Sunday, 15 June 2014

Library audiences: talking to the other 54%

A couple of months back I had an interesting Twitter conversation with some local government comms folk which got me wondering why so few English public library services have much in the way of child-centred content on their web sites. I asked the very splendid Ian Anstice if he could canvass for examples of good practice on his Public Libraries News site. The good news is that he got some positive responses, including Devon's "The Zone" and Stories from the Web; the bad news is that there are so very few examples. Ian's musings on this point are here.

For me there are a few contributory factors to this famine:

  • The web is still seen as largely "something other" to the public library's service offer. At best a way of promoting activities in the library and somewhere to keep the catalogue and the e-books; at worst an abstraction of resources from beleaguered libraries. (There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, thank Heaven!)
  • If you're doing it right it's going to take time and people to do it. These are increasingly scarce resources.
  • It's difficult to reconcile the needs of a children's page with those of a council's corporate branding, particularly if the brand requires a single monolithic corporate voice.
  • It's a complex and sometimes unforgiving audience: what's great for a five year-old may be acceptable to a seven year-old but puerile to a nine year-old and beyond the pale to an eleven year-old.
  • There's often a confusion as to whether the audience is the child or the parent. Ironically, the younger the intended audience the older the people you're going to be talking to.
Despite these problems there are still some things that can be done without too much expense and hassle.

Customer-created content
There are easy ways of adding children's voices to your content:
  • If your OPAC includes the facility to publish readers' ratings and reviews, actively encourage children's reviews. You might need to do it for them; if so, an ethical solution would be to set up a dummy customer account specifically for posting them.If you have children's reading groups, encourage the groups to post their reviews, too.
  • You'll probably already include links to writers' web sites with the rest of their works in your catalogue; why not also include links to appropriate fan sites?
  • If your children's reading groups have their own web pages link to them from your site.
  • Many OPACs have the facility to build saved lists and incorporate them into URLs to create canned searches. Canvas ideas for reading lists, "top tens" and the like and build them into links in your site. If you can present these as carousel galleries of books covers - yay!!!
  • If you have good working relationships with schools and youth workers, get them involved, too.

    Changing rooms

    If you can't have child-centred pages on your council's web site, can you provide separate versions of your OPAC for children?
    • The basic model would just be to have a version of the OPAC that's limited to the children's collections (this is where we're at in Rochdale at the moment).
    • A modification of this would be to change the wording for this version's home page and search forms (which could probably do with simplifying anyway). You'll need to be pretty clear about which particular audience(s) you're addressing here. You might want to do a CBeebies/CBBC split.
    • If you have a useful working relationship with your comms people and if your corporate brand is either flexible enough to deliver or allows permissible exclusions in particular circumstances, then you could do some interesting work on the stylesheets, etc. to make the look and feel more friendly. This isn't necessarily about using primary colours and Comic Sans (catalogue records look really horrible in Comic Sans, I've tried it). It's usually about: 
      • Simplifying elements, or eliminating them altogether. Is the link to the corporate web site useful to a nine year-old?
      • Adding pages specifically aimed at your audience. The obvious ones would be your help pages.
      • Illustrating ideas and instructions with graphics.
      • Perhaps even having its own character-based branding (like Bookstart Bear).
    These are just a few potential quick-win options. Given time and resources there's a lot more that could be done but I think there's a danger of ignoring the basics in pursuit of the cutting edge and sexy.

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