because mobile usage has grown exponentially, but it also helps us avoid the junk-drawer inclination while deciding on the site’s content. I’ve subscribed to the Mobile First mentality and helped write up these guidelines for our upcoming redesign. Based on my own personal experience and observations I’ve concluded the following for contemporary web usage as it pertains to public libraries:

  • The library website should be the primary online destination for information ABOUT the library.
  • Accept that for most information-seeking Internet users, search engines will be the primary destination.
  • Not all library services require an online component, and that is okay.
  • Most users come to the library’s website with a specific purpose in mind. We want to support their quest for information as quickly and with as few clicks as possible.
  • Often, the library’s website is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end where the primary role is to quickly point users to information, including physical and digital content, library events, services, social media, and contact information.

In the end it should always come down to the library user’s experience. A librarian’s web needs and habits might not be the same as the average patron whose library experience is one small component in their busy lives. A librarian might take the time to linger and explore a library’s website, but my hunch is the average user isn’t interested in that experience. They have Facebook and a dozen other sites designed specifically for occupying their time. Keeping a library’s website simple, lean, and easy to navigate makes the website helpful- a primary goal of public service. Being aesthetically pleasing helps too.