Aotearoa People's Network

How good or bad is your library's website?

by Moata Tamaira

Library websites are a tricky thing to get right. They're often heavy with really useful content but this can also make them difficult to navigate or easy to get lost in.

So it's no surprise that I got a bit of a library-geek happy on for Tasman District Libraries' new website which launched a couple of weeks ago. It's crisp and professional looking (but not cold) and manages to present lots of interesting content on the homepage without it being overwhelming. It's a pretty slick, useful site.

But the ultimate test of any library website, for me anyway is "what information do they have about their computing services?"

I'm pleased to say that Tasman District have got it right. Customers visiting their website can see exactly what services are availalbe at which library, what sort of software is installed and what the booking process is.

Unfortunately this is one aspect of modern public library service that is often, and rather ironically, ignored on library websites. This may be partly based on an assumption that people wanting to use library computing facilities don't have access to the internet and therefore it's a waste of time making this information available on a library website.

But my own experience of being a library patron tells me that it's not as simple as that. Most of my recreational reading is done via books I've borrowed from my local library, but sometimes friends lend me books, or I buy them. It can be a similar situation with Internet access. Even if you don't have a computer of your own you may well have the use of a friend's from time to time, or sometimes be able to afford an internet café, and at those times you might want to use the internet to research what your local library has to offer. Even though libraries are in the information business, the library website is often under-utilised in terms of informing patrons about library services.

At least, that was the general impression I'd got over the years.

Inspired by the Tasman approach, last week I decided to check the website of every public library service in the country and measure them against the "Tasman yardstick". I noted down seven pieces of information that might be useful for customers to have regarding the Internet and computing service available at their library. These were:

  • How many computers does my library have?
  • Does my library have wifi?
  • Can I book a machine and/or are there time limits on use?
  • Is there a cost and if so how much is it?
  • What software is available?
  • What are the terms of use or acceptable use policies?
  • Does my library offer computing classes or tutorials?

According to the APLM website, there are 65 city and district library networks in New Zealand. Of these, there are a few that share a website. Carteron and South Wairarapa work together as the Wairarapa Library Service. Similarly Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes have a shared website. Auckland's library service has a number of pre-amalgamation websites that sit underneath it but for the purposes of this survey I'm counting Auckland as a single entity. This gives us 63 library websites to play with.

In theory. Of course, in practice we're often not talking about a library website as much as we are a few dedicated pages on the council website. But even with limitations in terms of online real estate some libraries manage to make quite a lot of information available, while others...don't.

So let's look at some graphs.

How many computers does my library have?

pie graph, 14% give # of computers per branch

In most instances the libraries that mentioned the number of machines they had for public use (14%) were ones where there were no branch libraries, that is, single-library networks and this kind of makes sense. It's fairly easy to make a note of the number of terminals at a single location. However Auckland, Hamilton and Tasman were notable exceptions, having multiple branches but still providing this information on their websites.

Does my library have wifi?

pie graph of information about wifi service

This one was tricky as there were libraries that I know have wifi and some of these didn't mention this on their websites. Other libraries didn't mention it but that could be because they don't offer it. Only one library, Tauranga, made a point of stating that they didn't currently have wifi.

We're in the weird situation of at least 83% of public libraries offering wifi (yay!) but with only 51% of libraries telling people (boo!). In addition four of the libraries that have wifi but didn't mention it had plenty of information about downloading e-books. Given that these are services that can be used together, this seems a wasted opportunity.

My advice? Even if you don't offer wifi, it's something that people expect from libraries these days so it may be worth mentioning. If you do offer wifi as a service, my personal feeling is that you should shout it from the rooftops but a line or two on a webpage works too.

Can I book a computer?

Can I book a computer?

69% of libraries do not mention if there's a booking process or a time limit on using a computer but I'd wager good money that most of them have a booking process and/or enforce a time limit.

As a customer, that's stuff that I'd like to know before I catch a bus to the library to write my a single sitting.

Being open about what your processes and policies are is a good way of managing the expectations of your customers.

How much does it cost?

How much does it cost?

Good news. In most instances, library websites will say whether or not there's a charge associated with using public internet terminals. 79% of library websites state definitively either that they charge and what the charges are, or that a free service is provided.

However a number of libraries that offer a free service do not state that they do so, in some instances using phrases such as "Internet access is available" without directly stating that it's free.

A smaller number state that there are charges but not what they are. At least one site said "Check the library for current charges" another provided 30 mins of free internet access after which "normal computer use charges apply" but gave no indication of what they were.

Where charges were detailed they ranged from $2 - $6 per hour, with $4 per hour the most popular price.

What software is available?

What software is available?

Not all computers are created equal, and what you can do with a piece of hardware depends very much on what software it has installed. While space might not permit making a full list of every piece of software installed on a machine, it's helpful to let people know about some of the more common programs available.

Library websites tended not to yield this kind of information with only 35% of sites mentioning installed software. And I set the bar very low on this one, allowing inclusion even if all that was mentioned was "word processing".

Once upon a time, word processing and email were probably sufficient to cover most of the things that people wanted to use a computer for. I think it's safe to say that the world has moved on and a broader range of tools are needed and expected so if you've got 'em, why not say so?

What are the terms of use or acceptable use policies?

What are the terms of use or acceptable use policies?

Anyone who has ever worked in a public library that offers Internet access knows that customer behaviour relating to either the use of the machines, or interaction with other users can sometimes be challenging.

Thankfully most librarians have both advanced people skills and almost supernatural senses when it comes to possible "dodgy" behaviour, meaning that in a lot of instances they can intervene before things get unpleasant.

However, another helpful tool in the belt of any library staff member is awareness of, and an ability to communicate organisational policies. It's much harder for someone to argue that they should be allowed to practice their Gangnam Style dance moves via YouTube with the volume turned way up if they can see in black and white that "Loud and inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated".

Some non-traditional users of libraries genuinely don't understand what the "rules" of the library environment are and these need to be kindly but firmly spelled out. Others will just be pushing their luck. In either case, having a clearly defined and publicly available policy can't hurt and might just help.

However only 25% of library websites provide any acceptable use policies. Some of those that do provide this in pdf form, presumably because it's easy to print out and give to customers.

Below are the links that I was able to find to online internet use policies:


At least it's not just us. A 2011 survey* shows that though most Australian libraries have Internet policies (95%), of those libraries that publicise it only 55% use their website to do so. But that's still a lot more than 25%. 

Does my library offer computing classes or tutorials?

Does my library offer computing classes?

Mostly, not. Or if they do there's not much evidence of it on the library website though this is a tricky thing to measure from looking at a website on a single day. Sometimes libraries have computing classes coming up on their schedule of events and sometimes they don't. But when I looked, not a lot of them were. Only 18% to be exact. To be honest, before I checked I thought it would be higher than that.

Why aren't computing services being promoted on library websites?

After visiting all the public library websites I was shocked at how out of date and dated a lot of the sites were.

For instance, there were 6 sites that made no mention that they provided any kind of computing facilities at all but I know for a fact that they do. One of these was a site that is "copyright 2006" and looked very much as if nothing had been changed on it since then. At all.

Six years without any new content on your website isn't great.

Sparked as this post was, by the relaunch of Tasman's new website, it's perhaps appropriate that this news story about the new site, which includes a recent interview with Glennis Coote, Tasman District Libraries Manager, gives some insight into the problem.

Glennis said new software made it much easier for library staff to add new content and changing the site around, so visitors could expect a much more dynamic site from now on.

‘‘A lot of the content there was a bit static because it wasn’t so easy for us to keep it updated,’’ she said of the old home page.

Which goes a long way to explaining why computing services might not have made it on to library websites in other parts of the country.

Another factor could be that libraries don't always have their own sites, but pages that sit within the council website and therefore have less ownership and ability to make changes.

Also, we can assume that there are more resources and skilled staff available to keep the websites of the larger metro libraries up-to-date.

So who's the surprise star?

That all sounds quite reasonable until you take into account Kawerau Library. They don't have a stand alone website but instead have their own suite of pages on the district council's website.

Despite this, they manage in the space of a few paragraphs** to answer every question I posed (though they weren't very expansive on the topic of software, they did meet the baseline criterion for a tick). Consequently it's no longer the "Tasman yardstick" but the "Tasman and Kawerau yardstick".

Though the larger metro libraries did very well none of them fufilled as many of my question criteria as these two did. Which just goes to show that having a smaller catchment population isn't necessarily a barrier to providing good, current information on your website.

Take a look at your library website. How do you think it rates?

*ALIA Internet access in public libraries survey 2011 (relevant pages 11-12)

**Though I am genuinely confused by their use of the term "cable phone". I have no idea what that is.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

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