Onward Toward the Next Next Gen Library Website

I want to do a series of posts on designing and building a website for an academic library. I’m mostly doing it for myself, as a way to organize my thoughts on the process (since I will be building a library site this semester,) but I thought it might also be useful to share some of the resources I am and will be collecting. And, of course, it’s always helpful to have a place to think out loud, so you can get feedback from outside sources.

I do want to make a point before I get started though; these posts are meant to be critique, not criticism. (Or, at least *constructive* criticism.) I don’t want to tear anyone down, or poke fun at anyone’s efforts. I understand how hard it is to get things done in libraries, given our limited budgets, and the multiple roles everyone on staff must play. Rarely does a library have the staff or the money to hire a specialist to design and build a website, and even when they do, it’s hard to find someone with that skill set who also understands libraries and library culture. I feel lucky that I’m in the unique position of having been a reference and instruction librarian for 7 years, and am now in a job that allows me to use the insights I gained working directly with faculty and students to make our website work better for them.

If sacrifices must be made, due to the afore-mentioned budget and time constraints, I can give you a wee piece of advice on the topic: sacrifice style for function, every time. Choose the easiest-to-use software, and make the most popular resources and services the easiest to find. People may snicker at your color choices (I recommend checking out design seeds to help with that) but that’s much better than them being frustrated by not being able to find what they’re looking for. Snarky users are not necessarily unhappy users. Frustrated users are pretty much *always* unhappy users.

In searching around, I found (and was directed to) several library sites (both academic and public) that I like, and am using for inspiration. Check out:

Harvard Library
Salt Lake City Public Library
Detroit Public Library

I’ll tell you why I like them. With the rise in popularity of open source content management systems like Drupal, Joomla and WordPress, websites got very “boxy.” Because these CMS’s are organized around interchangeable modules, people tend to just drop those module boxes into their site like a puzzle. The above-three sites (at least 2 of which use Drupal) get around that boxy look by using a white background, so the content boxes blend into the rest of the site. This style also works well with responsive design, which uses stylesheets to create a¬†website that is automatically optimized for whatever screen-size or orientation it is viewed at. The trend towards ubiquitous computing means sites have to be able to easily “jump” from desktop to laptop to tablet to smartphone with minimal sacrifices to functionality.

I think for the next couple of posts I might actually pick one site for each, and go over what I like about it. In the mean time, if you’re just getting started with web design (or even if you’re an old pro,) I highly recommend taking a look at Hongkiat, which has great design and technical tips, as well as tutorials and guides for all aspects of web design and development.

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