Urgh, I’m going to talk about LibGuides

Oh my god. I can’t believe I’ve just come home from my first day of Access to write a blog post defending LibGuides, surely one of the most ridiculed of all recent library trends. I might as well say “you know Second Life has a lot of pedagogical value.” I do not want to be that person.

LibGuide are a giant time-suck and they do allow for a lot of bad design decisions very easily. But the tone today on Twitter (#accessyyz) and in the room was weird—it was really derisive, as if the idea that subject librarians wanted to create web-based resource guides with an easy-to-use tool was ludicruous. As if someone who had not been brought up to develop web content would have any business trying to put content out there. Because I have to tell you: there are not a lot of other mechanisms available. 

And I’m trying.  A lot of us are. We want to get better, to have smarter conversations about design and development. That’s why I spent a lot of my PERA to come here, to a conference where I was sure I would be out of my depth at least part of the time. To get more comfortable with the language of programmers and developers and internet architects and all the people who are actually allowed to touch stuff and make stuff for users in a way that I am not.

Yes, the WYSIWYG LibGuide editor is a terrifying mess.  Yes, people seem to always want to use 5 more tabs than are required and branding and standards are not enforced, and there are often way too many links without description or proper spacing.

There’s a reason that librarians love LibGuides. You’re a subject librarian and you’re passionate about your subject and wish to share books, articles, databases, possible search strings, historical archives…whatever. But your HTML is medium, and who’s going to give you web space anyway? What is the mechanism available for you to share what you know (preferably through the library website)? Paper handouts? Tweet a series of suggestions? Start a facebook group for everyone majoring in Biology at your school?

That’s all I’m saying: LibGuides fill a need, and yes, something better could exist but it doesn’t.  The “HA! Who would use that crap!” attitude comes from a place of a person with options, with languages and space and an understanding that a lot of people lack. And yes, that means you should be in charge of most of the way information technology is used, but to scoff at a librarian for wanting to take hold of some small piece of their own career’s work is really harsh.

In this blog post Dana (who is also here this week) indicates that students don’t like them. I’m not sure where this research comes from, and whether it refers to discipline specific or course specific Guides. Anecdotally, I would make the opposite claim, but as a few pointed out in the Twitter stream, there doesn’t seem to be much real research.  This blog post also suggests the guides are unintuitive (not like any other library websites!). The tool is as intuitive as we choose to make them (or force others to make them…maybe easier said than done).  A long list is not the answer, but chunking information often is, passé tabs or not.

I am not lamenting for a time when students needed to come into the library and ask for help, but the growth of online resources has put a rather huge distance between the user and person who wishes to communicate with them. The solution is probably some combination of librarians building  up their skills, a more flexible tool that lets the institution make a lot of the parameters for some LibGuide-like CMS system, and some other ingredient (feeding students reading lists through their Google Glass?)

I anticipate some mild ribbing over this, so let me reiterate that this is not the hill I wish to die on. I am not morally invested in LibGuides, and agree with most criticism that was brought forward today. I just felt a bit surprised at the “why are they popular?” conversation – yes, librarians like them, but not only because they’re navel-gazers interested in cataloguing every single resource in an obnoxious format that confuses users for their own satisfaction.

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15 thoughts on “Urgh, I’m going to talk about LibGuides

  1. No ribbing here. I see pros and cons associated with libguides. My main problem with them is that in some cases, there’s no correlation between the amount of time and effort that goes into them and the amount of traffic they get.

    If your time is spent improving libguides (or marketing them) such that they reach the users in a measurable way, that’s time well spent. If your libguides are objectively getting a lot of use (traffic) or subjectively you’re regularly getting positive feedback on them from patrons, your time is well spent.

    And I want to reiterate one of your points – the environment you’re working in matters immensely. When a libguide is the only tool you have to make information available, you damn well *ought* to be using it.

    And anyway, libguides are nowhere near as ridiculed as z39.50, at least today. :)

    • Most of the LibGuides I build are used consortially…so I find it fairly easy to justify the maintenance of them (21 schools can use this! etc.)…but the truth is I actually don’t have a good system in place for reminding myself of maintenance issues. That’s not a LibGuide-exclusive problem but, their existing on a 3rd party site, it can be easy to forget them as part of general web updates.

      I’m still working with Z39.50 too, unfortunately. I’m ready for a good Access talk on the post-Z39.50 world any time.

  2. Oh my gahd, THANK YOU for writing this! This is *exactly* what I needed to read today:
    “The “HA! Who would use that crap!” attitude comes from a place of a person with options, with languages and space and an understanding that a lot of people lack. And yes, that means you should be in charge of most of the way information technology is used, but to scoff at a librarian for wanting to take hold of some small piece of their own career’s work is really harsh.”

    From a solo corporate librarian :-)

  3. I have so many feelings about this I hope I can express them all cogently.

    First of all, I’m sorry that the conference generated such a level of discomfort for you about something that you feel passionately about. I’m hoping that you can bring your perspective to the table without feeling shut-out or shutdown or belittled. I mean, srsly. We should be able to talk about things civilly, and if we can’t at Access I don’t know where we can.

    Second, as a reference librarian I understand the desire to do subject guides. Dare I say I was putting them together before you were out of grade school — or perhaps even born, I don’t know.

    Third, I know Slaven personally, and I know that he is a great guy, a brilliant coder, and someone who clearly knows how to put his finger on the pulse of a software need. I’ve watched his success post-ERes with some pride, having been involved at some level with Docutek where he got his start.

    Fourth, I am not bereft of doubts. My doubts stem from my complete lack of data about the use of these guides. I totally get our desire to do them, but I have NO CLUE whether they are used at a level that justifies the effort we put into them. Lacking such proof, I’m probably inclined to skew towards Dale Askey’s disdain for them. This is because in my own personal understanding of undergraduates they don’t think this way. They don’t think “Oh, I need to do a report on X, I will go to the library’s web site and find a guide that will tell me how to research the literature for this topic.” I don’t believe they do that at all. And until I see evidence that they do, I will remain skeptical.

    So in summary: I feel your pain, but I want data. Without data, we are simply left with our personal opinions and we all know where that leaves us. But please, don’t be discouraged. All of us are wrong at some point or another, and some of us (me) are wrong multiple times, and disastrously. You could very easily be right.

    • If you want data then look at your statistics, and compare the number of asset clicks to pageviews. I did, and it’s terrifying because pageviews outnumber asset clicks 3, 4 or 5 to 1 in most cases. This means that most times someone went to a LibGuide they left without clicking anything.

      Databases got quite a few clicks and sometimes books if they were key texts or handbooks. 76% of our assets had zero clicks all semester and even then there is a verrrrrry long tail of assets with only 1 or 2 clicks. The librarians spent untold hours creating massive lists of web resources and linking to items in the catalogue only to have nothing clicked on over three quarters of the time.

      What a waste of time and effort.

      We use LibGuides for our online guides to academic and computing skills and these got good usage but this content is highly used on every university library’s website regardless of the platform used to deliver it.

      The upshot – students and researchers are all busy people looking for a resource that will meet their need as quickly as possible. If (and that’s if!) they come to our subject guides they want some targeted databases or really relevant websites that can supplement their search of Google and our discovery layers and they don’t have time to care about our extensive lists of stuff that may just possibly maybe be useful someday to someone if their name if Fred Olly and they ate lamb cutlets the night before.

      I’m sure we can make LibGuides that meet our clients needs, but firstly we need to know what those needs really are and then deliver something punchy and targeted. I don’t know exactly what that looks like just yet (big UX testing happening next semester, which will hopefully provide some qualitative information…) but I can guarantee it will be “less is more”.

  4. Hi Roy,

    I want to assure you, I did not feel uncomfortable in the room at any point. I knew many of the people commenting and respect them immensely. I did not feel belittled, only that something was missing. I only want to suggest that, coming from the non-programming side of library functions, LibGuides offer a lot in terms of web presence.

    I too am very interested in the data. As I said, when I show them to students they use and like them – but I’m not even sure how often students find their way to them without help!

    I’m still new to the library world, and to library technology especially, and I expect to be wrong many, many times :)

    – Jacqueline

    • Recent study here: Subject Guides in Academic Libraries: A User-Centred Study of Uses and Perceptions/Les guides par sujets dans les bibliothèques académiques : une étude des utilisations et des perceptions centrée sur l’utilisateur
      Dana Ouellette
      From: Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science
      Volume 35, Number 4, December / décembre 2011
      pp. 436-451 | 10.1353/ils.2011.0024

  5. That’s good, I’m glad that the environment was not completely hostile to your point of view, as that would not be good. I totally get the fact that being able to use some simple “what you see is what you get” kind of editing tools is a good thing. It sure beats wikis, hands down!

    Meanwhile, if students like them when they are shown them then perhaps we need to figure out how to put them in front of them rather than expecting them to somehow discover them on their own. Perhaps integration with any web site they are *required* to use? Do you have a course management system, for example, where the faculty require them to visit to do their work? Integration there would be awesome.

    • I routinely send the link to course Libguides to instructors for inclusion in BlackBoard – that’s where the students are doing their work.

  6. Re the data. Couple of things we have observed at UIUC. First, almost half million views on our LG in FY13. Couple of the LG have more than 30,000 views alone. A gross indicator of value. Second, certain guides are “in use” for specific courses and yet see hits when courses not in session … Seems students go back to them. Some indicator of value. Third, yes – integration is important. Still working on getting them in the LMS and portal in automated way. But, do have them integrated into our local search system (EasySearch) and in discovery layer (Primo). Thinking that the student who types in a search for abortion is likely better served by a LibGuide to give path for researching the topic than just the random top hits in any database. Not foolproof. What I don’t have is data on referring URL to know if anyone every clicks on those links.

    Random thoughts from LG administrator for a very heavy LG- using place….

  7. First of all let me say, I never intended to be unnecessarily derisive. Rather I wrote the post to hopefully spark some debate about a product that almost every academic library has completely bought into with seemingly very little critical assessment (and yes it’s a tool that I like Dale disdain).

    I really should be going to bed rather than attempting to defend myself on the web. You raise some good points, and I welcome the criticism of my blogpost or my LibGuides research. But I do feel the need to raise a few counterpoints.

    1) you seem to be coming at the issue from from the perspective of the subject librarian. And you aren’t wrong to do so. I am a liaison librarian as well as Web Services (in small colleges we all wear a lot of hats), and subject librarians have a lot of subject specific knowledge that they want to and should share to students. However, this is where we seem to depart. My libguides research (and my strongly worded personal criticism on my blog) are not librarian centred. They are student centred. I use the word “student-centred” in my paper on libguides and all conference presentations i’ve made on Libguides. I think the best question to ask is not “What is the mechanism available for you (subject librarian) to share what you know?” The question is do students want that information? if so how do they want it presented to them? I’m coming from a very student-centred place. I want to design websites that are intuitive and that students want to use. In my experience and my research (please do actually read my article) students do not use or like libguides.

    I think LibGuides are very often not student centred at all. They are Often made by librarians for librarians. Perhaps John Fink is right, and they should be an internal staff told. LibGuides are not designed to be intuitive for the end user or student centred. For me it’s all about the students. If they don’t want it, and aren’t using it, then we don’t need it. I agree with Roy here, there isn’t a lot of data on this (and the data that exists is skewed because analytics is recording a hit every time a staff member visits the Libguide or edits it), but in reality this just isn’t how an 18 year old undergrad thinks or uses the library website.

    2) I also strongly dislike the fact that many librarians are trying to design good websites with a good user experience and intuitive information architecture, and then we send students off to an outdated 3rd party source with tab navigation so it looks like amazon circa 2004. I’ve done a lot of usability testing of libguides and always get comments like “if they look like a website designed in 2004 what would make me think the content is from 2012?

    I do not want to strongly criticize your view. Like i said you raise some valid points. But I would ask you to consider if we in the library community should be developing tools that subject librarians like to use and make subject librarians happy, or if we should focus on building tools that our users want to use? Hopefully we can get to a point where both are possible, but LibGuides isn’t that product.

    I still stand by my blogpost. I think LibGuides is really poorly designed. And it plays to the worst bad habits we in the library field have. I do however apologize if you you thought it was overly harsh or derisive. That was not my intent.

    See Also:
    Hintz, Kimberley, Paula Farrar, Shirin Eshghi, Barbara Sobol, Jo-Anne Naslund, Teresa Lee, Tara Stephens, and Aleha McCauley. 2010. “Letting Students Take the Lead: A UserCentered Approach to Evaluating Subject Guides.” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 5: 39-52.

    Ouellette, Dana (2011). Subject guides in academic libraries: A user-centered study of uses and perceptions (top ranked). Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 35(4).

    • Hi Dana,

      As I said on Twitter: I appreciate anyone taking a critical look at a much loved/heavily marketed tool. It’s so easy to jump on board with something because other schools are using it, and I’m glad you wrote what you did.

      I certainly plan to read your article (though right now I’m supposed to be getting ready to walk Signal Hill so it will probably be tonight). And I certainly appreciate your taking a user-centred approach, but it leaves me wondering: what do students, especially new students, *know* they want to use? I work with a lot of freshmen, and they often have very little sense that a library website even exists, let alone what they expect from it.

      I await another more flexible tool. You’ve obviously done a lot of thinking and research on this, while I dashes off a mouthy blog post, but I think you’re also at an institution and a position where there’s some flexibility in your website. There are so many library websites that are so terrible and massive and slow to change, the simple layout of a LibGuide (if you keep it simple!) really can have a lot to offer.

      And now I am going to go up a less metaphorical hill I also don’t wish to die on. Talk to you soon!

      • I guess in sum, they’re not so great…they’re just a flexible tool than most of us have access to now. There’s a lot of people frustrated with their terrible library website but without the tools or permission to make any changes, and these are an easy (maybe lazy, maybe just doable) alternative.

        ETA: I’m sorry for not condensing and editing this better…but I just wanted to add that “how do we share what we know” is not a silly question – it’s a fundamental question for educators, and the dichotomy between ‘sharing what we know’ (ie being broadcasting old geezers) and ‘giving students what they want’ (which makes me think of degree mills, MOOCs) is not, I think, a useful one. The question “How do we share what we know in a way that is approachable and useful to students as they move through their education?” is a real, good question that we should be asking ourselves all of the time.

  8. I agree – Libguides like any tool can be used badly or well. And while clunky, they do allow authors to spend the time focusing on content, not code. I hand coded most of two early versions of our website, and Libguides allow me to put better material up faster. And a singular advantage is that I can edit on the fly and often do to incorporate new content suggested by students, fix links and include material generated in classes.

  9. Pingback: An Anti-LibGuide Manifesto | Librarian In Training

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