One Size Fits None: Why Our Library’s New Homepage Was Not Made For You

“The world we need can’t be built by men loyal to the world we have.”
—Daenerys Targaryen

Unlike the proverbial restaurant with only one table or a magical apparatus that can change its appearance for each observer, my library’s website has been constructed to accommodate an approximate user base totaling, once you account for non-affiliated and community users, upwards of 30,000 readers. All of those people likely view things in a unique way, and I’m not just talking about the variations in their screen size.

Although we don’t provide a customizable interface (e.g., the MyLibrary portals of the Library 2.0 heyday, or the now defunct iGoogle) or segregated platforms (i.e., a gateway maintained exclusively for students, along with another one intended for faculty), and there are admittedly ways that different patrons have different needs, our services are largely each offered for everyone, which includes having a single homepage.

It nonetheless appears different to different people due to everyone’s varying preconceptions and expectations regarding what it should contain or how those selections should look. This is especially true with regards to their knowledge about how previous iterations of the website functioned.

“But that’s not how it used to work” is the precise reason why our eighth most frequently-searched database (WorldCat) is promoted above all others to be featured in our main navigation menu. The outrage over its short-lived removal after a previous redesign led us to add it back, and we therefore continue to subject all of our patrons to how that vocal part of the status quo desire a library site’s contents be presented.

Consider how the ideal library, for a member of the Widget Studies Department, would be housed in the same building as their office, and not contain any materials in its collection devoted to non-widgets, since those would only get in the way, as well as constitute unnecessary expenditures. The library homepage, likewise, would feature information about all of those widget-related titles and services, front and center, without any of that extra non-widget clutter.

Although journal cancellation projects can elicit a fair amount of contentiousness, elucidating to the Department of Widget Studies faculty, in such a situation, as to why the library does in fact have to acquire at least some materials that are not about widgets is fortunately not the sort of challenge we are usually faced with. After all, this is pretty much the equivalent of asking, “Why does World News cover events that took place outside of my neighborhood?”

When it comes to addressing demands for our homepage to be modified so it can best meet a far from typical individual’s research needs, however, that’s an altogether different story, as evidenced by our prominent WorldCat links. It’s similarly a tough sell in getting the point across to my librarian colleagues—most notably those who want the homepage to contain everything but the kitchen sink—about how not only is our website not built specifically for them, but it’s actually not built, deliberately, for such internal users.

Of course, as anyone in web development nowadays could tell you, other not entirely evidence-based factors can also influence a site’s appearance. Prior to our most recent homepage redesign, for example, a survey of end users was conducted. It included a question about how much stuff should be placed on the new page:

The redesign committee examined this data and unanimously concurred that it was best to come up with a page which did not scroll past the initial screen (at least for common display sizes). Our new homepage, however, features an image that takes up much of the screen, and therefore requires some scrolling to see the entire contents. As for why this was done, that is left as an exercise for the reader.

Further Reading

Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee