Lessons learned: aadl.org 3.0

It’s been almost five months since we launched aadl.org 3.0. This last week we announced our “3.1” features: a collection of enhancements and fixes. some of which have been quietly rolled out over the last month, some new this past week.

It’s been an interesting and exciting five months–a lot of fun too. I’ve learned quite a bit too from developing and maintaining this new “breed” of library website on a day-to-day business. I thought I’d pass on some of the insights and lessons I’ve been taught (some more forcefully than others) in the hope that it may either inspire you or help you in your own endeavors.

If you build it, they will come
We found this out in a big way. The type of online format we decided to offer has been a big hit with our patrons and the community in general. I think it’s important to realize that your patrons are ready and willing to be a participatory force in your online initiatives. The library website is probably the most used online municipal service in your area (I’d like to see a general study). Whenever I meet new people or have a conversation about where I work now, I’m almost always told how much the other person enjoys our website. Yet, different people seem to have different ideas on what their favorite features are. One person may rave about the RSS feeds, while another likes that they no longer have to enter their library card number all the time. Some people just like the interface or the way it looks. A lot of them don’t even realize that it’s blog-based technology and they can sound-off if they want to. Making a website that appeals to a broad spectrum of people is difficult, I truly think the key to success is inviting users to participate in it’s continual evolution.

Teens love to blog
More than anyone else, teens love to congregate and a public library website is perfectly poised to take advantage of that, especially if there is a catalyst with which teens can associate. In our case, the AADL-GT program has served as a flash-point for teen interaction. It’s really been fascinating to read their comments and conversations with each other. You really get the sense that they are all jockeying for position while at the same time, grasping, desperately, for an identity and persona of their own. Bearing witness to that really opened my eyes to the awesome amount of influence we have with them in this venue. Of course, that means we take on a profound responsibility to these adolescents as well. To be honest, that isn’t something I thought about prior to our 3.0 initiative.

Zen and the art of user management
If you deviate from the norm, brace yourself. When you flip that switch, you have no idea whatsoever, what type of user is going to find his or her way onto your site. For every Ed Vielmetti you get, you’re going to get someone who can barely work a mouse, let alone grasp the concept of user accounts and online searching. They are going to create 10 accounts then call you up and demand that they are flawless human beings who cannot possibly forget their password or username. Before they call, have tools in place to handle these situation quickly, efficiently, and respectfully. Swallow your pride, apologize to them, and insist that you will do your darnedest to improve that aspect of the service. Have an interface through which you can diagnose and fix problems. We have a custom administration screen that allows us to search usernames, library card numbers, last names, etc. It enables us to quickly process a very small, but steady stream of problem registrations.

Drupal is our friend – Flexibility is essential
Take your time selecting a CMS that is right for your situation. I spent a good six months installing and testing all manner of CMSs before I officially recommended Drupal. Becoming familiar with the software itself is only part of the decision-making process. Take a good look at the project’s website. Read through the forums, scan Usenet, if there is an IRC channel for the project, join it and lurk for awhile. Get acquainted with it’s various avenues of support. Be flexible in your search parameters. You never know if a project will offer you something that you hadn’t originally thought of. In Drupal’s case, the taxonomy system took me by surprise and was a major selling point. Drupal also offered an extremely flexible and extensive API (Drupal uses it’s own API, you gotta love that). It’s true that you’re more likely to find what you want if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for.

Unspeakable things were done to the OPAC!
I’ve seen things, horrible things. I’ve been forced to do things I thought I’d never do! I really don’t want to beat this issue to death, but it had a major impact on the services we were able to offer at launch. We need a complete overhaul of our ILSs. I’m not asking for much, though, just four very basic, very simple requirements.

Staff members love blogging
They may not know it yet, but if you give them a soapbox, your co-workers will take to it with gusto. We are, after all, libraries filled with librarians and lib techs. They all are well read and have great things to share. Give them a reason to share their passions and tastes with the community-at-large and they’ll embrace it gladly. One of my favorite feeds is the AADL Catalog Headlines feed. In many ways it lets you know your colleagues, especially the ones you don’t often talk to, much better. I also learn quite a bit from what they have to say and I’ve been turned on to some fabulous material.

Have a fall-back
It’s good to reach for the stars, but every once-in-awhile, something goes foobar and you need to punt. Have a plan in place in case this happens, because you don’t want your patrons calling you up asking, “what’s 404?”. Before we went live, we bet the farm that our middleware would hold and stand up to an onslaught of new registrations. It did and we had almost 8000 registrations in the first 24 hours. That was stressful, and we heaved a sigh of relief, but we had a plan to revert to the conventional OPAC if events took a turn for the worse. The show must go on.

Inside and outside roles
Be sure to keep in mind that usage inside the library is very different from usage outside the library. For instance, if you have a page that displays a patron’s personal information, including all their checkouts, you want to make sure that data is not going to be left unattended at a catalog terminal. Our solution was to do a combination of nifty tricks with both the code and the network to limit that exposure. We also devised a way to protect patron information from the ubiquitous back-button. Make sure you’ve discussed these issues beforehand and have a way to deal with them.

“Let it ride” – Society self-corrects its idiots
There is always going to be the one person who throws a Snickers bar in the pool. The public is not going to hold the library responsible for these people when they hijack a comment thread and become belligerent, rude, or aggressive. Our general policy that we ask our users to adhere to states that they should be respectful and stay on-topic, but there are people who can’t seem to manage that. The best thing, in those circumstances, is to let it go. We moderate profanity and leave content intact (we just add bl**p marks). Users will generally ignore them or dismiss them quickly. My point is, don’t be scared of these people, and don’t let their existence hold your plans hostage.

RSS can be a double-edged sword
Creating RSS feeds for checked-out and requested items seemed like a terrific idea at the time, and it actually was. It’s a feature that a lot of our users have absolutely fallen in love with, but it resulted in an unintended consequence that had some major privacy implications. It was also something that we would have never thought of until we were actually faced with it.
About a week after launch, we received a couple of emails from some very vigilant patrons who informed us that they had seen a number of peoples’ check-outs on Yahoo. Naturally, we were concerned and checked it out. We did indeed see that a number of feeds had been publicly displayed. We contacted the patrons in question, who were very pleased at our pro-activeness, and told them that if they didn’t want their checkouts and holds displayed, they needed to specify that when subscribing to the feed. As a precaution, we now publish a monthly story in the feeds that warn subscribers about this. I’m sure as we add more web 2.0 functionality to the site, we’ll run into more issues that are unique to libraries.

Have faith
If you have an unrealized dream for your web site and you are passionate about making it happen, don’t let go of that energy. If you’re like any other library in the world, you’ll probably have to deal with red tape, committees, legal issues, stylistic quarrels, people who don’t know what the heck you’re talking about and a whole host of other minutia. Be confident about your vision, and have faith that it’ll unfold into something great, because if you really want it, it will.

We have a loooong way to go!
I’ve crossed off about twenty things from my “3.1 list” getting this latest round of enhancements and updates out the door. I’ve been working full days and often I’d do some coding as I sat in bed with the latest torrent of Lost in the upper right hand corner of my screen. Yet, there are so many more directions to take the website and I’m already beating down my boss’s door with, “what if we…, and how about?” The beauty of building a web site like the one we have is that it’s going to accommodate whatever we choose to do. My “3.2 list” is burgeoning–it’s gonna be a big one.

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