The Times, They Are A-Changin’

As we prepare to evaluate our web content in connection with our migration to a Drupal platform, it’s astonishing to realize how much the landscape has changed in just the past few years. When our current site was designed and implemented, we thought of the website as more or less an adjunct to the library’s physical facility; of course people used the website when they were not in the library, and were able to get a good deal of research done without visiting the library, but we assumed that when students and faculty thought of “the library” they had a brick-and-mortar (well, limestone) building in mind. Also, we thought of the library website as the place where our subscription resources “lived,” along with some locally-created content such as pathfinders and research guides. If students and faculty wanted to access this information, we assumed they would find it easiest to come to the library website and start there.

But things have changed, and continue to change. The Wells Library building is, as it has been for years, a hub of activity for students; stroll through the Information Commons at 9 pm on a Monday night and you’ll find that it is very lively, full of students working in groups and individually. But the impending loss of most of our on-site parking  may make it more difficult for some of our patrons to visit us. I know that when I have a late shift on the reference desk and leave shortly after 9 pm, there is usually someone anxiously waiting to take my parking place as I pull out and several cars circling the lot in hopes of an opening. Will people be less likely to visit the library if they cannot park nearby? We can’t say for certain, but it seems likely. How does this affect the library website? Some thoughts:

  • Our “Ask a Librarian” services may become even more important. Sometimes, it’s true, nothing can replace an in-person reference interview. But chat reference, along with email and phone-call options, can go a long way towards helping researchers find the resources and information that they need and, perhaps most importantly, helping them feel that they are not stranded and alone in the midst of their work. (How else can we help our website users connect with their research community? Definitely something I’d like to explore going forward.)
  • “Save the time of the Reader” is one of Ranganathan’s principles of librarianship, and it’s as true as ever; people don’t want to go through the hassle of getting here if they’re afraid their time might be wasted. It will be even more important for us to offer easily findable, clear, correct, and up-to-date information about the on-site services we offer. “Do you have a public fax machine?” and “What time does the cafe close?” are common questions at the reference desk. Because some of our services are not actually managed by the Libraries but by our partners, such as UITS and RPS, it may be challenging to keep this information up-to-date. But library users shouldn’t need to know whether something is managed by the Libraries or by somebody else. If it happens inside the library, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to look for information about it on the library website. Currently, some of this information is difficult to find or unavailable on our site. It would be good to change this.
  • Information on library hours also needs to be clear, up-to-date, and prominent on the site. Nobody wants to come to the library only to find out that it’s not open, or that the particular services they’re looking for (e.g. reference assistance) aren’t available at that time. The University of Houston libraries have a nice hours module on their site which accommodates a variety of locations and exceptions; we plan to implement something similar.
  • And of course, our information on parking  – offered within the “Visitors” section of our website, targeted primarily to non-IUB-affiliated library users – should probably be updated. Sigh.
Image of badly parked car
We may need to “think outside the box” with regards to our parking woes…
(image credit: shawnmichael on flickr)

Another big landscape change is students’ increasing reliance on e-texts and Oncourse,  IU’s course management system. The Libraries are about to get out of the e-reserves business; when students access their class readings via Oncourse, will they have any kind of context for understanding these readings within the information landscape of their discipline, as they might if they encountered them via the library website?  Will they have the perspective to understand the difference between a journal article and, say, a random blog post about the topic of their paper? Of course, if students are using Oncourse regularly, our goal of making services and information available at the point of need means that we need to have a presence there. Currently, there is a “Library Resources” tool  available to instructors, which can lead either to a general subject guide  or a more specific class page. We need to understand how students use Oncourse in order to know how we can best offer help in this environment. We also need to stay abreast of changes to Oncourse and related developments on campus.

When we talk about reaching our users “where they are,” we don’t just mean getting library links included on the websites and apps that they use (Oncourse, social media, etc.). The mobile revolution has taken place since the last time we redesigned our site and we need to stay very aware of trends in this area. Our site needs to be usable on smartphones, tablets, touchscreens – whatever people are using when they are looking for the information we provide, and wherever they are located.

Speaking of location, increasing use of laptops and other personal devices on campus has led to an explosion of new and reassigned IP address ranges, which can make authentication to subscription resources tricky at times; most of these resources are IP-authenticated and our vendors cannot always keep up with the changes. User authentication can also become an issue when someone is affiliated with multiple campuses, which will happen more often as online courses become more common. Most of our subscription resources – databases and e-journals – are purchased by one or several IU campuses, but not all. Providing access to those who should have it while still abiding by the authentication requirements of our vendor licenses is a much greater challenge than it was just a few years ago.

And finally, classroom technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Check out this article about the new high-tech classrooms in the IU Southeast Graduate Center  for example. What does this tell us about how students – and faculty – are learning and researching nowadays? What implications might this have for how the Libraries offer information and services? Should our “class pages” be more interactive, serving as portals that can be used for in-class activities rather than static lists of relevant resources? Should we expect this sort of class to use the chat reference service to enhance in-class research and discussion, and if so, does that have implications for how we manage the service?

No, I don’t have a lot of answers here – but the important part is finding the right questions to ask, and designing a web presence flexible enough to embrace answers as we find them. Those of us responsible for the Libraries’ website need to maintain awareness of developments all over campus, everything from changes in parking to changes in teaching methods and research needs. The only thing we know for sure is that things will continue to change!