The Goose and Gander of Universal Design

John Hubbard
3 min readDec 5, 2021

“No, no, mix them all up. I’m sick of state’s rights.”
—George Henry Thomas, to a chaplain inquiring with the Union Major General about arranging the graves at Chattanooga National Cemetery by home states

My daughter’s at the point in the process of applying to colleges when we’re finding out how the so-called “Common” Application ain’t that common. It’s a fine concept, having a single site to enter all of your application information, without needing to duplicate a lot of effort. The problem is, after the “application successfully submitted” notification, there’s more work to do, thanks to the fact that individual institutions require candidates to also answer their own batch of custom questions, complete more in-house financial aid forms, and fulfill other unique requirements.

I can’t help but relate this situation to others I’ve encountered, because the Common App’s limitations are all too familiar. LibGuides has a pretty slick feature, for instance, where you can make a reusable piece of content to be syndicated across multiple guides. We have a whole repository of these set up, with the underlying idea that if there’s a change to how we provide a particular service, or even something as simple as a URL update, we would therefore only need to make one corrective edit.

There is an option when you copy content within LibGuides to break the symlink, however, to put your own little finishing touches on it by making any further desired alterations. And so, long story short, we have, as of this writing, 493 links amongst our LibGuides (that I’ll also note are controlled by other content owners besides myself and which I have been explicitly forbidden from touching) to interfaces that have been offline since at least 2015.

There is a maintenance problem here, to be sure, but aside from this issue of neglect, it would have been a hell of a lot easier, as far as building a consistent and sustainable content structure goes, if my colleagues who authored those now dead links would have surrendered a little more sovereignty when it came to deciding how their guide pages would be worded.

Variations of this mess happen due to a lack of enforcement with strong shared cataloging policies, the haphazard implementation of local changes to subject headings, and all sorts of other practices where we willingly incur unwarranted technical debt in violation of the maxim to practice “standardization whenever possible, adaptation only whenever necessary.”

For those librarians working in a consortial Primo/Alma environment like myself, you can pretty much guess where I come down on the whole IZ vs. NZ debate for just about every single setting except for university branding and local holdings notes. If a label adjustment is enough of a demonstrated usability improvement that altering the default configuration option is warranted for a single campus, for example, then making the same change state-wide is equally as justified.

Enacting network-level customizations should therefore be easier, if anything, than single institutions violating consorital standards. Would that we weren’t all so selfish. Not only would my job be easier if we streamlined our efforts more in building what is for now only on paper the ideal of a “unified UWS [University of Wisconsin System] public catalog,” our patrons would also benefit from having a more consistent, optimized, and well-curated interface.

This goes for our whole web presence, too. Without even getting into the question of what business it is of libraries how citations are formatted, do we really need to maintain hundreds of LibGuides devoted to APA style? There are redundant, duplicated efforts such as this all across our profession which simply don’t need to exist. We’re wasting time on them that could be better spent elsewhere, and their inevitable degradation is a net detriment to the end user experience.

Innovation is an essential part of our progressive evolution. Survival requires change. Yet we should commit those changes not out of a desire to merely improve our own little corner of the world. The best way to make our mark on something is to improve it for everyone, not just a localized subset. Breaking ranks with your peers should only be done as a last resort.

Further Reading

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis