Sunday, April 11, 2010

Getting grounded in website design concepts

What if someone you knew - not a librarian, not involved in libraries at all, in fact - told you they were going to create their own library ... that they were going to collect & circulate books to the public.
"How hard can it be? After all, all you have to do is get a building, some shelves, some books & then sign them out," they might say.
But because you're a librarian, you know that some of the seemingly most simple concepts are the hardest to execute effectively. So you start asking them questions, to get them to realize what issues would arise:

  • how will you get the funding?
  • what books will you buy to loan out?
  • how will you organize the books so that they can be found?
  • who will you loan the books to?
  • how will you get the books back? what if they're damaged?
Hundreds of other questions will bubble up through your mind, because - after all - you understand how complex an organization the library is.
Similarly, when I hear people talk about building websites without much of a plan or concept of the work involved, I worry about the website that will result - particularly if its goal is to represent the library. We should be serving up sites that add to our organizational and professional credibility.
To impress you with the breadth and depth of web work being done in the commercial sector these days, I could start spouting off the types of specialized positions that one can train for that only deal with one specific aspect of building websites:
  • graphic designers
  • developers (people who write or tweak the code behind the websites)
  • content producers
  • search engine optimizers
  • information architects
  • usability specialists / interaction designers / user experience designers
  • database managers
  • system administrators
...and there are doubtless many more. There are also sub-specialties and various flavors of these specialties.
But I digress, the point is not to discourage librarians from engaging in website building, it's just to impress upon them that it's a complex process, if you're doing it well. If you fail to work through a planning process you may build something, but it's going to be, at best, a Rube Goldberg device and at worst, it will show up at
Ideally, libraries would be able to handle their websites with the help of professionals, much as they handle construction projects using people who specialize in building things, such as engineers, architects, contractors, plumbers, electricians, and so on. Unfortunately, there's a widely held perception that anyone can create a website easily. And they can. It's just that doing so without a deeper understanding of concepts involved is more akin to building a tree house than than to building a structure that meets today's construction codes, has structural integrity, and is designed to accommodate the users' needs.
I also understand the constraints that libraries are under. Governments that barely provide enough money to staff their physical libraries are not willing to pay for things like professional website design (especially since there's that misperception that anyone can quickly, easily, and inexpensively build a website). So, at the very least, librarians can do what they do best, arm themselves with research and knowledge ahead of time. Their best bet is to try and understand the basic web concepts that provide a foundation for professional web workers.
Terminology and concepts that you should understand if you're going to be involved in designing/redesigning a website (even if your role is simply to be a part of a website design committee) include:A must-have resource designing usable sites is
To get a basic understanding of accessibility in website design, go to
Finally, you should always seek advice on standards (e.g., for code standards - such as testing html and css for validity) from
Some great website design blogs include:,,,
Books to help you with key web design concepts:

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