Sunday, January 22, 2012

Going deep into the world of web development

It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, I’m not even sure who’ll find & read this post! But it matters not. Half the time I think that I’m writing to better understand my own thoughts, so the process always yields something good.
For as long as I’ve been building out the library’s Drupal-based content management system, like for 2 years now, I’ve been struggling, caught between two worlds - the world of the library and the world of main-stream web design. I learn more from the latter. It’s harder facing the latter. I feel less expert and confident, but I really need to know how professionals get their work done. By professionals, sadly, I don’t mean folks with Library/Information Science degrees.
When I’m at DrupalCamps and DrupalCons - as I was yesterday (at DrupalCamp Western Mass.) - the presenters usually ask what your role with Drupal is. The choices are usually:
  • Drupal developer (concentrates on writing code, modules, structuring information, uber-geeky back-end stuff)
  • or a Drupal themer (someone who creates a design for the site, concentrating on the front-end look, feel, and usability. Though from the librarian’s perspective, this involves code work - in everything from CSS to basic php templating and jQuery (a javascript library) techniques.)

Sometimes, there’s a third category, for project managers or high-level managers who run web development shops.
Although a lot of folks who are free-lancers end up taking on all roles, they usually have a specialization that makes them identify themselves on one side of the spectrum or other.
So which are you, my library colleague - a front-end designer or a developer?
Or are you a project manager?
Did you learn how to do any of the above - I mean, really do them - in your Master’s degree program? I sure didn’t.
The web has leapt ahead while librarians weren’t looking. I’ve been trying to understand why. But in the meantime, I’ve had to expend most of my minimal resource of time on professional development that’s web-specific, rather than library-specific. So no, I’m not in Dallas at ALA Midwinter. Yes, I missed ALA, New Orleans in 2011. And yes, I miss the greater comfort I have with my colleagues in libraries - because I actually know them and where they’re coming from - it’s easier to interact and to feel confident. But in the past couple of years of web development learning, I’ve challenged myself more than I’ve ever done focusing on library-specific technology. Sorry to say.
It seems like the web world is something of a do-ocracy, but our world of professional librarianship is one of slow change, big theories, and a few baby steps forward at a time. It's structured, hierarchical, and slow moving. I don’t have time for that. I have to focus on learning how the pros do what they do so brilliantly & bring that back to my library. Let’s admit one thing - web developers been increasingly successful. We in libraries have not. Not that we aren’t great at what we’ve always done. Not that the people don’t need us. Not that there aren’t amazingly innovative libraries and people out there. But we just don’t have critical mass. There aren’t enough of us innovating and translating our high concepts about changing how we do business into reality.
A while back, I recognized that my library wasn’t going to get the money to hire its own web development firm every time we needed move forward, especially given the rate of change in technology and user expectations. It seemed to me that the closest thing we could come up with for a future-proof strategy was to understand, respect, and leverage the knowledge of professional web developers - basically, to become professional web developers ourselves. I wanted us to learn how to build and grow without needing to put in change orders every time we found usability issues in our online presence. We needed to close that feedback loop.
So that’s where I’ve been for the past year - going DEEP into the world of web development, rather than spreading myself around many technologies. And what I discovered - because I didn’t know how much I didn’t know - is that even in this technological area that librarians still lump together as being the realm of the "webmaster" or the "web librarian", practitioners have had to specialize in one aspect of the technology or another. There’s no way to do it all and do it in a way that allows us to evolve. The jack-of-many trades model isn’t scalable.

So why don't all libraries have teams with specialists in:
  • project management
  • content strategy / search engine optimization strategy
  • information architecture
  • development (code - functionality)
  • front-end design / user experience design / interaction design
  • system administration & architecture

Because make no mistake - ALL of what you're doing online is about the web these days. From the end users' perspective, your "online branch" is the website*. Although this branch gets far more use per year than your busiest bricks and mortar branch, your library is probably lucky to allocate as much as 1% of your staff resources to working on that branch.

(* From the end users' perspective, your catalog is your website and your website is your catalog. Same with digital collections. The main usability issues we'd identified at our library related to the lack of integration of those resources. Hence, the website is everything. It's where all of your resources need to come together. Users shouldn't have to know the difference in systems and staff responsibilities. The end result should all = the website, as it does in the users' minds.)


Stephen Francoeur said...

Your post is a nice reminder about how little support most libraries put into developing their website even though it is often a place that sees far greater traffic than the physical library.

Anonymous said...

Nicely said! I just started as a digital services librarian, a newly created position.