Library Website Design: What labels do you use?

I debated even making this blog post because it is about Information Architecture (IA), and in my experience most people in the world today either (A) don’t know what information architecture is OR (B) don’t care what information architecture is.

Well I care, and I’m going to tell you why more librarians should care about IA. The answer is quiet simple: Librarians should care about information architecture because librarians suck at making websites.

It seems almost counter intuitive that librarians, who are probably the best people in the world at organizing information, cannot organize a website in an intuitive way to save their lives.  But go look at any library website (or look at 33 library websites in one sitting), and you will be blown away by how difficult it is to find what you are looking for.  Librarians may be great at categorizing and organizing large collections of millions of articles and books, but are we great at organizing them in an intuitive way.  I think the answer is a resounding HELL NO!!!!!  Seriously ask someone to figure out Dewey or LC classification systems intuitively without a lot of thought.  Better yet show your non-librarian friend a MARC record and see if they can intuitively make sense of it.  You get my point.  We are used to dealing with complex information the requires complex solutions and sadly we  bring that complexity into the websites we design.

I want to tell you about a bit of mini-study that I conducted this morning.  I looked at 33 western Canadian Academic Library websites to see what label they use within their websites navigation to direct users to the place that they might search for articles (generally an A-Z list of databases or list of databases by subject).

So basically I found that out of 33 academic libraries they use 11 different terms for the same part of their website.  In addition, keeners might notice that the total number of labels used adds up to 51 different labels.  This is because 16 (48%) libraries use 2 different labels, while 16 more use only 1 label and 1 (3%) uses 3 different labels.

What is obviously aparent from the above chart is that librarians love the technical term “databases,” so much so that 53% (27 out of 51) of all labels contain the word “database. ”  In addition E-resources as the 3rd largest label accounts for another 12% of all labels used by websites.

But what do our users think of those terms? They are important because a comprehensive review of 51 usability studies from academic library websites has found that the WORST terms  you can use are “database” and “e-resource.” Library users find those terms confusing

This obviously begs the question: why do librarians continually create poorly designed websites which use terminology that we know confuses our users? Is it an innocent mistake?  Do we just not know any better?  If so then why are we not doing usability testing to find out what our users want?

p.s. please don’t despair if you work at a library with a poorly designed webpage.  The truth is my library’s website, which I am responsible for uses one of the above mentioned “worst” terms, and I am trying to figure out a method for finding the “best” terms in order to create intuitive navigation for our students.