Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thoughts about library portals - How much effort should we spend on it?

Recently the front page of our library portal was down, and predictably, our members began asking for help via email & chat. One thing I noticed is that I could easily satisfy most of their needs by sending them directly to the resources they need.

Thinking about it, I realized that while the library homepage is necessary as the face of the library and a listing of all our services and resources, most of our services are actually independent of it. Add the fact that libraries are developing more and more ways for our members to access library resources & services without visiting our library page, you can see why the library portal home page is becoming less important.

Imagine one of our savvy members, he searches using Google Scholar and gains access to full-text with the help of the proxy bookmarklet or library links program. He opts to receive news by following the library Twitter account & uses a Facebook App or mobile app to do searches and reservation of books.  SMSes inform him when a book is due.

Would such a user even care if you spent thousands revamping your library webpage? How many of our members fall into this category?

Moreover, We are also now creating multiple access points such as Facebook pages, mobile pages, Netvibes pages, Libguides pages which are or can be mini-library pages in themselves, how much effort should we put on the main library portal proper? Would most users be happy with a light-weight library portal page or perhaps even be happy with just accessing services via your Facebook page? I'm not sure..

Here's a list of resources & services and how we (libraries) have created access points beyond just the library homepage.

Electronic resources 

I would say most of our members are seeking access to this. Technically speaking there is no reason why you need the library webpage for this, some users already bookmark directly the link to JSTOR or whatever their favourite database is.

In fact most libraries provide far more flexible ways to access eresources without visiting the library homepage. These methods allow a user to access a specific article from google scholar, or allow flexible searching of databases from their browser. Some examples

  1. Proxy Bookmarklet, Search Plugins
  2. Custom Toolbars - Libx, Conduit toolbar (with OpenURL resolver)
  3. Google Scholar "Library Search" & "Library Links" program

Example of Library Links in Google Scholar, Members can access full-text via Harvard Subscription

Sample example of conduit toolbar to search library databases via toolbar

At my institution, I've noticed our proxy bookmarklet is extremely popular, tracking shows it's being shared on Facebook, and there are many compliments on twitter about it, including this one.

This mirrors various reports showing that use of Google Scholar is increasing (in tandem with a recent report showing that Google Scholar has improved dramatically from the first launch) and the proxy bookmarklet works perfectly with their workflow.

There are many more tools such as Widgets (desktop, web etc), search bookmarklets etc that create even more access points, but I won't go more into this, as I have written on this theme many times before in the past.

Library catalogue & Loan related activities

With many libraries being on WorldCat, users can actually use that without going to the library portal (and there's also integration with Google's Library Search program). Search Plugins for library catalogue, the above mentioned toolbars and even the new WebMynd allow members to do a search on any webpage they want, and be brought straight to the result.

WebMynd is a new wrinkle on the old theme, as it overlays results from various sources on Google search results. In the example below, a user searching Google will also get results from LINC (Our next-generation library catalogue - III's Encore), JSTOR and Scopus.

Many Library webpages have began to embed library search boxes, but some (I heard of 2)  have even started creating Facebook apps that not only allow you to search the catalogue in Facebook, but also see the result and make reservations. One example is my own country's National Library Board, myLibrary Facebook app.

Searching catalogue within NLB's myLibrary Facebook app, results shown in Facebook, with option to reserve 

  myLibrary Facebook app, showing books on loan and fines

Even libraries without this level of Facebook integration have mobile apps (typically boopie or Blackboard based) that allow loan related transactions.

Library News

Libraries have always put up library news & events on their webpage but do our members really want to come to our portal just to see what's new? As such libraries have began experimenting with "push" channels like mailing lists & RSS to distribute library news. But today, we recognise that perhaps the most effective push channel would be Twitter and Facebook, where our members can follow our Twitter account or "like" our Facebook Fan pages and get library news they want push to where they are at.

Omaha Public Library Facebook news in a member's Facebook stream

Others services

I would guess most of the services our members desire can be covered above. What about FAQs, help pages, subject guides etc? In recent years thousands of libraries have moved towards third party hosted content management systems like wikis or even LibGuides (>1,700 libraries) and LibAnswers (>200).  I can see why many institutions have chosen to, it's light weight relatively cheap and even has mobile friendly features built-in now.

Now imagine one of our savvy members, he searches using Google Scholar and gains access to full-text with the help of the proxy bookmarklet, or library links program. He opts to receive news by following the library Twitter account & uses the Facebook App to do searches and reservation of books.  SMSes inform him when a book is due.

Would such a user even care if you spent thousands revamping your library webpage?

Fragmenting of efforts

It's great that libraries are increasing the number of access points to users who don't care to visit the library site.

I see this trend accelerating and perhaps more and more of our users will start to use them and bypass our portal.

However, this report shows that it is expensive to maintain University sites, Library sites are probably not cheap either. Add the fact that are these additional access points being created by libraries, such as mobile sites, mobile apps and Facebook pages (all of which are mini library sites) one wonders whether librarians are trying to do too much? Particularly for libraries that also have startup pages like Netvibes.

Below we see the conduit toolbar from CMB ,

The conduit toolbar for example is basically a mini library web page with relevant links

Facebook pages in particular with some tweaking and use of FBML allows you to pretty much create webpages, so you can create a mini library portal. As mentioned before, libraries have embedded search boxes, contact info & opening hours and more.

Will the Facebook page even eclipse the main library page in popularity? I doubt it but with the rising popularity of Facebook, one wonders if even now they are getting a significant number of hits particularly for public libraries.

In any case, the library portal will never go away of course, but one wonders if libraries should spend less time and effort on them?

As it is, libraries are creating light weight library home pages using something like LibGuides.  The interesting thing is that SpringShare is moving towards supporting mobile ( for starters all LibGuides are automatically mobile friendly now), so this is an interesting low cost option. Below are some examples of libraries that have gone with this option.

Example of LibGuide as library home page, University of Notre Dame Australia University Library

Example of LibGuide as library home page,  Lynn University, Eugene M. and Christine E. Lynn Library

To some extent this also reminds me of this contentious article "The Library Web Site of the Future" published in early 2009, which argues that most members are bypassing the library portal when searching for content. As far as I understand it, the piece argues that library portals should show case events, marketing efforts etc. Content should be shafted to specialised research portals such as specific subject guides.

The opposite approach though is the one I blogged about here about Customizable library portal pages which gives users a reason to actually come to our portal page by making our portal page their first port of call. Whether this will work is a open question....


The future

Imagine a world where Open Access is triumphant (hard i know but just try). Further imagine a world where Google Book Editions, book print on demand and Patron Driven Acquisitions (PDA) is the norm. Users can also get news of interest to them pushed to them via email alerts, RSS , FaceBook/Twitter or their Social Network of Choice.

In such a world, would the humble library portal be so important?

With everything in Open Access, Google Scholar would contain almost everything they need (granted with some time delays), while more skilled users would search their subject repositories directly. For the rare case where paid walls are still there, users can access them directly via OpenUrl resolvers, Proxy bookmarklets and more.

Books? Just use Google books or similar, do PDA to purchase the item or print on demand. Besides Google (and Google scholar) get you access via WorldCat.

Library news? It's so archiac to go to a page just to view the news.. news come to you via RSS or on Facebook!

The library portal would still need to exist of course for branding purposes (one place to find all your stuff & for introduction!) but perhaps a light weight option will do? Or perhaps libraries should fight this trend and come up with new features to pull our members back to our library homepage (perhaps by adding customization and personalization features?)

I'm not sure....
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