One Step at a Time: Taking the Library Website from reference source to communication tool

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job? My head has been in a bit of a fog with it the last few months. The only thing on my horizon currently is my current task: rethinking, restructuring, and recreating the library’s website.

When I explain what the project is, it seems like such a small thing, really. We have a website: surely we’re just making it prettier and adding a few extra pages of text, right? This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our original goal with the project was to create a local hub for our community; we wanted our website to be not only for our community but by our community. We wanted it to have a lot of interaction, where students could contribute in a variety of ways. We wanted it to belong to them as much as to us. This is, of course, a very lofty goal. Few websites manage to do this; why would a library website be one of them? There were a wide variety of things we really wanted to implement so that we could assist students in communicating not only with us but with each other. We took a look around at what happens in the building and decided that the same kind of activity should also be happening on the website; see and be seen, chat with friends, find classmates who are studying at the same time as you are. We could be antagonistic to the fact that we are apparently the facebook of our campus, given all the various problems that come with that (noise in particular) but instead we’re seeing it as a valid use of the space. Our overall goals including helping students to learn better. You can’t learn with people you don’t trust. How do you build trust? You chat, you share, you relate to each other in friendly ways. Are libraries places to meet people, chat with friends, build community? Why shouldn’t they be? We can encourage it, preserve the traditional “library quiet” in the places where it’s expected, and infuse our social and academic spaces with resources and services to help.

Our goals for the website were lofty. A little too lofty for our first iteration, as it turns out. Not just because of time (though that’s a huge factor) and not just because of money (also a huge factor). It’s also got a lot to do with cultural change in an institution, getting various groups of people on the same page, getting resources you don’t necessarily have any history of requesting, and generally changing expectations on every level. Slow change is sometimes the best we can accomplish. I’m not a patient person, but I think what we’re trying to accomplish needs patience. So a few technical hurdles are probably just what was required to slow me down a bit.

So what we’re going to present in a few weeks is different than what our original goals suggested. It’s going to look like 180 degree turn to some, I realize. But the more I got into the project, the more I realized that we’re not yet entirely qualified to start building digital community. We don’t live digitally yet as a library. How can we responsibly foster such a community, encourage interaction, when we’re not doing it ourselves? So in our steps toward creating a community website, the first thing we need to do is focus on us.

This is totally counter-intuitive. I know this is one of the battles I’m going to need to fight: in order to be a part of a community, you need talk as much as you need to listen. The received wisdom on this point is that to be a trusted source, you listen to your audience and give them what they want. I shall now turn that on its ear: to be valuable and trusted, you need to demonstrate who you are and what you do. Not just once, but constantly. It’s not enough to listen; we’re listening, and no one knows who we are. We are faceless. We can be an echo chamber for our patrons, or we can show them who we actually are and what we actually do. We can share our passion with them. We can tell them about all the really interesting things that we encounter on a regular basis. We can talk about the things that slow us down. Talking doesn’t stop us from listening. In order to be part of a community we hope to provide resources for, we need to open up and share.

So the first iteration of our website will be about us sharing. It will be about us telling you what’s going on and what we’re thinking about. This is going to be a challenge on all sides. As I said, we are not a digital culture here. Other than me, no one is used to musing aloud in public. We are currently a closed circle, looking at each other and filling the space between us with papers and words. Now, we will face outward, and you will get to see those words. They will be for you as much as for us.

What this means: regular updates on things like construction in the library. It won’t just be a little sign for you to read on the way in; you can see the plans, the ideas, the fundraising goals. You will know that we are having some of our soft furnishing replaced, that we’re rearranging the fourth floor because the original plan didn’t make as much sense as we thought, and that we have big plans for the structure of the library in the future. There are so many really exciting things going on related to the physical space; there’s no good reason not to share it with our community. We can talk about ideas we have about replacing our loaner laptops with hardy netbooks. (Just ideas, but good ones!) When something explodes in the library world, we can be upfront and clear with our community about how it effects them, and hear about what we’re doing about it ourselves. We can track the progress of all the new initiatives that are starting up in the library, including my own position, Emerging Technologies.

So our first go with our new website is going to be about a change in practice and in metaphor. Our website is not just a big book full of how-tos that you can pull down when you need it, though we’re going to make sure it’s easy to find out how to do everything we know students are going to need to know how to do. The book metaphor is gone. We’re not just trying to serve all known needs. We’re also trying to engage with our community on the issues we are passionate about. We are trying to inform everyone about what’s going on here, what the plans are, how we’re considering an issue or a problem. We will not be faceless. We will not be without our particular interests and specialties. We will not be perfect PR. We will be human beings who happen to love the work that we do.

You can give someone a blank piece of paper and tell them to write. Or you can give them a book full of ideas and comments and ask them to jot down their response. The first one seems easier, but is actually harder. So we’ll start. We’ll start the process of creating an institutional space that changes all the time, that reflects the people in the building, and responds to the community in every way that they talk back. As time goes on, we’ll expand the voices that populate our website. We want to hear more from students and faculty. We want to provide them with tools to communicate with each other.

One step at a time.

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