I love books. If you know me in real life, you probably know this because every room of my house is filled with books and I have a bad habit of pressing them on people because I was reminded of them as I read. I have hundreds more books in my Kindle, but at least I can’t hand them to scarcely-willing people and insist they read them.
I read several books a week, and always have one (or more, maybe lots more) with me. I like physical books, virtual books, books on e-readers, picture books, old books, and new books. Naturally, I have always loved libraries, because they are filled with books.
And yet I haven’t been to a library in years.
We’ve been talking about a website with a library recently, and it struck me, as I looked at an assortment of library websites, that libraries have a bit of a problem, and their websites could help with it.
A growing number of people feel that libraries are obsolete. Information, media, and stuff to read is available within moments to anyone with an internet connection — I can have books delivered to my phone in about three minutes any time I like with a free Kindle app (many of the books are free, too), and of course most of the information I need for practical purposes is free online instantly. Google is just as good at answering questions as many human librarians are, and book clubs meet in coffee shops now. Libraries aren’t really the best source of books any more, because they run out — even on Kindle, they have waiting lists, and often they don’t yet have the newest books in — the ones you get announcements of from Amazon, for example, or see people tweeting about. It would be cheaper to set up free internet kiosks all over town than to continue to support libraries.
This attitude is not necessarily correct, but it’s definitely out there — among people who vote on whether to support the library with tax dollars, and who decide whether to donate to their public libraries.
As we looked at library websites to get an idea of how they’re being structured these days, we saw a lot of websites like this:
I’m not trying to be critical of these libraries. These websites were fine when they were built, I’m sure. They just haven’t been updated in some years. They don’t work well on modern browsers. They don’t provide a lot of information. One proudly announces that it has had, since 2008, an average of slightly less than 100 visits a week, a very small number of visitors. They sure look like they belong to something that is obsolete.
Libraries have limited budgets and they want to spend money on books and librarians, not on websites. But they may be making an error.
What about this website, from the Arlington Public Library?
This website, built in WordPress so the staff can easily update it, shows books the way we’re used to seeing them now — with a picture of the cover. They have multiple events, input from visitors, an up to date blog, videos of lectures and interviews, intriguing information about lots of different things — it’s a lot like actually being at a library.
The libraries that own the outdated websites above are not, I’m sure, anything like their websites. They are probably filled with cool books and interesting community events and great conversations. None of that has reached their websites.
Which website do you suppose gets more votes, volunteers, and visitors? I can tell you that the Arlington library got an award from their city this year (I know because it’s on their website). Just like businesses, nonprofit organizations have to accept that for most of their constituents, their website is the first contact. If the website is so outmoded that it’s also the last contact, the nonprofit loses out.