Library Technology: The wheel is here. No need to reinvent it.

Doug Sisko // August 2013

I recently returned from ALA Chicago, hearing once again a familiar refrain and theme that the library MUST reinvent itself. If you’re in the profession, you hear this alot. There is a need to reinvent every aspect of your organization. You need to reinvent your workflows and processes, let’s say, for your interlibrary loan program. You may be asked to reinvent how you view your patron. Is your patron a patron or are they now a customer? Is your patron always going to be at your brick-and-mortar main branch or university library? Along with that, you may need to reinvent your virtual space, your web presence. But on that last assertion, I am beginning to question how much “reinvention” we actually need.

Working with both librarians and web technology professionals, I’m sensing a need to identify one of the sleeping lions in the room: the mainstream library community is just behind the curve now for web technology initiatives. This is not to say individuals or groups like Code4Lib are not fantastic contributors to pushing the envelope, but many libraries are not looking at the right places for ideas, hiring the right people and/or budgeting appropriately for web projects.

For this particular post, I want to focus on the ideas that inform how you do your web projects. What do I mean? I mean, what concepts guide how you implement your website or digital initiative? This could be in choosing your CMS (like Drupal) or how you want to come up with your UX (user experience) design. In most of these areas, after attending the conferences the past two years, most progressive librarians are simply adopting the norms and best practices from outside their domain from a few years ago. In other words, you have curious people looking outside their domain to find information to see how others manage their digital efforts. Your patrons’ expectations are shaped by these other web experiences (not just your library site), and they are consequently expecting web experiences that you (or your vendor) may not provide if you’re not paying attention.

The bad news is the library is playing catch up. But there is also a good story as well. YOU can catch up quickly by paying attention to the work already done by other people in other professional spaces (hint, look at ecommerce sites). Look at those sites, and see how they connect their customer to a product (in your case, your books, services, databases). You do not need to reinvent the proverbial wheel. You simply need to provide an experience that is expected, not new. This is reassuring, and allows you to focus on what services you, the library, provide. Look at metaphors outside your space, and see how they can apply to you.

We recently finished projects for Richland Public Library following these similar principles. One of the main guides we had was to provide a single unified user experience for the Richland Public Library patron. In practice, this means keeping your patrons on one single site (not treating your site as a portal), and not sending them out to a billion sites for each vendor that you might have. With these current projects, the Richland Library patron can:

  •  Have a single unified account that ties across their ILS and Drupal
  •  An easy web-based way to pay fines
  •  An online catalog browse and search experience that leverages faceted search
  •  A place for online commenting and ratings of library holdings

And for Richland Library staff, they now have a Drupal-based web application that is ILS agnostic, allowing them the flexibility to migrate to another ILS as they see fit.

This has been an exciting program for both Richland Library and Isovera. However, as we approached this effort, we have drawn from many ideas outside the library, leaning on the team’s expertise of Drupal and web practices. For this series of projects, not reinventing the wheel was a large factor in our success. Reuse (and recognition) of established best practices made a significant difference for the Richland Library, helping connect their users and community.

Filed under: