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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > January 2007

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Vol. 27 No. 1 — Jan. 2007
Building a Library Web Site on the Pillars of Web 2.0
by Karen A. Coombs

A year and a half ago when I started as the head of libraries’ Web services, the University of Houston (UH) Libraries was undertaking a project to dramatically reshape its Web site. The site had been in a state of flux and it needed a new structure for both managing and organizing it. At the time, all content was passed through the Web services department before becoming part of the site. As a result, making updates was a time-consuming task and significant portions of the site were out-of-date. In addition, the site’s structure was rigid and inflexible and provided no space for staff or users to participate.

An informal needs assessment revealed that staff members wanted to control their own content and to have a way to make the site more engaging and interesting to their users. These desires were further fleshed out during focus groups concerning the development of the libraries’ strategic directions. Based on these different types of feedback, I realized the staff was looking for a Web site that was more “Web 2.0” in nature.

What is “Web 2.0” though? Web 2.0 is often defined by the technologies that are part of it: social software, Weblogs, linklogs, folksonomies, wikis, podcasts, RSS feeds, and Web services. Because of this, some see Web 2.0 as merely hype. However, if you examine the technologies to see what they have in common a pattern emerges. “Web 2.0” is transforming the Web into a space that allows anyone to create and share information online—a space for collaboration, conversation, and interaction; a space that is highly dynamic, flexible, and adaptable.

Further discussion and reading led me to design six pillars of Web 2.0 that we wanted to use as the foundation for rebuilding our library Web site. These six pillars are as follows:

1. Radical decentralization
2. Small pieces loosely joined
3. Perpetual beta
4. Remixable content
5. User as contributor
6. Rich user experience

1. Radical Decentralization

Radical decentralization is the first pillar of Web 2.0 that I would base the libraries’ new Web site on. For the institution, this pillar was key because the UH Libraries’ Web site has content that is created and updated by a number of different people. The previous site had been highly centralized and staff did not have a reason to take ownership of content. As a result, the quality of content on the site varied greatly from page to page. An important part of decentralizing control of content was establishing ownership of content, a process that took several painful months. Another significant portion of the restructuring was creating a content management system (CMS) to allow staff to update pages.

One unique piece of the UH Librar­ies’ new CMS is its wiki-like nature. Any staff member can make changes to a page if they see a problem. These changes then need to be approved by the page owner before they can go live.

Because of the dramatic shift in the level of responsibility that staff members have for content, they needed to become accustomed to creating and maintaining content. In order to give staff experience with this responsibility while the CMS was being rebuilt, the UH Libraries began experimenting with blogs and wikis. These two projects allowed staff to learn what it was like to create and maintain their own content. This helped them gain experience to inform the creation of policies for the new Web site and helped to shape training on the new system.

2. Small Pieces Loosely Joined

The second pillar of Web 2.0 that guides the restructuring of the librar­ies’ Web site is small pieces loosely joined. The previous Web site, like those of most library systems, was a monolithic silo that stood separate from the rest of the libraries’ Web-based systems. It was inflexible and it was very difficult to add new functionality. This great­ly limited the types of content and services that could be part of the Web site. Additionally, without lots of programming, it was difficult for content to be reused elsewhere on the site or in other library or campus systems.

To deal with this problem, we decided to make the Web site a combination of different technologies including blogs, wikis, and the content management system. Because of known problems with integrating closed systems into the libraries’ Web site, we felt that it was important to use as much open source software as possible to add new functionality to the site. Therefore, we chose Mediawiki for wikis and MovableType to support our Weblogs and incorpora­ted these into the UH Libraries’ site.

Although we haven’t completed a visual redesign of the Web site, the final goal is for all of these systems to have a common look, feel, and login that signals to users that they are on the UH Libraries’ Web site. In addition, to give the site as much flexibility as possible, the CMS is made up of different modules for different content types. The result is that content is reusable throughout the site. For example, my contact information can be displayed on multiple pages, yet one update changes it throughout the site. This allows us to keep content up-to-date.

Reusable content also means that people can easily create pages that combine existing content. So the history subject selector could add her contact information to a page, along with the relevant list of history databases and appropriate list of history news items, thereby creating a subject guide for history. Additionally, modules allow any piece of the CMS to be replaced as needed and new modules to be built quickly and easily without altering the underpinning of the site.

3. Perpetual Beta

Because everyone knew that the restructuring of the Web site would mean a significant time filled with lots of new systems, development, and changes, perpetual beta is the third Web 2.0 pillar we adopted. The idea embraces change and creates an environment where systems are deployed early so that iterative and constant improvements can be made. A crucial piece of this is making users a part of the development process and gathering constant input from them to make updates and changes.

This idea guided our implementation of Weblogs and wikis as well as development of the content management system. With each of these projects we deployed the initial version of the new system with a small group of staff who would test it and help us make refinements. After 4–6 weeks, we then made the systems available to all of the UH Libraries staff. When we deployed the systems, we made sure to let people know that we expected the systems wouldn’t be perfect, that we wanted feedback on them, and that we would be making improvements constantly. Deploying systems in this manner has been extremely gratifying not only because of the feedback we are able to gather, but also because it allows us to bring up new services more quickly and see how they mature over time.

4. Remixable Content

Remixable content is the fourth pillar of Web 2.0 that guided our redesign. Remixable content is content and/or data that is accessible to be repurposed in other applications. Typically in the Web 2.0 world this is done via an application programming interface (API). Sites such as Flickr and provide developers with a framework that can be used to incorporate their content into other applications. Ideally, we would like to provide the same type of framework for content on the UH Libraries’ Web site. The advantage of this is that the libraries’ content could then be incorporated into other university Web sites. For example, subject guide content could be incorporated into the corresponding department’s Web site or appropriate classes in the university learning management system. Although we have yet to complete an API for the libraries’ Web site, we have taken steps to build a system on which an API could be added.

Additionally, the libraries’ Web site has been constructed with the capability to remix content from other sources. For example, newsfeeds from other sources can be incorporated. Research is also being done to discover a way to easily and seamlessly incorporate resources from the libraries’ catalog and databases into the site and into other internal and external applications. This is probably the greatest hurdle that we’ll need to overcome in order to make the Web site Web 2.0 friendly.

5. User as Contributor

During my needs assessment and the strategic directions focus groups, feedback from the libraries’ staff members revealed that they wanted the Web site to be more engaging and useful to our patrons. One way that Web 2.0 sites en­gage their users is by providing them with a space where they can create content and give feedback. As a result, user as contributor became the fifth pillar of the site redesign. Most library Web sites do not have spaces for users to contribute content. Our site was no exception.

Wikis for library instruction classes are one space in which we envision users creating and maintaining content side-by-side with librarians. We have begun preliminary experiments with this idea but are still trying to resolve some technical issues. It is also possible that users could eventually contribute to the libraries’ Web site itself; the wiki-like structure of the CMS can facilitate this. However, we have yet to decide where on the site this functionality will be available. Likewise, there is a great deal of interest in allowing users to add tags and reviews to materials in our catalog, but how or when to implement this functionality is still undecided.

Additionally, our organization is participating in the Texas Digital Library’s (TDL) Faculty Archive Repository (FAR) and Learning Objects Re­pository (LOR) projects. The FAR project will allow faculty to contribute research materials to a central repository, which spans institutions. The LOR project will create a space for faculty to deposit learning objects in much the same way. The UH Libraries’ participation in the TDL will provide UH faculty and researchers with a space in which to share their ideas and to potentially collaborate with others.

6. Rich User Experience

Closely related to the concept of user as contributor is the fifth pillar of Web 2.0, developing a rich user experience. Allowing users to contribute content is one way to create a richer user experience, however, there are many others. Using a variety of the types of content on the site is one way to do this. To this end, the UH Libraries has begun to explore ways to incorporate multimedia into the Web site. In particular, we have begun investigating screencasts and developing the capabilities to stream video.

We have also sought out ways to make our Web site more interactive by providing space for online interaction and collaboration. Wikis are one tool. Instant messaging and/or chat reference may also provide a way for users to interact with librarians. To create a more desktop-style-application experience for users, we have been exploring using Ajax. Personalizing and customizing a Web site can also make for a richer user experience. Because libraries typically try to purge data concerning user transactions, personalization is difficult. However, the site can provide some customized content through the use of subject-oriented portals.

The Web 2.0 Pillars Continue to Support Us

Over the course of the last year, the University of Houston Libraries has used the principles of Web 2.0 as the building blocks for a new Web site. We have completely restructured the technology behind our Web site in order to make the site more flexible and adaptable. We have incorporated new tools and added services to better adapt to the needs of our users. Through this pro­cess, we learned that because of proprietary systems, fully realizing the dream of a Web 2.0 site is daunting. However, some aspects of Web 2.0, such as blogs and wikis, can be incorporated into library Web sites readily. Yet, even with all of the changes, the UH Libraries still has a lot of work that needs to be done to make its Web site truly Web 2.0 in nature.

Creating a Web site that truly reflects Web 2.0 is a task that is always changing as our tools and user expectations change over time. By keeping in mind the things that make Web 2.0 unique—radical decentralization, small pieces loosely joined, perpetual beta, remixable content, user as contributor, and rich user experience—we can strive to build something meaningful for our users.


Further Reading

Blyberg, John (2006) “Library 2.0 Web sites: Where to Begin” sites-where-to-begin

Miller, Paul (2005) “Web 2.0 Building the New Library”
Ariadne 45

O’Reilly, Tim (2005) “What is Web 2.0”

Library 2.0 Reading List

Karen A. Coombs is the head of libraries’ Web services at the University of Houston Libraries in Texas. She has worked for more than 5 years developing and maintaining Web sites and Web applications for libraries and has written several articles on related topics. She has an M.L.S. and an M.S. in information management from Syracuse University in New York. Her email address is

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