Academic librarians want their Web sites to attract faculty and students the way flowers invite insects for a visit. The urge to plunge into the cornucopia of electronic riches that lies waiting in the library’s highly organized portal should be irresistible. Exclusive research databases, costly electronic journals and digital books and treasures lay in wait for those who need and are willing to seek them out.
For faculty, at least two powerful motivators should drive their personal interest in expecting a great library Web site. One is their own need to easily find scholarly content that supports their research. The other is a desire to have students discover the resources that strengthen their research and result in high quality assignments.
It should be a scholar’s dream, but there’s trouble in paradise. In August 2008 the Ithaka Group released a report, “Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation of Higher Education ,” on the relationship between faculty members and their libraries’ electronic resources. As librarians already knew well, Ithaka’s report showed that faculty perceived the library’s collective electronic resources, particularly in business, science and technology, as far more critical to scholarship than print collections are. But there is a significant disconnect when it comes to faculty use of the library’s website as a gateway, or portal, to access that wealth of electronic content.
According to the Ithaka report, academic librarians rated the function of the library as a gateway for locating scholarly information as “very important.” Asked to assess the performance of libraries as their portals to scholarly information, however, faculty in all disciplines rated them considerably differently. Compared to earlier years of this Ithaca study, faculty no longer perceived the library as an important portal to scholarly information. While the library Web site is not specifically mentioned in the report, for the 21st century library, the Web site is the de facto gateway to electronic research content. The report makes clear that faculty increasingly access what they need elsewhere or simply find alternate routes around the library Web site to get to their desired library e-resources.
Consider as well these other indicators of the declining value of the library Web site as information gateway:
- A September 2008 a report from Simon Inger Consulting titled “How Readers Navigate to Scholarly Content ” presented data about researchers’ preferred starting points. The two most frequently preferred starting points are specific specialist databases, which suggests scholars simply bookmark the library databases they use most often, and general Web search engines. Library Web sites are even less frequently used than publishers’ Web sites, non-library gateways to journals, and even e-mail-based journal alerts.
- An articled titled “Measuring the ‘Google Effect’ at JSTOR” by Bruce Heterick appeared in the June 2008 issue of Against the Grain, and it documented the increased access of JSTOR content via Google Scholar. JSTOR usage has increased dramatically since its inception in 1997. But more recently a new growth wave is propelled by referrals from non-traditional sites. Heterick writes “another order of magnitude change in scale is introduced when we begin to look at the number of links coming to JSTOR directly from Google and Google Scholar.” The number of links to JSTOR articles from Google-referring URLs increased by 159 percent from 2006 to 2007. It’s just one more reason to avoid the library Web site as a research starting point.
- LibQual is a satisfaction survey administered by many academic libraries. Faculty will know it by its distinctive structure that requires respondents to identify not mere satisfaction level with the library but one’s minimum, desired and perceived levels of satisfaction with the library. What have academic librarians learned from LibQual? If there’s one thing the respondents dislike more than completing the LibQual survey, it’s the library’s Web site. There is only one question about the library’s Web site among the 20 or so asked on the survey instrument. I attended a meeting of librarians where we discussed LibQual and learned how to use it more effectively. We attendees discovered we all had something in common; none of our users cared for our Web sites.
It is debatable that faculty and students ever perceived the library as the starting point for their research, but these indicators offer convincing evidence that the library’s web portal, more than ever, can make no such claim to that title. We may be fortunate when they go there at all. The future of the library Web site as information portal is bleak. But that’s good news. Libraries have grown too dependent on their Web sites as gateways to electronic scholarly content, and have invested too much time trying to fix what is broken.
This needs to change. The academic library community’s general response to the dissatisfaction is to improve the usability. Tabbed interfaces, simple search boxes and more personalization are a few of the new features site designers are employing in chasing better focus group responses. All of this change suggests rearranging the deck chairs on this Titanic. Now is the time to let this ship sink to its watery grave.
The primary function of the contemporary academic library Web site is to connect a user to content, be it an article database, e-book or e-journal article, and to do it with minimal barriers and maximum speed and ease. Faculty and students tend to have their one or two favorites, for example, JSTOR for many faculty and Academic Search Premier for students. For those highly popular e-resources the portal may get the job done. A serious flaw needing correction is the failure of the academic library Web site to invite the user community to, in simple ways, discover the full range of resources available for their research. Bruce Springsteen laments having 57 channels and nothing to watch. Faculty and students can access from dozens to hundreds of databases with little or no idea what they are or how to find them.
So it is little surprise that faculty and students rarely use the library’s Web site to connect to content that satisfies their scholarly needs. Instead they invent their own backdoor routes to the content, but in doing so may miss related or new electronic resources made available by the library. You may argue that faculty and students forged their own paths to circumvent the library back in the print only days, but now the possibilities for and associated risks of missing important resources are astronomically greater.
Advocating a much needed transformation of the library portal leads to two questions. First, how can libraries more effectively create awareness about their content so users can discover it? Second, what should replace the library portal? The answers are intertwined, but the changes needed depend on faculty recognizing that it is a change they must help to facilitate.
Several years ago academic institutions shifted control of their Web sites from technology wizards to marketing gurus. At the time there was backlash. The change in outlook was perceived as a corporate sellout, a philosophical transformation of the university Web site from candid campus snapshot to soulless advertiser of campus wares to those who would buy into the brand. I observed that academic librarians feared what the marketers wrought, and would resist efforts to let any advertising consultant or marketing vice-president take control of the library Web site. They might just make it more about marketing than connecting people to information.
I was one of the resisters. Now I think the marketing people got it right. The first thing librarians must do after ending the pretense that the library Web site succeeds in connecting people to content is understand how and why the institutional homepage has improved and what we can learn from it. Doing so will allow academic libraries to discover answers to that first question; how to create user community awareness about the electronic resources in which the institution heavily invests.
It’s not that academic library Web sites completely ignore marketing. It’s just done badly. News about the library’s programs, events or new resources are often crammed into a corner of the page, are limited to small bits of text or are relegated somewhere out of the F-zone, the area, according to usability experts, to which most web users’ eyes naturally gravitate. Those prime real estate areas are instead dedicated to lists of links to catalogs, database lists and things with names that mean little to anyone other than a librarian. More libraries are moving to a single search box powered by a federated search engine that retrieves information from multiple resources at once. In order to emulate search engines those boxes are relegated to some familiar space at the top of the page.
Rather than attempting to mimic search engines academic librarians should aim to differentiate their Web sites. They should devote the most eye-catching space to information that promotes the people who work at the library, the services they provide and the community activities that anchor the library’s place as the social, cultural and intellectual center of campus. That shifts the focus from content to service and from information to people. Academic libraries must promote their human side. The library portal experience should emphasize the value of and invite stronger relationships with faculty and students. That means going beyond offering a commodity that, by and large, the user community can well access without the Web site. The next generation academic library Web site must leverage what academic librarians can do to help faculty and students improve their productivity and achieve success.
But if libraries radically change the nature of their homepage, where will all the links to content go? How will the library make those expensive databases accessible to faculty and students? Academic libraries are already moving in new directions that may provide the answers, and it suggests the library portal no longer needs to compete to be the one-stop portal where faculty and their students begin their research. These pioneering libraries distribute the content across the institution’s network and beyond. They are putting the links where faculty and students can find them easily. It changes the library website paradigm from “you must visit our portal” to “we’ll be where you are.”
Course sites are ready made for links to library content. Academic librarians are making it easier than ever for faculty to integrate an array of research tools into course management software or even a faculty member’s personal website. At the Temple University Libraries the librarians create customized content packages that contain just the right databases that students need for their assignments. They can even add in custom Google search boxes and non-library links that may be of use to instructors and their students. If faculty desire links to specific articles, those can be added as well. The content package is sent to faculty as an e-mail attachment. Faculty then simply upload it to their course site. The content installs itself as a unique courseware page and even adds a library link to the course menu. It eliminates any faculty excuses for not integrating the library into their course.
Libraries are also offering new technologies that blow the doors off those traditional subject guides to which faculty and students long ago stopped paying attention. LibGuides  is an example of an increasingly popular guide creator that allows librarians to create a highly customized research guide for any single course or assignment. Research conducted by academic librarians made it clear that students preferred customized course and assignment guides to broad subject guides. Why? It puts the links they need to complete research assignments right where they need them. Scavenger hunts through library portals to locate needed databases or e-journals can become a practice of the past. While LibGuides can exist outside of courses, faculty can certainly make it easier for students to discover them by adding links to the guides. They can even take it a step further and allow a librarian to integrate the guide into their course.
The faculty is the catalyst in this transformation of the library portal concept. What they must do to accomplish this task is open the door to greater collaboration with academic librarians. While there are ways librarians can force their presence into institutional courseware, primarily by getting the system administrators to add links to the library here and there in the software, the most effective and direct route is to work with a faculty member to integrate the library’s electronic resources into the course site or class Web site itself. Faculty members can also facilitate this process by becoming more familiar with the library’s electronic resources in their disciplines. Working with academic librarians faculty can achieve both goals: creating greater e-resource awareness and shifting discovery paths from the mysterious bowels of the library portal to the more transparent course site.
To help bring about the demise of the library portal site as we know it today, faculty need to increase their personal awareness of library e-resource content and endeavor to raise the awareness level among their students. OCLC’s research, compiled in a 2006 report titled “College Students’ Perceptions of Library and Information Resources ,” confirms that students are heavily influenced by faculty recommendations for electronic information resources. Working collaboratively with their campus librarians faculty could become a more reliable conduit to reaching and enlightening students about the library’s wealth of e-resources. Librarians and faculty share a common goal in wanting to see students succeed academically as they develop the skills needed to mature into the next generation of scholars. Working together to transform the library portal would advance progress in attaining that goal.
In the print era the research library building’s design was intentional in seeking to invite in the scholar and then draw them into the stacks and those places where discovery and intellectual awareness could take hold and grow. In the early stages of research library Web site design, perhaps the same approach made sense, but it no longer works if it ever did. With faculty advocating e-resource awareness and distributing links to the library’s e-resources throughout the academic network, a dedicated portal to those same resources makes less sense. Add to that a body of evidence that clearly points to the growing irrelevance of the “be all things to all campus constituents” library homepage and Web site.
Put simply, the library portal as we know it today is unsustainable. It, along with a host of other indicators such as declines in reference questions and shifts from print to e-resources, signals that for academic libraries a “let’s just keep doing business as usual” mentality is a sure path to obsolescence. If academic librarians fail to grasp the urgency of needed changes to their portals it is quite possible we will read in a future article something along the lines of “Academic librarians thought they were in the information gateway business, but they were really in the learning and scholarly productivity business. They just didn’t recognize it.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?