Over the last couple of months I’ve been involved in a district wide website transition to a newer platform.  For school administrators who never really think about web design or usability issues, they think its not much more than copying and pasting old content onto new pages.  But of course those of us who think deeply about information architecture, user experience and the need to effectively serve the needs of our patrons, the design is just as important as the content.  And all the things I really want to do: user testing, surveys, graphics development, student authored sections, photo galleries, and more, are plagued by no real extra time to get this work done.  Most of the work that I did to develop the library site was over my winter holiday vacation, because I needed the creative uninterrupted time to think through the design decisions in front of me, build the site’s visual impact and think through the order and accessibility of the content blocks. So it is live now, but still unfinished, and I squeeze in moments whenever possible to keep working on it.

So I was happy to see that there is recent research published about school library website design in the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults. In the article How Usable Are School Library Websites? A Random Sample from All Fifty States, the authors synthesize what they learned from viewing elementary, middle and high school library sites, and what they know about young people’s internet information-seeking behaviors and preferences.  They note that adults and youth do not process information or browse websites in the same manner, and this is in large part tied to their developmental stage. For kids in the 10-13 age range that I serve, visual cues hold an important role, and they prefer to browse rather than conduct strategic searches, and they quickly get frustrated and give up (don’t you just love the adolescent brain?). Older adolescents, age 14-18 are similar, but do more to evaluate a site by scanning its contents.

Experts find that website designed for youth should employ the input of youth during the design process, something that I still want to do but initially did not have time to plan and execute for my own library website. They assign three domains of importance for a successful website design: cognitive, affective and design. With cognitive, it is important the the vocabulary and the content is appropriate for the level of learning the kids can comprehend.  For affective, knowing that these kids give up quickly, the site must feel positive, welcoming and engage their attention right away. These things might include play, images, personalization, and interactivity.  Lastly, the design component incorporates the look, the feel and the layout of the website. Kids who are tech savvy have a pretty sophisticated notion of what a good looking website looks like vs. a dated and unattractive site, and they prefer the former to the latter.

The researchers set out to answer some questions about website design:

  1. What does a typical school library website look like?
  2. Who are school library websites designed for?
  3. How do school library websites compare to recommended best practices?
  4. How usable are school library websites?

They randomly selected the schools for study, ending up with six sample sites per state, a total of 300 websites, from urban, rural and suburban communities.  Judging all of these sites by the criteria for cognitive, affective and design criteria revealed dismal results. They found that most sites were really designed for adults, not for kids, and 81% were considered to be below standard across all levels–elementary, middle and high school websites. And they found that the overall purpose of these sites tended to be only about accessing books and databases, but not an overall introduction to the full range of services and features of a school library program.

The American Association of School Librarians’ publication Empowering Learners  states that the mission of school libraries is “to ensure that students and staff are effective users of information.” And school library teachers are quick to defend their role as teacher of information literacy, however the websites for these teachers and their libraries did not reflect that as a priority of their program.

Librarians are masterful at helping students along the road of inquiry and discovery. It would help their own patrons serve themselves well and possibly increase engagement both online and in person if librarians would spend time involving student patrons in their web design process.  It is something that I need to do and have yet to accomplish.  If you ask my students, you will hear that I have talked with them about it but haven’t done it yet. When they see that I do want them to help with the design, that their opinion matters and the site is really for them, I anticipate a new level of trust and engagement.

So where might a well-meaning librarian with little knowledge or experience of web design turn?  One place might be a look at public and academic library websites for arrangement of information.  While the intended audience of those sites is for older users, the example of those sites helps build a logical order of information resources.  For the cognitive and affective factors, one might browse popular sites that are trending for youth of your target age group.  For elementary one might check out pbskids or nickjr.com , for middle grades and high school look at social platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.  Think about what might make them attractive to young people, and consider how that might change the way the library site looks, feels and invites interaction.  Show these sites to your students and simply ask them what they like and don’t like about them, and then listen to their ideas, and steal those some for your own design.

 In a way, I feel lucky that I have a background in design, so my problem is making the time to take my ideas and apply them to the site.  But for others this challenge amounts to more. A piece of advice is to read some blog articles about the essentials of good web design, like this one from 99designs, or take an online course like this one from the ALA on website design. If this is too much to ask, consult with the parents in your school community, chances are there are some professional web designers who are current parents.  See if one of them will donate and hour or two of their time to look at your website and offer a few tips for improving it. For some professionals who want to donate time to the school but are not sure how to do it, this is a great chance to make a meaningful difference and a valuable contribution.

References

Chow, A. S., Morris, R. J., Figley, A., Regan, K., Lam, S., & Sherard, J. (2016). How Usable Are School Library Websites? A Random Sample from All Fifty States. Journal Of Research On Libraries & Young Adults, 7(3), 1-28.

Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Librarians. (n.d.). Retrieved
February 14, 2017, from American Association of School Librarians website:
http://www.ala.org/aasl/standards/guidelines

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