Everything to Everyone, or: Why Library Websites Are So Complicated

“Everything to everyone is a very confusing mixed message.”

This is one of the last lines in this post from UX Magazine:

Five Customer Experience Lessons Coffee Taught Me by Tyler Wells (posted on May 5, 2014)

As a digital librarian, my library’s website is the entrance point for the Digital Branch. So it’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about library websites and following discussions about the subject. Sometimes, I even write about it.

A couple of years ago, I noticed a lot of people comparing library websites to Amazon.com. Amazon has far more stuff in their catalog than any library system (probably—I don’t actually have any numbers to back up this statement) and yet they manage to maintain a site that’s much more user friendly and highly functional than most library websites; their information architecture, their UX design, and the ways they leverage their product metadata puts most library websites to shame.

Why can’t library websites be more like Amazon?

I don’t want to say that this isn’t a legitimate comparison and criticism—it would be wonderful if library sites could do more and better with all the cataloging metadata we have. It’s honestly embarrassing that library OPACs took so long to add patron reviews and social features, when Amazon and many other online services have offered such functionality for years. Many people continue to expect Amazon / Netflix-like recommendation algorithms to someday replace Readers Advisory services.

[Author’s Note: I personally do not endorse any plan to replace qualified RA librarians with recommendation algorithms. Even if such algorithms could be made to work properly and with sufficient nuance, the human touch—the opportunity for meaningful communication and building relationships—is too important to do away with.]

The problem with comparing library websites to Amazon (aside from the fact that Amazon has way more money to put into their site than we do) is that it ignores the fundamental difference between what Amazon does and what libraries do:

Amazon exists for one purpose, and one purpose only—to sell stuff.

Everything about their site—the metadata, the information architecture, the UX—all of it is designed with a single clear goal: make it as easy as possible for people to buy stuff. Even the social features and customer reviews exist only to add value to the transaction and make it easier for people to find stuff to buy.

Amazon is a commerce website, first and foremost. Everything answers to that purpose.

It’s true that the transactional design and functionality of Amazon works well as a parallel for library patrons checking out books. But checking out books isn’t even close to the only thing libraries do.

Libraries do many different things for many different people. We fulfill multiple roles in our communities. Our websites can’t just be about one thing and one thing only. We can’t design for only one overarching type of transaction.

This necessarily means that library websites are going to be more complex than a commerce site like Amazon. They have to be, it’s the nature of who we are and what we do.

Amazon has no obligation to try and be everything to everyone—they only want to be everyone’s marketplace.

Libraries, though, do have an obligation to be—if not everything to everyone—many different things for many different people. That’s our fundamental challenge.

Can we do better with the design of our websites and online portals? Yes, and we should never stop trying to improve them.

Can we do more to clarify an inherently confusing mixed message? Yes, we certainly can.

But some degree of complication is unavoidable—it’s inherent to our mission.

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