Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Your Web Presence: An Ecosystem

A successful web presence, in my mind, has a lot of aspects. It may be built of many small pieces, seemingly unrelated systems. But they must be pulled together and presented with some coherence born of user-centered design. The question you should be asking in building (or rebuilding) that web presence is: What are your users' current needs/wants/expectations and anticipated needs/wants/expectations?

IA is a concept that librarians should feel especially comfortable with, since it relates to the organization of information (this definition from the Utah Education Network:

A description or design specification for how information should be treated and organized. In web design, the term describes the organization of online content into categories and the creation of an interface for displaying those categories.

Just as a house requires blueprints in order for construction to go well, a website needs information architecture for a library to build a coherent, easy-to-navigate site. But more than that - you have a whole web presence these days. Your web presence is no longer just a simple site, it's now an ecosystem.

Here's where it gets tricky - with Web2.0 tools, staff are empowered to create bits of what will eventually become a part of your library's web presence (and to do so very quickly and painlessly). This can be great, in many ways. Because web2.0 technology is so easy to use, however, people may not have given much thought to where their work fits into the larger vision of the website or organization. When people randomly build on lean-tos, suddenly the blueprint is no longer 100% accurate and the building itself may lose its integrity.

With Web2.0 options like wikis and blogs, we have to understand why staff members are tacking onto the web presence with third-party tools. Is it possible that some work needs to be done on the workflow of regular web content creation processes to make it easier for staff to publish using the website? Is the website the better vehicle for what they want to publish? Do they understand enough to use the appropriate tool for this issue they're working on? Were they solving a problem that another web content team or author was already working on addressing? Is everyone communicating and collaborating in the creation of aspects of the web presence? Does the "webmaster" know what staff members are planning when it comes to web efforts and can they envision how it would fit into the architecture of their web presence?

In all too many libraries, there is no dedicated "webmaster" or even "systems librarian" planning, building, maintaining, and upgrading the website or the content management system it may be built upon. In those libraries, it's possible that the only one who's creating aspects of the web presence on the fly is the person who also serves as webmaster part-time. If it's just a question of one web author, there will be no problem with coordination. That person is operating from their own unified vision of the organization's web presence. But when you're working in a larger organization, the rules change. The more decentralization there is, the more communication and collaboration there MUST be for your web presence to be successful.

On the flip side - serving as the dedicated webmaster for MPOW - I know that I don't always communicate as well as I should. I have a whole lot in my brain - a lot of plans, information architecture, and ideas - but it doesn't all always end up communicated to everyone who needs to know it. As a result, sometimes we get our signals crossed. Someone creates a bit of Web2.0 wonderfulness & then I try to figure out whether or not to wedge it into our existing web presence & if so, how. I hate the concept of saying "no" to a bit of content that someone has enthusiastically put together, but if it really doesn't fit or meet users' needs, as webmaster, my role is to serve the larger vision, not to serve the individual staff member/creator's need for that bit of Web2.0 wonderfulness to be publicized and congratulated. It's not about the needs of the librarians - it's about the needs of the users.

Usually, I rely on RSS to help me pull things together. I can include some portion of blog postings that are mounted on external servers by integrating them into the body of our web pages (I've used the old ByteScout ASP script & more often the RSS2js java script). But even this, if unplanned and unchecked long enough, can become unwieldy. Sometimes, subsections of MPOW don't want their stuff glommed into the larger news feed. But if they talk with me, I can help them to understand both the pros and cons of the situation & ways we might achieve what they're seeking. For example, it may just be a matter of adding in a tag to their blog postings on a specific topic. If they add such a tag, I can script on the RSS feed of posts with that tag.

All of the confusion that can arise, all of the integration issues that suddenly appear when staff become more Web2.0-literate remind us that the web presence can be a complex entity -- even an ecosystem -- unto itself. In order for the organization to achieve its larger goals & to appear coherent & memorable to end users, the organization needs a coordinator. That coordinator has to ensure the communication, collaboration, and management of the larger vision. They have to build the information architecture of the site and all of its components. They also have to pull together the many pieces of their web presence that are not built into the single system that serves the website itself. In addition, they have to view the bits of the web presence that are seen by patrons as being one and the same as the library's website (such as the catalog, commercial databases, blog(s), digital collections and so on).

1 comment:

pollyalida said...

Terrific post!