To work in a library in the early 21st century is to live amid a swirl of contradictions, as technological advances frequently outpace our organizational efforts to deliver the very services such advances enable. Delivering on the promise of technology requires us to grasp the future quickly, and to build organizations that can make the broadest and most positive impacts, while curbing technology’s ill effects. And there is perhaps no better example of these challenges than the library website.

Most library websites today are a loosely joined array of silos: catalogue discovery, event listings, kids’ programs, and interfaces for media, music, and e-books. But with the rise of mobile access, web design has seen a fundamental shift, from presenting static information to allowing interaction and helping people define what is most important to them, wherever they are. This is fundamentally changing the ways libraries approach their websites. And it is presenting a challenge to library administrators, as the functionality and interactivity possible today can often clash with long-held library values and ideas about information control.


It’s a common problem in the digital age: as librarians design new web services, we often quickly outstrip the library’s ability to maintain a cohesive web presence. The results so far have been the creation of digital collections portals, which are usually splintered off from the main library site. But as we leave behind the old website model of layout, hierarchy, and site navigation, we must now consider what information our users actually want, and how to deliver it to them efficiently.

For example, the New York Public Library (NYPL), with 92 branches, has built a new standalone geographically responsive web app called Locations, designed specifically to support mobile patrons. It can alert users to events and offerings at the branch closest to them in real time, wherever they stand in the city. And as we work to provide as many services as possible to users now holding smartphones with vast computing power, it is possible that the Locations app could “eat” all the other features that the library offers.

But the design and development of new, feature-rich web services such as Locations runs headlong into a number of challenges. One prominent example is our struggle to define privacy for patrons of a 21st-century library (a topic that I will be return to repeatedly in this column).

Privacy in the digital age is something quite different than it used to be. Rather than refusing to collect information about what patrons are doing (libraries are always collecting data), the struggle is to give users more control over the data that websites and services collect about them in the first place.

That means preserving anonymity by design wherever possible (for example, in the circulation records of print books) and fostering user awareness and transparent configuration everywhere else. When it comes to online privacy, we must protect the user, but we also want to deliver services, like NYPL does with Locations.

This is why current web design focuses on “cards” instead of pages. Cards are visual design elements that present users with opportunities to interact with specific information, thereby prioritizing the topics of greatest interest.

A card on a future library mobile site, for example, might recognize me when I log in, know that my home branch is in the West Village of Manhattan, and alert me to a reading there this evening by an author whose e-books I have often checked out. Within that card, I could decide to register for that event, or dismiss it. If I choose to attend, the app could handle my registration (since the library holds my profile information) and ask for verification of my payment information if there is a fee or suggested donation.

Once I arrive at the library, the app will know that I have arrived, and it can show me an alert card with a map leading me to the event space, with another card showing an essay in an online journal that the author will be discussing, and yet another card noting that my friends Erin and Allen are also present. I can even send them a text message using the same card, to let them know I’m there. And when I leave, the app can ask if I want to borrow the author’s latest work.

Sounds powerful, right? While such an application would surely generate a few serious policy issues for libraries, make no mistake: it is well within our reach.


The biggest challenge to such a powerful online future for libraries may not be in the policy questions, nor in the design, but with library management. That’s because for many library managers, “there’s no there, there.”

Managers might wonder: where is the site layout? Where is the navigation? In this sense, a library’s website design is a mirror of its organizational soul. And this basic miscommunication between modern web design and traditional library management is the tip-off that the struggle to define new library services is not just about setting policy, and certainly not about technology, but about organization.

The older framework for managing a library website (like the library organization itself) was centered on information control: that is, controlling which information is presented to the user, and how that information is structured. Today, however, the focus is on enabling users to do new things.

Certainly there can be compromise. But a fundamental question looms: how do you build a library where librarians and staff can think and act collaboratively, working toward services and interactions across silos, focusing on what people want rather than what the library thinks it should do?

Business schools have long maintained that organizations have not done enough to challenge our traditional structures, or the ways we evaluate performance. This is surely among the greatest challenges facing libraries. How do we make our libraries nimble? How do we empower our staff as they strive to empower our users?

It’s a key challenge for libraries. As influential management expert Gary Hamel recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “We’ve denounced bureaucracy, but haven’t dethroned it. And now we must.”

PW Picks:

Going to the ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting? Interested in library technology at Midwinter? Don’t miss LITA’s Top Technology Trends, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, 10:30 a.m., at McCormick Place West, room W183a. A panel of library-technology experts and thought leaders will discuss the changes and advances in technology they see having an impact on the library world, suggesting what libraries might do to take advantage of these trends.

Or, if e-books are your thing, check out the ALA OITP/ALA DCWG session Libraries and E-Books: Where Do We Go From Here? also Sunday, Feb. 1, 10:30 a.m., at McCormick Place West, room W196b.

PW contributing editor Peter Brantley is director of digital library applications at the New York Public Library, and the founder of the annual Books in Browsers conference. This is the first edition of his column, Books and Browsers, which will run monthly in PW.