What would happen if your library’s website disappeared? You’d probably get a lot of phone calls. If I had to guess, most would be about:
- Finding library items
- Renewing library items
- Library hours and locations
To a lesser extent, there might be questions about:
- Loan periods
- How to get a library card
- Library events
- Library services
However, I’d guess you would not receive many calls about:
- Book reviews
- Library value calculator
- Homework help
- History of the library
- Library mission statement
- Library policy
- Library board minutes
This thought experiment gives us some perspective about the things library websites should be focusing on—the critical tasks users are trying to accomplish. It also offers perspective on the aspects of our websites that are comparatively unimportant—everything else.
Plainly, a lot of the content on your library’s website could be a complete waste of time and effort. Are your users looking at it? Check your analytics. Are those who do deriving any value from it? One way to find out is to remove it temporarily and see if anyone speaks up. Given the hard work it takes to create and maintain content, you might find that your return on some investments is low.
If you build it, they won’t come
Why do some libraries insist on developing website content that is not being used? There’s no doubt it would be great if library users came to our sites to read book reviews, listen to podcasts, and calculate the value that the library delivers to them. We want to be a valuable resource. We want people to trust our opinions and rely on us for guidance. But just because this would be wonderful doesn’t mean it is going to happen.
We’re ever hopeful that if we advertise our websites in the right way, or create the right sort of graphic, or make the visual design more attractive, people will begin to use our content. This is pure fantasy. We need a healthy dose of reality.
By living in this dream world, we’re doing ourselves and our members a disservice. It is time for us to adjust our expectations about what it means to create and maintain a library website. If we liberate ourselves from producing scads of content that no one wants, we’ll have some surplus resources. We can use this extra horsepower to achieve other library priorities that meet user needs, such as improving our catalog interfaces.
Setting a good example
I’m not yet aware of any libraries sending out great niche newsletters; please get in touch if you’re doing so. But here are two libraries that have reduced the scope of their sites and focused on what’s important.
- Lane Public Library, Hamilton, OH
This site’s content is quite restrained and presented in an effective, attractive manner.
- Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, KS
There’s still a decent amount of content on this site, but the staff have done a lot of whittling down from the previous iteration. The result is an easy-to-grasp understanding of what users can find on the site and targeted information that’s worthwhile to those interested.
New (old) spaces for content
Instead of creating content for your website and hoping people will visit, consider delivering it to their inboxes. Email newsletters are experiencing a renaissance and for good reason. Nearly everyone uses email. And sending an email is a sure way to get something in front of someone’s eyeballs. Marketing experts have observed that people are much more likely to take action as the result of an email than a tweet.
I’m not advocating spamming your users’ in-boxes with generic library information. Instead, consider creating one or two newsletters based on the interests of your community. These newsletters will not appeal to everyone, and that’s the point. Find a niche—such as cooking, gardening, or hiking—and invest your efforts in developing a relationship with the folks who are passionate about that activity. It is a lot easier and more effective to deliver value to a select group of people about a specific topic than it is to create a website that appeals to everyone. Start small, and if you’re successful and have extra time, create a newsletter for another group.
Library print newsletters face the same problem as library websites. While they’re useful for providing a comprehensive look at what’s going on at a library, they’re too general for anyone to get excited about. Consider rolling your newly developed niche content into a complementary print newsletter, too.