The Library Website as Place

Unexplored Map, Greenland
I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the relationship between the Libraries’ website and our physical presence. Much has been written about “the library as place” – a quick Google Scholar search brings up plenty of interesting material – and I am in strong agreement with those who suggest that library-as-place remains an important and useful thing for scholars, students, and citizens of all sorts, even in this digital age. But our website serves as our front door for a rapidly increasing percentage of users, and it needs to be at least as welcoming, as professional, and as helpful as our physical entry points are.

The metaphor of a website as “a place” dates back to the early days of the Internet. I still remember talking to a friend who was a very early adopter of AOL, around 1990 – this was before AOL was technically part of the Internet, but bear with me – and  being both confused and intrigued by her description of meeting someone via AOL and “following him from one room into another” online. (They eventually got married and have been together ever since, so stop laughing!)  Chat “rooms” were one of the earliest forms of social media; even the term “website” suggests a physical site or location; we still talk about “going to” a web page as if we were physically moving from one place to another; we refer to a website’s menu structure as “navigation.” We also talk about web “pages,” but overall, the most common metaphors for online presence are geographic rather than bibliographic.

So it seems to me that it’s not unreasonable to think of our website as a place, and to present it to our users as such. Some writers have discussed this concept specifically in regard to library websites, including Pomerantz and Marchionini and Gerke and Maness. The latter pair, in particular, note that “cross-channel experience consistency” between a library’s physical and electronic spaces can affect the user’s satisfaction (as measured via LibQUAL). This is the direction in which I’ve been thinking.

It means small things, like: if you have a big sign over the reference desk that says “ASK QUESTIONS HERE” but no sign that says “REFERENCE,” your website should probably direct people to the Ask Questions Here desk rather than the Reference desk. (Kind of like the gas station I frequent that says to “push the START button” but then there’s no button labeled START… just one that says PUSH HERE. You’d have to be a little dense not to be able to figure that one out, but for most people, using the library is more complicated than pumping gas!) And maybe, in that case, it makes more sense to label your chat-reference service as “Ask Us” rather than “Virtual Reference” – so that users recognize it as the same sort of service they access in person.

Consistency also means something bigger than labeling; for example, consistency of service. If you expect professional, knowledgeable answers from librarians at the reference desk, you should also expect the same level of service from whoever staffs your chat-reference system. While nobody expects polished, perfectly minted sentence structure in the context of chat reference, responses that are completely riddled with typos and misspellings can make the patron wonder whether the content of the answer is equally questionable – just as a friendly, business-casual librarian saying “How can I help you?” at the reference desk is more confidence-inspiring than someone wearing a ripped t-shirt and flip-flops, chomping gum and greeting patrons with “Yeah, whassup?” A library’s website, likewise, needs to be confidence-inspiring in the same way that the library itself is. A public library may find it most important to be welcoming and to present itself as a comfortable, fun place to spend time; an academic library may place more importance on the extent of its scholarly collections and its understanding of the research process. In either case, the website should probably reflect a similar attitude.

I could go on, talking about branding and other considerations, and noting that it can be useful to think of the library website as a digital branch library of sorts. But most of that is fairly common-sense; your website and your physical facility represent the same organization, so of course there should be a certain degree of consistency between the two. Though I don’t have data to support this (yet) I would venture to say that, at least in the case of the IUB Libraries, most of our patrons use both the website and the physical facility at some point. (For the purpose of this statement, by “website” I mean the Libraries’ website, IUCAT, and to a lesser extent our subscription electronic resources, though we have far less control over the user experience offered by our subscription resources.) Most patrons’ needs are not completely satisfied with one or the other; most need both at some point.

While there are commonalities in the reasons users visit both physical site and website – they’re usually looking for information to support their research – there are also differences in the reasons they visit and in their expectations of what they will be able to do once they arrive. While the website and the physical facility should be consistent with one another, they should also complement one another. This is both more complex and, honestly, more interesting. What does the conversation between the website and the building look like? How do users go back and forth between the two experiences? People definitely still want physical books for many purposes; my experience at the reference desk is that, when someone is looking for a book, they often tell me that the e-book is less desirable to them. (Is this equally true of website visitors? I don’t know.) How do researchers navigate – oh, those geographical metaphors again! – between the Libraries’ physical facilities and resources, and our website and its resources? And how does the way in which these resources are presented to them influence the shape and course of their research?

Interesting questions, which I’m just beginning to ask myself. I hope to do some further reading and perhaps eventually some research and maybe begin to formulate some answers. Meanwhile, I’ve just read an article about “The Library as a Map” that has me thinking about the dialogue between digital and analog materials, and wondering how a library website can best support that dialogue – or perhaps it’s better viewed as a travelogue. Traditionally, online search is easiest when users are seeking a known item, but discovery systems like OneSearch@IU (see Courtney Greene’s blog post introducing it) are beginning to expand our capabilities. Even with a discovery tool, though, many users – in my experience, particularly those in the humanities – prefer the physical browsing experience because it offers the possibility of discovery via serendipity. How can we improve the online experience for these users – not to replace the physical library, but to complement it? I’m intrigued by Megan Shaw Prelinger’s suggestions:

What I really see being needed is a way for query-based search to mimic the kinds of associative links that are formed by shelving different kinds of literature next to one another on a shelf. What if, when you typed in a search term, your result was a color-coded cloud of virtual book covers.

In the cloud, covers highlighted in one color would represent the straight response to your search query. Jackets highlighted in other colors, floating behind them, could follow any of hundreds of other associations. Perhaps you could select a half-dozen supplemental associative searches from a list before you begin your search. Then you see a layer behind your straight result that’s composed of satires, or other works by the same author, or public records that relate to your search term—or every work that’s cited within a given book’s bibliography! Features like those would inject intense excitement into digital search.

Search features like the one described here might work best for collections more limited than those offered by a major research library like ours; our collections are just so vast that it would not always be easy to make useful suggestions. But for browsing within a particular subject area or collection, it would be pretty interesting. I love the idea of fostering a useful dialogue between analog and digital resources, something more complex and more supportive of discovery via serendipity than a simple catalog or finding aid. Including pointers to analog resources within digital discovery tools, like the inclusion of IUCAT records in OneSearch@IU, is a good start. I’m interested in exploring how geographical metaphors, like “library as map,” can help us understand how to encourage and improve this analog-digital dialogue. If you have thoughts, please leave a comment on this post!


Gerke, Jennifer and Jack M. Maness. “The Physical and the Virtual: The Relationship between Library as Place and Electronic Collections.” College & Research Libraries, Vol. 71 No. 1 (2010): 20-31.

King, David Lee. “Chapter 1: What Is a Digital Branch, Anyway?” Library Technology Reports, Vol. 45 No. 6 (2009): 5-9.

Pomerantz, Jeffrey and Gary Marchionini. “The Digital Library as Place.” Journal of Documentation, Vol. 63 No. 4 (2007): 505-533.

Prelinger, Rick and Megan Shaw Prelinger. “The Library as a Map.” Contents Magazine, Issue 5 (2013).