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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2011

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Vol. 31 No. 4 — May 2011
Librarians as Experts
Using the Web to Assert Our Value

by Lauren Pressley and Kevin Gilbertson

As information experts, we need to apply our expertise to our own websites to convey the full picture of our professional value to our larger communities.
We are librarians at a time when many wonder about the future of our field. People see challenges to libraries in funding, in ebooks, and in the internet. However, in this information-rich age, our roles in libraries are even more important. We are information experts. We know how to think about the changing information environment, and we know the impact—both positive and negative—it can have on people whose jobs focus on contributing to a body of knowledge.

This article describes a process that started when our local web committee decided that we needed to embrace our expert status and share our knowledge with the community. We wanted to help people understand the boundaries of our areas of expertise and to know when it would be appropriate to contact librarians for collaboration. Mostly, we wanted to make ourselves available so that people would know about our content areas. We want them to know that we are contributing nationally to these conversations and that we might have something to contribute locally too.

The best place to get the word out on our role in a changing information environment? The website, of course.

Figure 1: The first step in a website facelift.
Figure 1: The first step in a website facelift
Figure 2: Our more simplified homepage.
Figure 2: Our more simplified homepage.
Figure 3: The library’s Faculty page.
Figure 3: The library’s Faculty page.


Wake Forest University is a collegiate university that focuses on balancing the breadth and depth of a research university with the intimacy and personal attention of a liberal arts college. Authors Pressley, instructional design librarian, and Gilbertson, web services librarian, work at the university's Z. Smith Reynolds Library. The Z. Smith Reynolds Library serves the undergraduate college, which has a population of around 5,000 undergraduates, as well as a few graduate programs. The library has a staff of 52 to meet the needs of these users and university faculty.

Several recent changes have caused us to rethink our role within the university as well as the role of our web presence. These changes included the shift to faculty status; a wish to establish ourselves as interdisciplinary experts with regard to information literacy; a desire to be the center on campus for conversations about the evolving information environment; and a continued focus on collaboration with others across campus.

When the library web committee started talking about a redesign, it was clear that we wanted to use the website to do something more than the traditional homepage. We wanted to be able to use the site to address and leverage these changes, to support and build community, and to help our students, faculty, and staff succeed.

Librarians and faculty status. The transition to faculty status was an easy one at Wake Forest. As with most faculty, in addition to our defined job responsibilities, librarians already contributed to the profession in writing, presentation, and service. Many librarians already had a strong body of work and had developed reputations in the field. Yet, many of our Wake Forest colleagues did not know that we were active at these levels. We determined to use the website as a way to showcase the work that we do and highlight our ideas for our local community.

Librarians as interdisciplinary experts. Librarians, by nature, are interdisciplinary experts. We come from a wide range of academic backgrounds, and many hold advanced degrees in disciplines in addition to our Master of Library Science. At Wake Forest, all librarians have at least one academic department for which they are liaisons, giving us a chance to stay connected to other departmental needs. Since we are interdisciplinary in nature and work with other librarians connected to other departments, we are in a unique position to recognize connections among disciplines, both in scholarship and in trends. We bring this background to contemporary information issues and can think about them from multiple perspectives. We want to highlight our ability in this area and share what we know using the website as a vehicle.

Libraries as centers of discussion. The library is the academic heart of the university, and we want it to be the center of discussion for the university too, especially when it comes to topics relating to the changing information environment. First we have to establish ourselves as experts, an important component in the move to faculty status, and then we want to host the discussions. We want to inspire our students to think about these changing issues, and we want to engage faculty to think about what implications exist for their research and teaching.

Librarians as collaborators. More than anything, we are collaborators on campus. We are not merely servants or service providers—we are active collaborators working with faculty and students. We know we have skills and knowledge that are truly useful to faculty, whether they are interested in new ways of publishing such as open access, new ways of thinking about their disciplines such as digital humanities, or ways of presenting information in their classes by using new information technology. We are positioned to collaborate with any of these interests as well as related projects. We knew we needed a way to market our skills, knowledge, and availability, and the website seemed like a good place to do it.

Our Strategies

Featured ideas. The first phase was an intermediate facelift of the website (see Figure 1). While keeping much of the previous content in place, we enhanced our presence with a carousel—a rotating features section emphasizing important conceptual shifts in a field that we named “The Future of.” We solicited articles from library faculty and staff that looked at the future of information—publishing, finding, and using. These topics tended to be interdisciplinary and were meant to show academic faculty areas in which we had the expertise to collaborate.

These posts showed a fair amount of interest from the community, as measured by both click counts and comments. In this way, we began to create an environment in which people could have discussions around information topics. Yet it was a bit unfamiliar to those who were used to a carousel being a marketing piece that featured news and events. Rather than expect people to adapt to the web committee’s preferences, we adapted the carousel to meet these needs and adapted our plan to find another way to highlight our faculty status.

Social media plan. In the fall of 2010, we rolled out a comprehensive social media plan. We picked some social networks, such as SlideShare to share presentations and Google Maps to show where we travel to conferences, to enhance our faculty status. We selected other social networks, such as Delicious, to show our interdisciplinary nature. Finally, we selected others such as Facebook and Twitter to establish our interest in engaging in discussion with the community.

Planning Website Content

Much of our thinking about repositioning the academic library has taken shape as we have evaluated both the content and the structure of our current site. Our discussions started from site objectives and user needs. We in libraries often talk of user-centered design, yet we also often have our own agendas. We have found that there needs to be a balance between our professional capabilities, where our ideas and training emphasize the best information practices, and our service ethic, where personal experiences are the best indicators of success.

As we moved from site objectives to functional specifications and content requirements, the current state of our site became very apparent. What happens to natural systems over time? They grow, and through that growth, they can become cluttered. We discovered that the content accumulation our site experienced was very much an organic process and, like the very stacks in our buildings, needed to be weeded to allow for optimal growth in the future.

In this way, we began planning for the next few phases of what will be very much an ongoing project. The larger aspects of the planning included conducting a content audit, both as a content inventory and a qualitative assessment; implementing a user research strategy; and ensuring stakeholder consensus.

Content audit. To begin to evaluate our content, we established a schedule to examine every page in our site. This part of the content audit, the content inventory, allowed us to get a detailed list of every page in our site. When we combined that inventory with our analytics program, our view of the site shifted from a simple single dimension into something with a topology and unintentional distributions. This inventory was of course like any spreadsheet—rather static and, with appropriate depth, mind-numbing. During this time, we looked for and removed redundant, outdated, or trivial (ROT) content. Giving our content this new life has had two great benefits: one, we have cleaned out the waste, and two, we can now be more responsive to change, both planned and unplanned, both internal and external. In addition, the site feels more lightweight, more agile, faster.

In the second part of the content audit, the qualitative assessment, we again evaluated the content. However, instead of looking for redundant or trivial content, we judged based on quality. It became clear that this part can prove difficult if clear objectives for content have not been established.

During this process, many things became apparent. We in libraries appreciate to a high degree the power and value of automation. As we have made our way through the early phases of the project and as we embarked on new challenges, we saw that to achieve our goals we have to talk more about personalized and curated content. While a sidebar algorithm can provide next steps and alternative content, we found that we wanted to take—needed to take—a more crafted approach. Content strategy is very much about contextualization, about having the most appropriate message for a particular set of circumstances. We have discovered in these initial phases that to highlight relevant content is to select by way of discussion and research.

Our hope in conducting this content audit was to establish a new model where we can take better advantage of behavioral and situational needs, where our voice changes based on context.

User feedback. This next phase included the push to establish a more comprehensive and agile strategy for gathering user feedback. As a library, we have found that it is difficult to incentivize a feedback program because we already do everything for free. In such cases, our committee’s ingenuity is its greatest asset. We have found that user research is a critical component. In addition, we know that small changes in a user interface can equal big changes in user behavior, so it is imperative to determine the possibilities and opportunities for small changes.

We have seen that it becomes increasingly more difficult to provide a good user experience as we separate ourselves from the user. For libraries, this separation can happen in a number of ways, whether by relying on a database vendor, through traditional relationships of host and guest, or by witnessing the ever-increasing demands on our time.

A few key ideas in the rethinking of our strategy have included turning the normative idea of a focus group inside out and starting from a place of simplicity and good will. As we have mentioned previously, without the ability to offer substantive incentives, the possibility of bringing a handful of students together to discuss the website is remote. All students have an array of competing demands. If committing a chunk of time for a handful of students is difficult, we decided to provide an opportunity where a mere sliver of time for a whole population of students would be used for feedback, i.e., student surveys. Our first forays into student surveys were simple, many times involving merely setting up a table at the entry to the library and asking for people to fill out a short questionnaire. These feedback sessions resulted in exceptional numbers. We also provided opportunities for individual interviews.

Website objectives. As part of the user research process, it has become clear that every page within the site needs to have an established objective. In addition, we hope our website meets a number of the following general objectives:

  • Provide fast and easy access to the primary features of the website that our users depend on, such as using the catalog, finding articles, and reserving study rooms

  • llustrate that we are interdisciplinary experts and feature our interdisciplinary knowledge and skills

  • Cast the library as a center of discussion on campus and use the website to facilitate discussion around ideas and among faculty

Stakeholder alignment. Understanding that the library website exists for a number of community groups such as faculty, staff, students, library employees, visitors, and other librarians, we knew we needed to make sure the new website would meet the needs of this diverse group. We involved stakeholders in the visual design through a series of stages. We worked with users to determine the priorities of the website, to develop a series of wireframes for consideration throughout the design process, and to critique comprehensive prototypes. Throughout this process, we presented new designs and underlying philosophies to library administration for feedback. This iterative feedback process has allowed us to align the design of the new website to all stakeholders in our web presence.

Design. Any discussion of repositioning the academic library by way of its website would be severely incomplete without consideration of design opportunities and challenges. How do you translate an increased focus on a given topic while featuring several others? How do you ensure that your original objectives have been addressed? How do you know what objectives you should address?

Further, the field of mobile websites has changed how we think of traditional ones. People continue discussing the end of apps as we have seen mobile sites begin to behave as apps and function on any mobile device. As users begin to expect this type of functionality in mobile sites and in their day-to-day web presence, how can we begin to use this line of thinking when planning our own library websites? Perhaps instead of a website, the library website is really a collection of web apps. These web apps would obviously include the catalog, databases, and journal finders, but perhaps they also will include study room sign-ups, finding a liaison, and communicating with a reference librarian.

To really have an impact, the design of the website must also take into consideration one’s role on the web. Having a web presence does not equal being present on the web. To be fully present, we needed to be engaged with social media and participate where our community is. We need to realize that just putting up a site, or a series of apps, is only the first step to engaging our users in their online space and that to be most effective, we need to reach out and communicate with them.

A holistic approach to design helped us think through the message we were sending users about the library and its role in today’s information environment. Confusing sites will (rightfully) make users think the library is confusing; too much information will overwhelm them; dated information will make the library look out-of-touch … the entire design of the site impacts the users’ understanding of the library. If they find it useful, they will continue to come back, and we will have more opportunities to share the information we have for them.

Simplifying the Website

Often library homepages attempt to be the virtual embodiment of the library’s significant and unique ontology. They show that the library is trying hard, exerting great effort to compress or distill the entirety of its value into a single page with a surplus of objectives. Of course, users don’t seem to mind. They adapt, we adapt, and things are complicated on the website because things are complicated in the library.

We are looking at ways to simplify what our front page has been. We are removing or refactoring complicated library processes for streamlined user experiences. We are acknowledging that everyone doesn’t need all the information on the homepage, and we are moving content to subpages to streamline the experience. Our current prototype (see Figure 2) is a vastly simplified homepage. This homepage acknowledges the primary reason people come to our website: to find resources. We have heard the message from sites such as Google and Bing, and we are trying to build a page that is primarily about the service people come to the website to use, while also providing links to the more sophisticated services we offer and our areas of expertise.

To meet the needs of specific user groups, we have prototype patron homepages that enhance the experience based on audience context and group relevance. The faculty page, for example, makes it easy to find the services and resources that faculty will find most useful while also allowing us to craft a message about a current information issue and give it priority space (see Figure 3). The student page is similar with its targeted services and resources, but instead the priority is given to stories that are most relevant to students: information about events, information about the roles of librarians, and information specific to the time of year.

Further, we are reconceptualizing how we present our individual staff members. We are creating faculty profiles to facilitate interdisciplinary awareness. These profiles will include information about the publications and presentations our librarians are giving as well as subject areas they frequently work with in order to help academic faculty see where they overlap with library faculty. Ideally, these pages will also list collaborations with academic faculty so that it is clear we are not operating exclusively within our own field.

We also hope that by using a contemporary design and featuring high-impact messages and images we will be able to promote our skills, knowledge, and people to our larger campus community. Ultimately, we want to ensure that the focus of the website is on service, knowledge, and people rather than on content and information and that the website helps entrench the library as the center of campus in all ways.

Call to Action

In a time when people are questioning the role of libraries and the reason for librarians, we should be thinking strategically about what we offer our institutions and about specific outcomes we hope to provide. If we are information experts, as we are, we should be sitting at the table whenever information topics are addressed.

But to sit at that table, we might need to redefine our roles within the university, and we certainly need to make known the realm of our expertise and contributions. The website is a place where we can influence the discussion, as anyone who wishes to use our resources must use the site.

Thinking carefully and strategically about the messages we’re conveying on websites, both in organization and in content, can allow us to send a carefully crafted message to our larger institutions, helping them understand our role in the larger professional discussions and the specific things we can do with them.

As information experts, we need to apply our expertise to our own websites, to convey the full picture of our professional value to our larger communities.

Lauren Pressley ( is the instructional design librarian at Wake Forest University. In this role she works with librarians and faculty to improve the design of their teaching and to share information about integrating appropriate educational technology. She focuses on helping people learn about the changing information landscape and think about what that means for them as consumers and producers of information.

Kevin Gilbertson
( is web services librarian at Wake Forest University’s Z. Smith Reynolds Library. His work includes web application and user interface development and open source software initiatives. He focuses on web standards, information and interaction design, and accessible solutions to complex information environments.
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