Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave? An Evaluation of Pennsylvania's Public Library Web Sites for a Basic Level of Web Presence and Beyond
By Bonnie S. Powers
Public libraries in Pennsylvania are at a critical juncture with regard to survival in light of the dwindling state budgetary funds allocated to them for collection development, staffing, programming, operations, etc. Often, a cut in state funding means a comparable cut in local funding. It is important that during this time of hardship, libraries maintain a high profile in the public eye and promote their value to their respective communities. One way to do this is by maintaining a vital Web presence through an effective Web site. This study seeks to determine how well Pennsylvania libraries are representing themselves on the Web.
Review of the Literature
Evaluating the effectiveness of library Web sites is not a new concept. One of the early
pioneers in this area, Mark Stover, together with Steven Zink, made a statement that still holds true today:
As one of several professions vying for leadership in the information age, one would expect librarians, whose task it is to 'package and present information in a way that best fits the client's attention and knowledge,' to offer some exemplary models of Web home pages.1
Stover and Zink conducted one of the first general evaluations of academic library Web sites. Around the same time, Clyde conducted one of the earliest evaluations of public library and school library home pages, using a random sample of 50 public libraries and 50 school libraries from 13 different countries. 2
At the time of the Stover and Clyde evaluations, there was no established criterion for use in measuring what makes a Web site effective. In the last 14 years, industry standards have been developed for both Web site assessments in general, and specifically, for library Web site effectiveness and evaluation. These standards include OCLC's Fourteen heuristics used in OCLC heuristic evaluations3, based on Nielsen's Ten usability heuristics4; W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines5; and the Research-Based Web and Usability Guidelines developed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.6 Guidelines and checklists for evaluation have also been proposed, established, or adapted through surveys and studies in addition to those of Stover and Clyde, including those of Alastair Smith, Helge Clausen, Merolyn Combs, Roslyn Raward and Dorian Selz and Petra Schubert, and Steve Krug. 7 Not all of these guidelines have been empirically proven. Many of the informal guidelines have been proposed as a result of case studies conducted about the creation or redesign of a particular library or library system's Web site like those described by Kaye Balke, Jennifer Duncan and Wendy Holliday, and Laura Manzari and Jeremiah Trinidad-Christensen. 8
There are also structured groups and organizations dedicated to determining best practices for Web site assessment and best methodologies for measuring assessment. These groups include the Digital Library Federation, which conducted a survey of its members about the types of assessments different institutions were using;9 MCCAWS (Making a Commercial Case for Adopting Web Standards), which has developed a Web Standards Primer containing information "every Web site owner should know about standards";10 and the Usability Professionals Association (UPA), promoting usability concepts and techniques worldwide.11
There is no one, single set of criteria for use in evaluating all aspects of the effectiveness of a Web site and many methods of evaluation may be employed, including heuristic (expert) evaluation, usability testing, accessibility checking, and information architecture assessment. Different instruments may also be used to measure within each method such as focus groups, card sorting, surveys, user scenarios user panels, and interviews12, among other variations on these instruments. Paul Jaeger found that a combination of complimentary evaluation methods affords the best site assessment13. Jinwoo Kim and Junwong Lee also pointed out that "the effectiveness of specific evaluation criteria may vary significantly between different types of websites."14 While most of these methods employ the use of more than one evaluator—a group of people other than the authors—Stover and Zink, Clyde, and Coombs acted alone as author-evaluators15. Raward adopted a modified heuristic usability checklist based on Keevil's Web Usability Index Checklist as an instrument specifically designed to be administered by a single evaluator. Raward points out that one disadvantage of using only one evaluator is that "bias could be introduced into the interpretation of the questions used in the checklist and the answers given."16 Bias was reduced in the Raward study by using questions that required a Yes or No answer; conducting pilot evaluations; and by having the questions checked by experts.
While much of what can be found in the literature comes from studies done in academic environments, in addition to the early Coombs and Clyde studies, which evaluated public libraries. Balke, in her Master's Paper, conducted a redesign of the Durham County Public Library site using the Library, first, as a case study to critique the original Web site, then using the critique to propose a new design. Using all available research, guidelines and established criteria pertaining to the characteristics of good Web design, Balke identified critical criterion for the Web site redesign project as follows: visual consistency, efficient maintenance, hierarchical information architecture, persistent, content-revealing global navigation, separation of content from presentation, and adherence to accessibility guidelines. 17 She then established two evaluation criterion to be used to evaluate the Web page redesign: (a) an evaluation based on W3C standards, W3C Content Accessibility Guidelines (WGAG), and Section 508 compliance using selected automation evaluation tools; and (b) a modified version of the scenario evaluation method used by Menno de Jong and Leo Lentz18 using an evaluation instrument including three scenarios with three information-seeking tasks per scenario. The same two library staff members (evaluators) rated the original and new designs for visual consistency, navigation, and findability. As part of the study, the author first conducted a qualitative evaluation of the original Web site concentrating on information architecture, navigation, visual consistency, accessibility, and workflow.
Still other authors have focused on the more difficult-to-measure, more subjective question of what makes a good Web site. Brian Matthews proposed ten essentials for any library site (promotion, segmentation, visual cues, inspiring photos, search boxes, mobile-friendly pages, feedback, redundancy, analytics, and an easy way to ask for help) and went on to state that libraries should:
be aware of the message your library's web site sends. If the homepage is confusing, then patrons will undoubtedly perceive the library to be complex. If the site is filled with links and widgets, then users might feel overwhelmed or frustrated. If the design looks out-of-date, the patrons will likely feel that your library is also behind the times.19
Marshall Breeding, who stated that he does not consider himself to be an expert on the aesthetic aspects of Web design or usability, is a strong believer in coding Web pages to standards with valid HTML analogizing that "After all, we wouldn't want records in our library database that didn't properly conform to MARC standards."20 Breeding also believes that standards-compliant pages will migrate well and be much more likely to display correctly and consistently for site visitors.
Davidson and Yankee emphasized the difference between testing and evaluating a
Within an application that relies on qualitative measure, such as an ease of searching, ability to locate items, and satisfaction with search results, testing is much less important than the effort involved up front in design… Use a test [only] if you want to improve a performance standard, such as time to complete a task, or if you need to obtain quantitative information. Otherwise, collect quantitative data through evaluation.21
The authors go on to state "remember—you are evaluating the interface, not the
participant's ability to perform the tasks…it's a test (or evaluation) of the interface, not of them"22
In creating the 2020 Vision for Idaho libraries, and in order to determine the current status of public library Web sites statewide, the Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICFL) created a working definition of a web presence as "a vital website that provides information about or access to library services"23 and went on to establish criteria for a basic level of web presence for public libraries. The ICFL then went about reviewing each of the 104 Idaho public libraries. Only five library websites met all the criteria for a web presence.
There are as many opinions as to what factors are most important in Web site evaluation as there are Web sites. There are many sets of criterion. There are numerous methodologies that can be employed. However, for the purposes of this study, the criteria established by ICFL will be used to determine how many Pennsylvania libraries' Web sites maintain a basic level of Web presence. The study will also evaluate the Web sites based on additional criteria derived from industry and research-based standards, like those used by Matthews, Raward and Balke. Simply put, "because of its importance, we need to know more about the effectiveness of library Web sites, how they are used, what features our users like, and what is confusing to them."24 A broad evaluation with a strong foundation in the literature will provide a snapshot of where public library Web sites in Pennsylvania stand today, which will provide a basis for further evaluation and suggestions for overall improvement.
Using the definition established by the ICFL, this study will define "Web presence" as "a vital Web site that provides information about or access to library services."25 Using the criteria identified by ICFL, the author developed a checklist for use in evaluating the Web sites (Appendix A). The first ten criteria identify what is necessary to meet the standard for having a basic level of Web presence as follows:
Library address (both physical and mailing)
Library phone number
Online contact (email address or online contact form)
Hours of operation
Library board members names
Link to the online catalog
Link to statewide collaborative services
Description of library services available to patrons
Current site content indicated by a date when last updated or last reviewed
Criteria 11-18 identify additional, desirable features of a "good" Web site, such as
those identified by Matthews26, including:
Mixture of text and images
Library events being promoted on the page
Search box present
Place to provide feedback about the site
Free from spelling or grammatical errors
Place to ask for help
Image or icon or other graphic used to represent the library
Site employs some Web 2.0 technologies like blogs or wikis or reference to a social networking profile
Using information provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)27 , the author downloaded the names and other data for 629 points of contact (public libraries in Pennsylvania, including central and branch libraries) to use in drawing a random sample for evaluation. Using the Sample Size Calculator28 with a confidence interval set at 95% and a confidence interval set at 4, the random sample size was set at 305 of the 629 library points of contact. Using a coin toss to determine odds or evens, the author began the evaluation with number one on the list, looking at every other library until the 305 random sample set was achieved. If a library on the list did not have a Web site, or a functioning Web site, the author skipped to the next odd-numbered library on the list, going back to fill in as needed with even-numbered libraries. All Web sites were viewed between April 17, 2010 and October 2, 2010. The author used a Y or an N to code the Yes or No answers. The coded data was entered into an Excel spreadsheet. In addition to the coded data entered for 1-18, if the answer to number 10 on the checklist (current site indicated by a date when last updated or last reviewed) was yes or Y, the author noted the date of the last update as well as the date the site was viewed. An additional column indicates the author's subjective categorization of the complexity of the Web site with "S" standing for a site that is part of a larger, library system site; "M" standing for "minimal" for a site with between one and four pages and few, if any, links; and "L" representing libraries with sites consisting of more than 4 pages, several layers deep, with many links. This data is included on the spreadsheet for informational purposes only and was not included in the author's analysis of the Y/N coded criteria.
Data Analysis Results
Only 5% (16 out of 305) of Pennsylvania's public libraries meet the standard for basic level of Web presence. Eighty-eight percent of libraries meet at least 7 out of 10 criteria (see figure 1), while 37% meet at least 5 out of 8 beyond basic criteria (see figure 2), and 15% meet at least 15 out of 18 total criteria evaluated (see figure 3).
Only 1 library out of 305 meets all 18 criteria. Only one library didn't meet criteria number one (name), making that the highest rated category in the first ten criteria (99.7%). Twenty percent of libraries meet criteria number ten (current site content indicated by date), making that category the lowest rated in the first ten criteria, while only 42% list library board member names (#6). However, 43% of libraries are using some form of Web 2.0 technologies on their sites (Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, blogs, RSS subscription, etc.). The highest rated category in 11-18 was having no grammatical or spelling errors (93%), while the lowest rated category in 11-18 was having a place to ask for help (30%). Eight out of ten of the highest rated categories were categories in the basic level range, while two categories from 11-18, number 15 (grammar and spelling) and number 12 (promotion of library events), rounded out the top ten highest rated categories. (See Figure 4 for a graphic summary of the evaluation criteria results.)
1-Library name 9-Online contact 17-Help
2-Address 10-Services 18-Date
3-Hours 11-Image or icon
4-Phone number 12-Text & images
5-Grammar and spelling 13-Web 2.0
6-Link to catalog 14-Board member names
7-Events promotion 15-Feedback
The data analysis reflects that a significant number of public libraries in Pennsylvania are not meeting the standard for a basic level of Web presence. The data also reflects that a significant number of libraries are not paying attention to features beyond the basics that would enhance the content and appearance of their Web sites. Thirty-two percent of libraries are not describing services available to patrons. Twenty-eight percent do not have a point of online contact—either an email address or form. Considering that whoever is looking at the site is online, there should be a way for that potential patron to communicate with the organization via the Web. Most libraries are promoting events, statewide collaborative services, and the online catalog (if there is one). But a significant number do not make mention of these important features on their Web sites.
In addition, what the data analysis does not reflect, but which the author noted upon evaluation of the Web sites, is that a significant number of public library Web sites are rudimentary—under-developed and out–of-date with respect to current Web technologies and lackluster in appearance and difficult to navigate smoothly. While 64% of libraries do use some sort of image or graphic to represent the library on the Web site, the overwhelming majority of those images are simply photographs or drawings of the library itself. Few are using any kind of branding. The author noted that few are using HTML validated text. Many are not utilizing hyperlinks. Sometimes the information being sought by the author/evaluator was there, but very difficult to find.
Unfortunately, there are many more examples of bad Web sites than there are stellar ones. However, the Web sites that stand out—including many of those that meet at least 15 out of the 18 criteria—have many things in common. Upon first glance, the Web site looks organized, polished, and professional and conveys the message that the library is also organized, polished, and professional. There is no initial confusion about where to find information, and since libraries everywhere are striving to attain leadership positions in this age of information that is no small accomplishment. The best sites convey the image of the library as being an accessible source for retrieving usable information while being technologically up to date.
The best sites not only contain all or most of the information set forth in the evaluation criteria, but they are also easy to navigate with clear headings and links and several ways to find information. The author selected four sites that exemplify the qualities of a good Web site. Three of the four chosen are the only three that met either 17 or 18 out of the 18 criteria. The sites that met 17 elements were both lacking the same element—current site content indicated by a date when last updated or reviewed. The fourth site meets 15 out of 18 criteria (lacking a date of review, a search box and a place to ask for help). These sites are: Green Tree Public Library (http://www.greentreelibrary.org/discover.html); Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (http://www.clpgh.org /); Pike County Public Library (http://www.pcpl.org/ ); and West Pittson Library (http://www.wplibrary.org /). Of these sites, the author will take a closer look at Pike County using the evaluation checklist.
The name of the library is prominent, along with a symbol representing the library (branding) instead of a photograph of the building. The address, phone number and email contact are clearly listed at the bottom of the page. Branches and hours can be found in the "About us" drop-down menu. Library board member names can be found in the same menu under administration. There is a drop-down menu with links to the catalog and other resources as well as state-wide collaborative services like Ask Here PA and Power Library, along with a search box at the top of the page to search the catalog from the home page. Programs and services can be found via the drop-down menu under "About us" (Programs and services A-Z) as well as via the site map, which is linked at the bottom of the page. Although there is not a date of last update noted, it is clear from the calendar on the home page that the site is current. There is a mixture of text and images on all pages and library events are clearly and conspicuously being promoted on the home page. There is a search box at the top of the page that can be used to search either the catalog or the events and news sections of the site. There is a "suggestion box" feature to provide feedback and a clear link to "Ask a Librarian 24/7" to ask for help. The site is free from obvious grammatical or spelling errors. The site features on its home page a link to its Facebook profile and a patron can "like" Pike County Library right from the home page. The site has a link at the bottom for "blogs". Clicking on the link brings up a pop-up window that says "coming soon!" which informs the user of the library's intention to create blogs in the future even though none are present at the moment. There are no broken or outdated links.
In addition to meeting virtually all of the basic and beyond evaluation criteria, on its homepage, the site has a site map, the ability to change font size for viewing, a link to the library newsletter, a PayPal donation link, a place to sign up for the email mailing list, mission statement, suggested materials, comprehensive drop-down menus with links to a wide variety of resources for adults, children and teens. The site is not confusing, is pleasing to the eye, and easy to use.
Limitations of the Study
As noted by Raward, one disadvantage of using only one evaluator is that "bias could be introduced into the interpretation of the questions used in the checklist and the answers given."29 However, also noted, is that using questions that require only a yes or no answer can reduce this bias. There is some subjectivity involved with answering questions such as whether "services" were described on the Web site or "a place to ask for help" or "is there a mixture of text and images". These require subjective determination as to what are "services", what defines a "place to ask for help" and how many images are required to constitute a "mixture of text and images". However, the criteria evaluated for a basic level of Web presence (1-10) require much less subjective evaluation than the criteria 11-18. Checking for spelling and grammar was done by looking at two pages of content; therefore, the author did not check every page of every site for correct spelling and grammar. While the author made a diligent effort to seek out every criterion for every library evaluated, some features that were in fact present could have been overlooked and marked as not being present. However, if a criterion such as "a place to ask for help" was that hard to find, it is not being used in a way to best serve patrons anyway. Also, Web sites are fluid, constantly (hopefully) changing. The author looked at each site at one specific point in time. Something on the site could have been changed the very next moment after having been evaluated. Finally, because branch libraries were included in the data set as separate points of contact and many branch libraries do not have individual Web sites but are instead a page or blurb on a larger system's Web page, the same site was viewed multiple times, but from different vantage points. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Free Library of Philadelphia are two such systems.
Conclusions and Recommendations for Future Studies
Most public library Web sites are in need of renovation. Libraries are missing an important opportunity to put their best faces forward on the Web. Libraries and librarians—whose job it is to provide access to information—should be providing better access to their own libraries' information. The ten criteria for a basic level of Web presence provide a starting point for self-evaluation by libraries. The beyond basic criteria provide additional, desirable elements of an effective Web site for libraries to consider including on their home pages. This study provides a snapshot of where public libraries in Pennsylvania stand today on the Web. Future studies might focus on evaluating the complexity of public library Web sites or the use of validated HTML text. Future studies might also consider the library's Web presence measured against library size, service area, budget or location.
Unfortunately, the current economic climate does not provide public libraries in Pennsylvania with the funding necessary to cover all their bases. Understandably, many seem to have put Web design on the backburner. However, a vital, effective Web presence could be one key to elevating the profile of public libraries in the eyes of potential patrons. With hours and staff being cut across the board in Pennsylvania, the Web site is one way in which the library can remain open, unstaffed, 24 hours a day. A robust Web presence could make a difference in ways that would justify the cost of renovation and maintenance of the site. Untangling the Web and meeting a basic level of Web presence and beyond are goals worthy of all Pennsylvania public libraries to seek to achieve.
Checklist for Use in Evaluating Pennsylvania Public Library Web Sites
Criteria for a basic level of web presence:
Library name ____ ____
Library address, both physical and mailing (including
branch Information if applicable) _____ _____
Library phone number _____ _____
Online contact (e-mail address or online contact form) _____ _____
Hours of operation _____ ______
Library board member names _____ ______
Link to the online catalog _____ ______
Link to state-wide collaborative services _____ ______
Description of library services available to patrons _____ ______
Current site content indicated by a date when last
updated or last reviewed ______ ______
Criteria for evaluation beyond the basics:
Is there a mixture of text and images? _____ ______
Are library events being promoted on the page
Is there a search box present? _____ ______
Is there a place to provide feedback about the site
Is the site free from spelling and/or grammatical errors? _____ _____
Is there a place to ask for help? _____ _____
Is there an image or icon or other graphic used to
represent the library? ______ _____
Does the site employ any Web 2.0 technologies like
blogs or wikis or reference to a social networking profile? _____ _____
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