This post on Walking Paper got me thinking (again) about the state of library websites. It’s hard for me to admit that most library sites make me want to cry blood. After all, designing for libraries is a big part of my job. But I’d venture to say that most of us who work on library web interfaces are librarians who happen to like web design and not web designers who stumbled into librarianship. And while I’m sure we’d all agree that we want functional, usable and visually appealing sites that our users want to use, there’s probably a small minority of librarians out there who really have 40 hours a week to devote to this task. And that’s mostly because we’re not talking about a handful of pages here – my Libraries’ website, just as an example, has about 20 gatrillion sub pages that have to be dealt with. When I redesigned the website for UNC’s House Undergraduate Library as a field experience project in graduate school, it took me about 3 months of pretty solid work to get maybe 2-3 dozen pages moved into a new design. The implications for a site as large as those maintained by most academic libraries is nearly enough to make you feel like you finally understand the urban legend about Pop Rocks and Coke making you explode.
But that was all just a long intro to serve as a disclaimer that I’m not recommending that all libraries go out and undertake full redesigns. But as our institutions think into the future, it’s really important to consider that having a pretty site (that is also usable and accessible, of course) can be something that attracts users.
I really appreciated Ellen’s efforts to go forth and find lovely library websites, though I will admit that most of them left me feeling a little eh. But a few days ago, a colleague was showing me the website for The Art Institute of Chicago (FYI, they have little tiny rooms there), and I was suddenly inspired. As a grad assistant, I was lucky enough to do some fun original web design, and I frequently checked out museum websites for inspiration. Since I’ve started my real job, I haven’t done a huge amount of design from scratch, so I’ve let that habit go. But remembering it now makes me wonder why library websites can’t be more like museum websites? Museums, of course, are often related to aesthetics in some way, and I’m sure that ups the importance of the pretty factor. But libraries and museums serve similar functions, right? So why not emulate museums a little more? I’m sure that lots of these places have professional designers working for them, but if you take a close look, you’ll see that they’re really pretty simple and clean (that’s why I like them, really). Check out the Smithsonian Museums for more examples.
What do you think? I can see “but we have too much content to make sites like these!” being an argument, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Sure, we have lots of online content, and information architecture can become a big headache, but can’t we still aim to simplify and clean things up?