Tag Archives: Usability

Blogging with Halifax, NS Public Libraries: A Match Made in Two-Point-Whoa Heaven

6 Dec

Perhaps, after my last post, I am growing attached to these newfound rose-coloured glasses, and I’m growing soft. Or maybe I’ve settled too comfortably into this new world of blogging and I’ve grown rather partial to it.

It’s likely a bit of both, but I think the major factor here is the nature of blogging itself. Since starting this assignment I have had a lurking suspicion that blogs, by virtue of their structure and style, were the most compatible, with libraries, of all the Web 2.0 tools I’ve discussed so far.

This is my first foray into blogging, and I can’t claim to be very well-acquainted with the intricacies of blog creation, but I do read enough of them to have a general knowledge of how they work and what functions they serve.

Exploring Halifax Public Libraries’ blog, called “The Reader,” my suspicions were confirmed. The adoption of this tool by the library feels natural and useful and very well done. I was very pleased to find as much, not least because I was hoping to be able to end this run on an upbeat note!

To start at the beginning: the blog is very easy to find on the library’s website, both on its homepage and from the applicable “Readers” page. The usability of blogs in general and of this blog in particular is a big part, I think, of why they work so well for libraries. The simple RSS-feed format, the blog archives, and the tags and tag clouds all make it easy to find the latest news, to search old posts, and to browse related topics.

HPL's blog

http://www.thereader.ca/

The format also allows for maximally effective communication. Unlike micro-blogging sites like Twitter, where character limits and space restrictions often seem to force users to resort to Internet slang, cryptic abbreviations, and inadequate abstracts, blogs allow the library to convey its news using whatever language and structure are deemed most appropriate. This makes the information accessible to a wider audience of library users, and allows for more information to be conveyed at a time, thereby enabling access to information and keeping with library goals.

The subject matter of this blog is also marvellously relevant to the library and to its users. It provides a reader’s advisory service, with recommendations of specific books. Each recommendation comes with a playful but professional, informative but accessible description, and the posts are written by several different contributors so there is a highly desirable diversity of tastes and opinions among them. Since the blog is updated every day with few exceptions, the suggestions are topical and seasonally-appropriate, too.

This currency also promotes an image of the library itself as being active and contemporary, and the frequency of the updates is a big draw for potential readers, thereby embedding this library service into the everyday lives of users.

The fact that the blog is minimally social, I think, is a positive thing in this instance, although this doesn’t conform to most people’s conceptions of Web (or even Library) 2.0. Users are able to comment on blog posts, but these comments are hidden until a reader clicks on the “Comments” link, which is placed very subtly at the bottom of the post. User comments are not as widely-used in the blogging community as they are on sites like Facebook, and I think this is due to the atmosphere of the service. Since it is less focussed on the social aspect, libraries are better able to control their image and keep content professional and appropriate.

My resulting conclusion is a simple one: The blog is a powerful tool for libraries, and a good fit for them. As with any Web 2.0 tool, a library must ensure, before embarking on its own blogging adventure, that it is able and willing to maintain the blog, providing high-quality and up-to-date content on a regular basis. HPL demonstrates how well this can be done by using blogging to provide reader’s advisory services. “The Reader” exemplifies many of the principles I’ve discussed throughout this blog; it is widely accessible and highly usable, it communicates effectively with patrons and informs them about library-related news. It is inherently relevant to the library and its services, indeed providing a service in and of itself. It promotes the library as a valuable resource and important community member. Most importantly, it provides an approachable, personal, and somewhat social aspect to library service, attracting a wide variety of users through topical, high-quality content, while still allowing the library to maintain a respectable and professional image and identity.

I think blogging perfectly embodies many of the goals and ideals of Library-Two-Point-Whoa, and what better place to sign off on such a project than this? I have no doubt that libraries will continue to experiment and work with Web 2.0 tools of all kinds, and that they will continue to improve the quality of their engagement with them. It’s certain that there’s still a lot to be learned- mistakes to be made, content to be updated, features to be adapted- but I’m confident that libraries- and above all, librarians- are up to the challenge. For now, it seems an auspicious and hopeful omen that blogs – one of the earliest Web 2.0 tools to gain popularity- and for our purposes, HPL’s blog in particular, can so perfectly actualise the vision of libraries utilising these technologies to further their goals: creatively and effectively promoting their institutions, connecting with their users, and serving their communities.

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Sunnyvale, CA Public Library on Facebook: D.O.A. or Just Late to the Party?

5 Dec

I’ve been putting off dealing with the matter of Facebook. It seemed so inherently problematic to me, really, that I just didn’t even want to go there.

There are scores of articles (like this one) and blogs (like this one and this one) that discuss the issue, and debates about whether or not users (usually students) want their libraries to be on Facebook (in a lot of cases, it’s determined that the answer is a rather emphatic “no”). While most of the focus is on academic libraries, since students were the initial, and continue to be the most well-known users of Facebook, I think the issue certainly extends to public libraries as well. The fact of the matter is, libraries are widely seen as old, stuffy, and authoritarian, and librarians as those stereotypical, shushing curmudgeons we’ve all heard so much about. While libraries all over the world are hard at work trying to break free from these stereotypes, they’re not going to disappear overnight, and right now they are still hanging on rather stubbornly. I think it’s fair, then, that many users feel uncomfortable with the idea of encountering their library or librarian in spaces that they expect to be distinctly informal, irreverent, and above all, social.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into this debate, because it’s been done exhaustively, and quite well, by many others. Suffice it to say that this idea of library culture being rather antithetical to that of Facebook is what has dominated my mindset regarding the issue up until now, if only in a very vague, unscientific sort of way.

However, I did my best to check these nagging doubts, and to go into this with an open mind. I’ve been pleasantly surprised during this assignment already, and lo and behold, it’s happened again.

Examining Sunnyvale Public Library’s Facebook profile demonstrates both why the library’s entry to the realm of Facebook has been such a fraught one, and why these concerns are blown too much out of proportion.

To start with, although most individual profiles on Facebook are visible only to those who are registered members of the site, SPL’s page is visible to anyone with Internet access. While Facebook might at first appear intimidating to some users with all its different “apps” and options, it is fairly intuitive to use, and users can engage only at a very basic level if they so choose.

SPL Facebook pagehttp://www.facebook.com/sunnyvalelibrary

Nearly all of SPL’s “wall” is taken up by its various notes, which convey information about upcoming or ongoing library events and programs and community news, as well as highlighting specific materials in the collection. This works well because users can scroll up and down the screen, looking at the titles and first paragraphs of each note to see if any are of interest to them. If they find one they want to read more about, they can simply click on the link to take them to the note (essentially a short article) in its entirety. While I don’t think the format of Facebook is ideal for conveying news through this kind of RSS-like feed, it definitely does the job. It makes the library news easy to browse and therefore, perhaps, more palatable.

The whole point of Facebook, though, is to be social, and I think this is where it can get tricky for libraries. Sometimes it works quite well, such as when users post links or news articles that are relevant to the library and its users. On SPL’s wall, for example, there’s an invitation from a children’s author to read her books at the library and to see her Facebook page; this kind of interaction not only gives a face and a personal, social aspect to library news, but also serves to showcase materials in the collection and promote the use of the library. Other times, I would argue, it certainly isn’t harmful, but neither is it very useful. The “like” feature that has become so pervasive in and emblematic of Facebook is an awkward one, I think, for libraries. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have users “like” various upcoming events, or news items, or resources that are mentioned. But it also seems irrelevant and –dare I say it again- verging on the unprofessional. It’s not a point I want to belabour because I don’t think it’s a terribly important one, but I think this is one feature that might justify concerns about the library culture not being an ideal fit for the Facebook environment.

"Like" feature on Facebookhttp://www.facebook.com/sunnyvalelibrary

Where user interaction does become genuinely problematic is in the “spam” wall postings that are now so prevalent on Facebook. These usually come in the form of some kind of advertising, either of products, services or websites that are wholly unrelated to the library or its interests. While for most Facebook users this is merely a nuisance, it can be seen as more of a complicated and serious problem for organisations like libraries. As public (and sometimes academic) institutions, they are expected to be free of product placement or advertising. While it could be argued that there are ads on almost any website and that this is unavoidable, I think it’s much more serious when they are actually part of the content itself (in this case, SPL’s “wall”), where the library’s knowledge and endorsement of such information is much more likely to be misconstrued. This kind of spam can be seen in several instances on SPL’s page, where it’s apparent that staff members aren’t in the habit of deleting such content, or of disclaiming library affiliation.

Spam wall posthttp://www.facebook.com/sunnyvalelibrary

While the SPL profile has several tabs displaying features like “Calendar,” “Photos,” and “Events,” it uses these features very little or not at all. As well, it really doesn’t use the “Info” page to full advantage.

None of these are very serious or important offences, and are certainly not reasons to determine that SPL shouldn’t be on Facebook. They are merely evidence, I think, of the fact that libraries and Facebook aren’t a great fit- or certainly not a natural one.

This is perhaps the price libraries pay for trying to go out into the spaces of their users. It’s inevitable that they will feel foreign at first, and that interaction will be awkward, but I think perseverance is the best bet.

In my newly optimistic opinion, Facebook is definitely worth a try if resources allow; it might not be an ideal format in which to communicate news or interact with users, but if the “likes” are any indication, Facebook users are certainly warming up to the idea of their libraries entering their social space, and even welcoming them. There may be a few kinks to work out yet, and some lessons to learn, but libraries have embedded themselves in the social circles of Facebook, and I think they’re there to stay. The “likes” of the users have spoken, and who are we to leave the party early?

The Boyertown, PA Community Library on Twitter: A Sure Thing?

4 Dec

What I took away from the Houston Public Library on Twitter was, more or less, that Twitter is a useful tool that’s easy to use and, to put it bluntly, pretty hard for libraries to mess up. I was impressed with the tool itself but it seemed to have relatively little to do with the library’s use of it. It seemed to me like just about anyone could be successful using Twitter; they need only to plug in a very small amount of information about whatever programs or events are going on at the library.

To test this theory (not exhaustively, of course… or even thoroughly, for that matter) I wanted to look at another library using Twitter. To this end, I looked at Boyertown, PA’s library, the J.K. Boyer Boyertown Community Library, and its Twitter account.

As I suspected, it was an excellent example of a library using a Web 2.0 technology in an effective and relevant way. BCL’s tweets provide timely updates about library and community events, as well as information about ongoing library services and programs. I was also pleased not to find evidence of any Internet slang in a single one of the tweets, proving that many libraries have already mastered the art of making Twitter work for them, as I discussed in my last post.

So, all the elements are there: the Twitter account is incredibly easy to access from the library’s homepage, the account has an attractive layout with enough context to let users know what they’re looking at, and the information provided is current, useful, and given in an accessible style. It’s updated frequently and it’s actively social, replying to user comments individually, following other libraries, and listing favourites.

http://twitter.com/#!/boyertowncl

I’m left wondering, then, if the praise should go to Twitter’s (nearly) foolproof format or to the libraries using the format in effective ways. No doubt it’s a bit of both, and really, it doesn’t matter. The material point here seems to be that Twitter is one of the most useful Web 2.0 tools for libraries that I’ve come across so far; while it doesn’t allow for the same levels of customisation, multi-media, and creativity as many other tools in the Web 2.0 sphere, this is also where its strength lies. These days, many libraries are increasingly pressed for time and resources, and tools like Twitter offer them an oppourtunity to participate in the 2.0 movement in spite of lacking time, staff, expertise, and funding.

I must say, from my own point-of-view as a user, I’m going to go right now to see if my own local library has a Twitter feed, and start following. This might be the closest libraries get to 2.0-for-dummies, and it’ll be a smart move to take advantage.

Houston, TX Public Library on Twitter: Getting Back to Basics

4 Dec

While I must say that it took me a long time to understand all the hype surrounding Twitter, I’m starting to come around to the idea of micro-blogging and I like the idea of using it in libraries. The purpose of using it as a technology, and the ways of reaching our Two-Point-Whoa goals through its use, seem much more immediately clear to me than they did with Flickr or with YouTube. While I’ve seen now that both of those can actually be used in very effective ways, I do like that Twitter is so simple and straightforward about what it offers users: a chance to communicate important, up-to-the-minute information about an organisation to whomever chooses to listen, and without all the distracting, unnecessary “extras” found on other blogging or social networking sites.

Take Houston Public Library’s Twitter account, for example. While not exactly forthcoming on HPL’s website, it’s not difficult to find either, after a bit of browsing. HPL definitely gets points for keeping up-to-date with its participation on Twitter; it seems to “tweet” nearly every day. Most importantly, its tweets are useful and informative about what’s going on at the library and in the community. In keeping with Twitter convention, the library often directs its tweets at specific followers, usually replying to their questions or comments. In this way, HPL is very directly connecting with users, and on a very personal level. The information contained in the tweets is succinct and concise, although this is thanks to the format of Twitter itself and its maximum tweet lengths rather than being a characteristic of HPL’s communication style.

http://twitter.com/#!/houstonlibrary

Overall, I think Twitter is a good Web 2.0 tool for libraries in and of itself. Due to its simplicity and standardized format, it’s generally difficult for libraries to go wrong using Twitter provided they follow that cardinal rule of keeping it up-to-date.

But before I give HPL the thumbs-up, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a bit and go off on a little tangent- because, let’s face it, this was just too easy.

So while I like the fact that Twitter makes it hard for libraries to stray too far from the norm (and the socially acceptable), this simplicity is also what keeps me from getting altogether enthused about it as a Library 2.0 tool. Maybe it’s just because it provides me with less to criticise, but I can’t help but feel like the no-nonsense brevity upon which, as I understand it, the site and its popularity are based, are not necessarily conducive to some of the library’s goals.

Let’s go back to HPL. Unfortunately, not all the features of Twitter or of HPL’s account are accessible to those who don’t have their own Twitter accounts, but this isn’t uncommon among Web 2.0 tools, and is relatively easy to remedy. Where inaccessibility becomes problematic, in my opinion, is when the format, enforced maximum, and language of tweets can cause barriers to communication.

Many tweets are fine, making announcements like “Houston Public Library will be closed on Thursday, November 11, 2010 for Veteran’s Day.” These are simple enough, relaying important pieces of information that don’t require any further explanation or interpretation. Others, though, can be a little more difficult to decipher: take for example, “Help us promote the “More Money @ your library” financial literacy classes. Find a class near you http://ow.ly/2Kxjq (Oct 1-31). Pls RT”. For many users, parts of this tweet will appear to be written in code. To some extent, I would argue, and for some users, this kind of communication will only make library-related information more opaque and less accessible. We need to be careful to keep long-standing missions and mandates in mind here, and to remember that libraries are supposed to always and above all prioritise access to information.

I’m not trying to sound like a luddite here, and for the most part I really am just playing devil’s advocate. I know a lot of people would respond to my objections by pointing out that the kinds of users who will be scared off by Internet slang won’t (or maybe shouldn’t) be on Twitter in the first place. Maybe this is true, but I think it comes back to the question of just how far libraries should go in conforming to the habits of their users, no matter how low-brow. To those who would argue that this kind of communication does actually enable access to information, by exposing patrons to a different kind of community, and by reaching those users who feel most comfortable communicating with this kind of language, I would agree. But libraries still have an image to uphold and a responsibility to their users and communities to promote learning, knowledge, and culture- so shouldn’t they be expected to be grammatically correct, at the very least?

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I think it’s an important one to ask. My instinct is that libraries should continue to embrace technologies like Twitter, but that some of them might want to work more at making the tools better fit their existing policies and approaches. Indeed, this is what many libraries are already doing quite well. Tweet away, but drop the lol-speak and go back to using language that all users can understand- and respect.

I am totally on board with the idea of libraries engaging with users where they are and in what form they choose, and I think the benefits of Twitter are considerable and worth looking at for all libraries. It probably seems too obvious even to say, but I want to point out, if only for myself, that we need to take things like this slowly and with a grain of salt.

What looking at HPL on Twitter has made me realise is something so basic I’m embarrassed to be bringing it up only now; I think it’s because it seems so fundamental, maybe, that it never occurred to me in this specific context, although it is such an important principle for technology and for libraries, at all times. As I say, it should just go without saying, really, but perhaps in all the hype and excitement of a trend as big as this one, we need to remind ourselves. While we can hope that Web 2.0 tools like Twitter will help us reach new users and expand our audiences (and hey, nearly six thousand followers at HPL is nothing to sneeze at), we need to realise the limitations of these tools as well, and acknowledge that traditional forms of communication are going to remain necessary for libraries for a long time to come. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, but add these Web 2.0 tools to our arsenals while continuing to take advantage of those tried-and-true methods that have served us for years. For our own sakes, and those of our patrons, we need to constantly and critically evaluate and re-evaluate the technologies that we adopt, and decide which ones best suit the needs of our communities, all the while adapting the tools themselves to suit our purposes and conform to our goals.