The Pitfalls and Politics of Collaborative Web Development

“If you’re not willing to make decisions without consensus, overt approval from all stakeholders, and a clear and obvious ‘winning’ option, don’t take jobs like mine.”
— Jenica P. Rogers (Director of Libraries and College Archives, SUNY Potsdam)

Relatively few famous works of art were designed by a committee. Even the more communal productions, such as movies, often have a single individual leading and delegating to others the work necessary for generating the result of a cohesive artistic vision. In contrast, scientific research and scholarly writing are more commonly created by multiple authors. You simply can’t write an encyclopedia all by yourself.

I wouldn’t want to bear the sole responsibility for running a large library website. Not only would it be too much work, there’s undoubtedly a thing or two that others can do better than me. Much of what I’ve made has been improved upon by incorporating ideas from colleagues. This essay, on the other hand, is about the times in which it has been degraded in the same fashion.

Several years ago, when I was just beginning to work on library webpages, I created a basic theme for all pages to follow. It was little more than a standard header and footer with some basic branding and navigation elements, intended to provide users the understanding that all of our webpages were part of the same organizational site.

One of my motivations behind this effort was the desire to avoid future criticisms about pages looking different from one another — a natural consequence of them being independently made by separate authors, each with their own opinions on what constituted good design, to say nothing of their various writing styles.

For example, in early 2002, we launched an instantly-popular (think of historical events) online exhibit comprised of photographs taken in Afghanistan, only to be later told by University Relations, “It’s disappointing that your Afghanistan page, which has received well-deserved recognition, does not clearly indicate that it’s at this institution.”

I was a bit naïve in my predictive estimation of everyone’s willingness to accept the opportunity to have their pages be part of a unified and larger whole for the greater good. At one meeting in particular I recall sitting down with librarians from another department to be presented with a multi-page document entitled “Arguments Against The Template.” You can pretty much guess how things went from there.

It took the better part of a year for library management to at long last proclaim, “After extensive discussions, it has been decided that all Libraries and Departments use the same template […] In keeping with campus plans to give a similar look and feel to all campus pages, we need to apply the same criteria so that our libraries do look like they are part of the UWM Libraries.” How long was it until that standard template was fully implemented? About four years.

I’ve heard it said that you cannot apply a technological solution to societal problems. However, a new web environment, where we could lock down file permissions and editing rights so that content creators had little choice but to make pages adhering to a consistent theme, was necessary for stopping people from ignoring the executive mandate regarding a uniform look and feel for all library webpages.

Fast forward a few more years, and I found myself being shouted at during a meeting about the background colors used in LibGuides. I am not talking about a slightly raised voice, mind you, but screaming at the top of one’s lungs. The reason for this outburst was that I had discovered a way to enforce our existing policies regarding “a standard color scheme, font, and style.”

In accordance with industry standards, the main library site had by then long supported the use of templates to achieve a consistent look and feel. Uniform design elements improve the usability and accessibility of content. LibGuides, unfortunately, originally lacked the code required for implementing this kind of styling; the system allowed editors to violate our rules by customizing the colors used in specific guides.

A new configuration setting, however, allowed site administrators to enforce consistency and wipe away any such unsanctioned color declarations. After applying this fix, those multi-colored LibGuides were reset to a single, conventional (or, “boring,” in the words of one author) palette. This action received the approval of my boss, the web committee, and library administrative group. How did multiple editors respond to this change? Why, they logged right back in to LibGuides and restored their preferred yet haphazard color schemes to those pages, of course.

Based on conversations with webmasters at other institutions, this story is hardly unique. Here’s an excerpt from a typical message posted to a discussion list on the topic: “A colleague and I were tasked to draw up best practices to ensure consistency and usefulness of guides and content, and I was told that I was impinging on my colleagues’ academic freedom for doing so.” Upon asking if I could again standardize rogue elements, the answer given was, “no for now.”

More years rolled by, and we again found ourselves in the middle of a platform migration. The new content management system offered an even more robust way to ensure all pages contained identical header and footer components and were thus presented as part of a uniformly styled theme. The questions by other site contributors learning to work with it, consequentially, were more commonly in the form of, “how can I break the template?” rather than, “why can I no longer circumvent our web editing guidelines?”

One such librarian, reluctant to accept the answer to this question and desiring “top level administrative rights and abilities” to freely modify pages more substantially, even submitted a request to our hosting provider to have a separate website set up for their unit. This message was promptly forwarded to me, along with an inquiry as to why provisioning a second site was necessary. Our director at the time effectively handled this maneuver by stating, “We are going forward as one Library website.”

In recent years, we’ve tried to commit smaller iterative changes by keeping our web content, including the homepage, accurate and current. Even the most minor of modifications can still generate a significant number of impassioned discussions involving those with an interest in how our pages are presented. You never know what can set some people off, either in terms of aesthetic preferences or an insistence on what belongs where and how it should be labeled.

You cannot reason someone out of a position that they did not reason themselves into. Along with what we want it to contain, how we wish a website to appear is often based on ineffable sentiments that are determined a priori and independently from any sort of data collected on user requirements or testing. There’s no point in arguing over such inherently subjective matters.

Content choices can be just as incendiary. A few memorable instances:

  • I once programmed a mock-up of a web form based on a paper one that was kept behind the counter at the circulation desk. It seemed a pretty straightforward way to save everyone some time. However, the affected department’s head was reluctant about the idea, to say the least, and stated, “There is no online form since we prefer that people talk to us at the desk […] this is not an idea that I can support.”
  • A director of a nearby library successfully torpedoed our plans to make it easier to search, from our website, for items held by a group of local libraries that were part of a lending cooperative. They accomplished this by merely letting us know, “I feel that program has outlived its usefulness for most of us.”
  • I’ve similarly been told to remove information from our “Borrowing from Other Libraries” page, which briefly documented all available options for patrons to obtain materials, because some of us didn’t want certain services widely advertised (“There are reasons why it’s not listed there.”).
  • In the wake of the USA PATRIOT Act’s passage, it took months to win over campus legal, who first told us “don’t post notices about the law,” to get a privacy policy page approved and published.
  • In its early days, a colleague complained to my supervisor, then their supervisor, and so on, until a new policy had to be created, because of my decision to add a link to Wikipedia from our list of online encyclopedias. One of the counterarguments was, “most internet users are aware of it and it will come up on a googe search anyway.”
  • Lastly, I know of at least one instance where content was deliberately self-censored from our online exhibits because someone wrote the director to say, “I was offended.”

I’ll cut off this list by quoting Marco Polo, who, when asked about the story of his travels, reportedly stated, “I have not written down the half of those things which I saw.” For the most part, all of these little war stories are water under the bridge. I’m telling them more so others can gain an understanding about the harsh realities facing library web managers than out of a desire or need to relive past traumas. They were learning experiences, but I also can’t let them get the best of me, or at least I shouldn’t, because working out issues such as these with others comes with the territory.

In my better moments, I recall the saying about forgiving others, not because they deserve it, but because you deserve peace. That and the proverb about how nobody on their deathbed says they wish they had spent more time at work. At other times I still feel like an FCC-approved device, given the amount of interference I have to accept. A strip from The Oatmeal puts it this way: “You are no longer a web designer. You are now a mouse cursor inside a graphics program which the client can control by speaking, emailing, and instant messaging.”

By now, I’ve racked up a few decades doing web development in libraries. I have an extensive background with graphic design, programming code, and usability testing, in addition to more than a passing familiarity with the likes of color theory, accessibility standards, analytics, writing for the web, responsive design, eye tracking, typographical conventions, library terminology, and so on. But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that anything on our website is my sole artistic creation, or is for that matter in any way “my” page. When it comes to the final determination of what gets published on our site, I have far more than the “nine different bosses” the main character complains about in Office Space.

It’s funny to think of how, say, the designated librarian in charge of cataloging or access services could apply their expertise in formulating a policy revision concerning the formatting of certain MARC fields or modifications to the logistics of how renewals are processed, and those changes would be met by other librarians with, I would hope, a sort of deferential acceptance, if anything. When it comes to managing our web services, however, well, let’s just say that professional associates who stay in their lane, are willing to trust in the proficiencies and choices of the webmaster, and don’t instead demand that they know the best way how to do it are few and far between.

Given this environment, and as much as I’ve been willing to cede ground to my colleagues, recognizing the value in having others feel empowered by being allowed to have some degree of creative control over their work, I’m paradoxically and just as often steamrolled by my superiors into making revisions which have no apparent rhyme or reason, other than an apparent desire by managers to simply put their mark on things — to say nothing of the opposite effect of this for the most part stymying my future initiative and efforts towards improving the overall efficacy of the website. There are far worse “a rock and hard place” types of situations, but it does keep me up at night.

The problem is, even after all this time, I am not yet apathetic in the face of being subjected to an autocratic style of leadership. An old IT colleague of mine would reply to seemingly innocuous inquiries about various configuration options with such succinct messages as, “I am not the service owner. I have no opinion.” A better description of how I feel about my situation is from the pilot episode of ER: “There’s two kinds of doctors: there’s the kind that gets rid of their feelings, and the kind that keeps them. If you’re gonna keep your feelings, you’re gonna get sick from time to time. That’s just how it works.”

Another problem with incorporating input from multiple sources is that the resulting Frankenstein-like appearance of the website is not as good as it could have been if any single librarian had total control over it. “None of us is as dumb as all of us,” as the saying goes. Jerry B. Harvey describes how gathering what’s prone to be filtered feedback can yield suboptimal results: “With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, thereby arriving at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes.” George Costanza from Seinfeld has a similar take: “This is why I hate writing with a large group. Everybody has their own little opinions, and it all gets homogenized, and you lose the whole edge of it.”

Arguments against, or at least about, the template continue to this day. We’re getting ready to launch a redesigned homepage, largely to reflect some recent university restructuring. I am preparing to send a draft of the new page, as worked out by the redesign committee, to the entire library staff for review — mainly as a heads up and to get buy-in, but, as with fielding suggestions from patrons, we’re also genuinely soliciting valid and constructive criticisms.

That said, I fully expect to hear back from more than one coworker who not only has ideas for improving upon the design, but also presumes that those opinions will constitute a final say in the matter. Furthermore, if history is any guide, several of these people may become emotionally invested in their proposals and grow indignant if their desired changes are not enacted, while the ensuing debates will seem to take a life of their own.

A good deal of the feedback I receive is unfortunately based on how librarians want our site to function for themselves, or merely the imagined preferences of select high-profile patrons. Ideally, a website is rather built primarily to maximize usability for the typical end user, not internal ones. Librarians who want things flashy and chock full of content also seem to forget that the simplicity of Google’s homepage is the type of appearance and bare-bones functionality we’re competing with. As stated in a headline I recently read, “Good design tries to impress, great design gets out of the way.”

Regardless, what a single person likes invariably upsets some others. It’s totally impossible to please everyone. I heard a story last week of a professor who complained about a library discovery layer’s recommendation system because it made an assignment to find articles on an obscure topic too easy. Think also of how the entirety of our user population was once only familiar with the card catalog. At times it is necessary to change things even though it will in no small ways upset a number of people.

Don’t get me wrong. Help from others is often vital, but just not always worth the high price to pay when meddling comes along with it — especially when you’re in a position with considerable responsibilities yet a debilitating lack of accompanying authority. I’m reminded of an adage in running that states a headwind will slow you down more than a tailwind speeds you up. Making an entire web presence the best it can be for users likewise entails not having to cobble together the disparate or divergent output from multiple authors who each have total sovereignty over their content and its presentation.

Further Reading

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Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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John Hubbard

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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