Interview with Mike Teets on the Website for Small Libraries Project
AH: Thanks for joining us, Mike.
Mike Teets: Glad to be here, Andy.
AH: So Mike... the Website for Small Libraries project has been going on now for... how long?
MT: The Innovation Lab has been working on it for about the last year, though our experimental-phase, test libraries haven't had quite that long to play with it.
AH: But now it's "ready for prime-time"?
MT: Yes, we've gotten enough good feedback from the test libraries and our own internal testers that we feel it's good-to-go for any small library looking to set up a presence on the Web.
AH: How "small" is "small" in this case?
MT: Our thinking was based on designing something for libraries with collections of 20,000 items or fewer. Public libraries of this size often have few trained librarians and tend to depend on volunteer staff. The original IMLS data that we looked at suggested that about half of libraries that size have either no website at all, or struggle to keep up with technology, mobile, hosting and Web best practices.
AH: And how does participation in this project improve on that?
MT: Our goal was to have a self-contained site, a complete feature set for online availability and the ability to manage basic circulation functions. We wanted it to be as simple as creating an account on any of the popular consumer sites like Flickr, Facebook, Gmail or YouTube. We focused on removing complexity in the process of selecting and making services available. Staff will not have to pick a hosting service, choose software or configure site access. We focused on the number of minutes it takes to make a functioning Web presence available, not days or months. If a library has a text file of its collection and patron information, it could be up and fully functional in as little as 10 minutes.
AH: What kind of functionality are we talking about?
MT: Well, the initial templates allow a library to input information like location, hours, a basic library description, etc., as well as some policies and standard pages like a calendar of events. After that, the library can use the wizard import collection information from any file format like an Excel spreadsheet or comma-delimited file and use that to do things like check-in/check-out, place holds and search the collection.
AH: But this isn't a fully featured ILS, correct?
MT: Not by any stretch of the imagination. That's just not necessary or appropriate for many of the smallest libraries. This is essentially a patron-facing inventory system more like a retail establishment would use to track what is on its shelves. It's a way to keep track of items in a collection, and what's been loaned to whom. It communicates the library hours and events offered to patrons. This is an alternative to locally developed spreadsheets and databases or even in some cases a legal pad at the checkout desk!
AH: And so this is a patron-facing system, too?
MT: Yes. Once a library imports or enters its collection, Web users can discover anything in the collection with a familiar text search box. If the library imports or enters patron data, the users can place and remove holds, see their checkouts, etc. We also make open access collections available to the online patrons. Using content from Project Gutenberg and other sources, libraries can have over 30,000 e-books available to their patrons. We will syndicate the library presence to popular search engines so they will be found by their patrons doing general Web searches.
AH: And this will put that functionality within reach of small libraries and their users...
MT: Right. We used several techniques available in HTML5 to provide a single site that elegantly scales to any Web-capable device such as smartphones and tablet devices. This means that these libraries can make the leap from no Web presence to smartphone or tablet displays. In some of the rural areas served by these small libraries, mobile Web access is the only way many of their users can get to the Internet, so we felt it was important to use a technology that made that easy.
AH: And it's cloud-based, so the library doesn't have to worry about hardware, updates, etc.
MT: That's right. As I said, we want it to be as easy to use as setting up a blog or photo-sharing page. That means everything has to be technically very easy. In our test libraries, folks expressed that once the site was live, it wouldn't be any problem for a volunteer or part-time employee to do ongoing work on the staff-side; adding users, updating content, loading calendar dates and the like.
AH: Which means the sites will look pretty similar...
MT: Familiarity is not a bad thing. It's what many users unwittingly equate with "ease of use." The alternative is for a library to take on usability studies and log analysis to provide a good service. With this service, we used our design experience with high-traffic systems to provide a familiar, yet modern site design that we will keep current with available technology. The libraries using this service should never have to plan for or staff a "site redesign" in the future. We do provide standard widgets to customize their needs for things such as search boxes, contact information, calendar, etc. The overall familiarity relative to existing popular websites will allow patrons to immediately use the site without training.
AH: You mentioned "inexpensive." How much does participation in the Website for Small Libraries project cost?
MT: It's $500 per year, but that includes a 90-day trial before invoicing. We want as many libraries as possible to give this a try. If it doesn't work for them...that's fine. Try the site, see if it will provide value for your users. If not, well...maybe, at least, let us know how we might improve it going forward that would be helpful for future users. We've also established group rates for as few as two libraries up to forty.
AH: And where can libraries go to sign up for the project or provide feedback?
MT: Just go to http://beta.worldcat.org/lib/. There's a live demo there, as well as a feedback link there, which sends e-mail to email@example.com. We really do appreciate any thoughts on how to improve things.
AH: I assume there are plans for the future?
MT: That depends on how well the beta is received and how patrons react to service features. We're now committed to putting this thing out there, such that any library that signs up can rely on it going forward. Beyond that? Maybe some additional open access content additions, more site content widgets, perhaps some integration with other Web services. Hopefully our users will have some great ideas that make it into future iterations, too. We will hold the line on removing complexity and cost from the small library environment rather than let feature creep push this out of reach of the underserved part of our library community.
AH: Sounds like a really neat project, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to give us the details.
MT: My pleasure.
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