Marketing the invisible library

It proved more difficult than expected for the test subjects to even find the library website 
A user survey of Swedish public library websites shows that users’ digital access to their libraries may indeed be an obstacle course. A project sets out to help libraries change this in order to provide citizens with access to digital services.

Providing citizens with access to information occupies a central position in the library organisation. Public libraries in Sweden are aware of the important assignment they shoulder regarding access to information in digital resources. The task itself is not problematic as such, as it lies well within the scope of disseminating democratic awareness and general education; a task which has been assigned to public libraries for as long as they have existed. The problems however, arise when it comes to the actual implementation of the library’s digital services.What exactly is it that libraries are meant to make accessible? And how, exactly, are they to go about it?

In the present situation, libraries offer a selection of digital services – and one wishes there were more Swedish language ones available. The Swedish public libraries collective purchasing organisation, KULDA, has contributed in order to increase supply and support to the public libraries in their selection of and subscriptions to license controlled databases. Nevertheless, libraries could perform far more satisfactorily when presenting their digital resources to the end-users, especially on the library websites. One could say that the taxpayers spend money on something they cannot see and therefore are unable to use. A subscription to a printed periodical would never be treated in such a manner – who would imagine placing a magazine intended for the library visitor in the librarians office?

The variations between the different by Statskontoret, the Swedish Agency for Public Management and now administered by Verva, the Swedish Administrative Development Agency.

In order to increase knowledge as to how the library websites functioned from a user-perspective, the project ordered a user survey from the University of Uppsala, analysing 10 library websites from Central Sweden. The purpose of the survey was to supply the decision makers of websites with a basis of data. Are the digital services offered on the web in phase with the needs of the users? Is the design and structure of the web sites satisfactory?

The survey used 40 subjects to answer 60 questions. The questions were about library services and tasks concerning information retrieval. The questions touched upon both the web catalogue and the library websites. The survey was carried out at the utility laboratory at Ekonomikum – Centre for Economic Studies – at Uppsala University.

The results indicated the difficulty in responding to the questions and that there was much that remained to be done with regards to structure, design, user perspective and functionality on the library websites. Some of the more important matters that the survey pointed toward were: that nearly all could cope with simple search queries in the web catalogue, and what had mainly divided those used to computers from those less so, was that the latter had fewer and inferior search strategies to rely on and they were more inclined to give up earlier.

It proved more difficult than expected for the test subjects to even find the library website. Some did however reach the website, yet failed to recognise it as such due to lack of information.

Some got lost in the jungle of organisation structure on the municipal websites. A strategy to seek confirmation that the user had reached the correct site was to use the address box in their web browser. If there is a long, complicated set of characters it is not going to be of much use to the user.

Matters were made easier for the users when the website had a distinct heading such as “Welcome to the library”. Another function which made things easier for the user was the “Å-Ö list”, questions and answers known as FAQ and headings informing as to what can be found in the library and what kind of media.When such web pages were available the quality of searches improved accordingly. The test subjects would constantly return to these pages when they were assigned to answer questions. However, the database for periodicals proved to be a problem. The test subjects failed to appreciate what could be done with them.Making reservations in the web catalogues was another problematic issue. They were able to perform the actual reservation, but failed to interpret the replies they were given.

Messages informing them that “no reservations can be made as the media is available at the department” became utterly incomprehensible to the user. Overall, there was not enough information about how physically impaired persons could gain access to the library itself.

A number of the problems mentioned above are part of the library websites and could easily be attended to by each library. The websites need to be cleared of professional jargon and inexplicable terminology used only by those in the know. Structures should be adapted from a user perspective, not present the library’s position in the municipal organisation.

The problems attached to the web catalogue itself need to be analysed to consider what can be done about local configurations and what requirements need to be forwarded to the suppliers of library systems. The suppliers did offer library web solutions at an early stage, but it has become all too apparent that today the library systems are having a hard time keeping up with current developments.

Suppliers have a lot to learn from web services such as Google, Google Scholar and the approach taken by internet bookstores in presenting information about literature.

At the time of writing the project has reached half-time and it has become obvious that what is needed is improving levels of staff competence and cultural changes. Cultural change might be the more elusive of the two as it is necessary for the libraries to think along new lines when it comes to the allocation of resources concerning the media budget. Should the funding of digital services be distributed as a lump sum, or should it be ushered into the regular allowance and be subject to the same media strategic principles as printed media? Do libraries deliberately set aside the necessary time to establish structures applicable to websites and digital services, in other words: do they market the invisible library? How can the image of the library’s place in the municipal IT structure be changed?

There are a number of local authorities who fail to see that the needs of the library on the web differ from that, of say, the notification of opening hours at the recycling plant. Limitations disabling possible tie-in of login procedure to digital services to IP-addresses make easy access and user friendliness extremely vulnerable.What ideally should be questions about access, and in the longer perspective: democracy, finds itself trapped in a thicket of technical and administrative problems.

It is however, important for county libraries to make clear the necessity in approaching this issue in a strategic manner. The county libraries need to convey an understanding of the context of the digital library and to create a comprehensive picture of its importance; not just provide the public libraries with digital services and leave it at that. The concept of the 24-hour Library and access to e-services as processes of democratization is important to make clear. The 24-hour Web guidelines, which are highlighted in the LIMIT-project, contain national guidelines for the development of the web and e-services in the public sector.

The guidelines can act as an important gateway to collaborative ventures involving libraries and the ITdepartments of local authorities. To occupy a prominent position on the municipality’s websites is of vital importance for public libraries today.

Whilst libraries struggle with improving levels of staff competence and adapting to cultural changes, technological developments move at breakneck speed and as a consequence the habits of our visitors change. Over the past years users have become more adept, albeit not so efficient, retrievers of information. Their search behaviour on the web in general is reflected on the library websites and web catalogues.

For those who are in their twenties, the web and the mobile have “always” been at hand. This implies that young people, but also many other users are more demanding when it comes to the digital contents of a library.

More so than libraries by tradition are used to. Users query why reserved books are not sent directly to one’s home address, why databases can only be accessed on the library premises and not via the web, why it is not possible to search articles in the web catalogue and why everything is not in fulltext.

While we in the library community struggle with these issues, we should raise our own standards, especially with regard to our educational and communicational skills.We need to be made aware of our own self-evident behaviour patterns, to enable the presentation and clarification of our services in an accessible manner and thereby making the invisible visible. Lest we forget, this is after all, a question of democracy.

LIMIT-project website:

Survey from the County Library of Östergötland concerning the presentation of digital services on public library websites:

About the Guidelines for the 24-hour web at Verva’s web site:

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Portrait by Annika Inasson Gillesgård

County Librarian at the County Library in Uppsala.