What if your library website disappeared?

What would happen if your library’s website disappeared? You’d probably get a lot of phone calls. If I had to guess, most would be about:

  • Finding library items
  • Renewing library items
  • Library hours and locations

To a lesser extent, there might be questions about:

  • Loan periods
  • How to get a library card
  • Library events
  • Library services
  • Ebooks

However, I’d guess you would not receive many calls about:

  • Book reviews
  • Library value calculator
  • Homework help
  • History of the library
  • Library mission statement
  • Library policy
  • Library board minutes
  • Podcasts

This thought experiment gives us some perspective about the things library websites should be focusing on—the critical tasks users are trying to accomplish. It also offers perspective on the aspects of our websites that are comparatively unimportant—everything else.

Plainly, a lot of the content on your library’s website could be a complete waste of time and effort. Are your users looking at it? Check your analytics. Are those who do deriving any value from it? One way to find out is to remove it temporarily and see if anyone speaks up. Given the hard work it takes to create and maintain content, you might find that your return on some investments is low.


Why do some libraries insist on developing website content that is not being used? There’s no doubt it would be great if library users came to our sites to read book reviews, listen to podcasts, and calculate the value that the library delivers to them. We want to be a valuable resource. We want people to trust our opinions and rely on us for guidance. But just because this would be wonderful doesn’t mean it is going to happen.

We’re ever hopeful that if we advertise our websites in the right way, or create the right sort of graphic, or make the visual design more attractive, people will begin to use our content. This is pure fantasy. We need a healthy dose of reality.

By living in this dream world, we’re doing ourselves and our members a disservice. It is time for us to adjust our expectations about what it means to create and maintain a library website. If we liberate ourselves from producing scads of content that no one wants, we’ll have some surplus resources. We can use this extra horsepower to achieve other library priorities that meet user needs, such as improving our catalog interfaces.


I’m not yet aware of any libraries sending out great niche newsletters; please get in touch if you’re doing so. But here are three libraries that have reduced the scope of their sites and focused on what’s important.

Addison Public Library, IL
A very lean (and attractive) website.

Lane Public Library, Hamilton, OH
This site’s content is quite restrained and presented in an effective, attractive manner.

Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, KS
There’s still a decent amount of content on this site, but the staff have done a lot of whittling down from the previous iteration. The result is an easy-to-grasp understanding of what users can find on the site and targeted information that’s worthwhile to those interested.


Instead of creating content for your website and hoping people will visit, consider delivering it to their inboxes. Email newsletters are experiencing a ­renaissance and for good reason. Nearly everyone uses email. And sending an email is a sure way to get something in front of someone’s eyeballs. Marketing experts have observed that people are much more likely to take action as the result of an email than a tweet.

I’m not advocating spamming your users’ in-boxes with generic library information. Instead, consider creating one or two newsletters based on the interests of your community. These newsletters will not appeal to everyone, and that’s the point. Find a niche—such as cooking, gardening, or hiking—and invest your efforts in developing a relationship with the folks who are passionate about that activity. It is a lot easier and more effective to deliver value to a select group of people about a specific topic than it is to create a website that appeals to everyone. Start small, and if you’re successful and have extra time, create a newsletter for another group.

Library print newsletters face the same problem as library websites. While they’re useful for providing a comprehensive look at what’s going on at a library, they’re too general for anyone to get excited about. Consider rolling your newly developed niche content into a complementary print newsletter, too.

(More) Great Writing from Panic

Here’s some plain, honest, and conversational writing from Panic: Coda 2.5 and the Mac App Store. The post clearly communicates about an unfortunate situation in a transparent and friendly way.

Turns out that I’ve posted about their great writing before: Great Writing from Panic.

More posts about writing

Design Writing for a Good UX

Excellent Writing on the SPD Blotter

Writing for the Web: Save the Time of the Reader

Critical Tasks from Pew Internet

The latest Pew Internet report – Mobile Connections to Libraries – gives us some info about the critical tasks for library websites.

82% of them searched the library catalog for books (including audiobooks and e-books), CDs, and DVDs.

72% got basic library information such as the hours of operation, location of branches, or directions.

62% reserved books (including audiobooks and e-books), CDs, and DVDs.

51% renewed a book, DVD, or CD. Those ages 30-49 and parents of minor children are especially likely to have done this.

51% used an online database. Those ages 18-29 are particularly likely to have done this.

48% looked for information about library programs or events. Those ages 50-64 are especially likely to do this.

44% got research or homework help.

30% read book reviews or got book recommendations.

30% checked whether they owed fines or paid the fines online. Those ages 30-49 are particularly likely to have done this.

27% signed up for library programs and events.

22% borrowed or downloaded an e-book.

6% reserved a meeting room.

If your website doesn’t excel at the first four or five items, it isn’t providing a great user experience. We should be designing our sites to do things well. Above all else.

The Journal of Learning Spaces

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro just launched the Journal of Learning Spaces. It is an open access journal so the full text is available for all to read freely. 
Though the focus – at least of this first issue – is on classroom and not other learning spaces like libraries, there’s plenty of overlap that should be of interest to librarians.

I really nerded out with Use of swivel desks and aisle space to promote interaction in mid-sized college classrooms.

Content Strategy & Writing for the Web

I’m in the middle of digging though a content audit of a large library website and the more I do them the more convinced I am of their utility. Assessing every page (and other pieces of content) on a website is a granular task that can expose some big problems force people to think about the not only the purpose of a website, but the whole organization. Super great stuff for libraries to be thinking about.

Here’s a PDF of my slides for a presentation I gave at Internet Librarian last month: Content Strategy & Writing for the Web. Take from it what you can, and with any luck I’ll be able to give the topic the treatment it deserves with a proper post here in December.