Research moves fast. Policies and practices change quickly. Information flows rapidly. Google and other dynamic online services move with blistering speed. Libraries have a hard time keeping up.
I have recently been appointed Head of Research Services at TU Delft Library. One of my first tasks is to review how effectively our services, advice and support is communicated to the research community.
We have some great services. We have an Open Publishing Platform for hosting open access journals; along with the eight faculties we have a team of fast-moving Data Stewards; we have a strategy and expertise guidance in place to ensure that all necessary documentation from the university is archived in accordance with Dutch archival laws; we have a long-running archive for research data. There are many more.
And of course, the Library is not the only group running services for researchers. Our colleagues in ICT, Legal Services and Valorisation Centre all help staff during different aspects of the research life cycle
This creates a profusion of services. The services are good. But the way they are communicated is awful.
The rationale, help and background for all of these services are usually dumped on the university website. The ideal website is a sleek and concise piece of ingenious design, providing answers in seconds. Most university websites, however, are a sprawling mass of text and images, out of date or 404 pages, with conflicting or unclear information.
Going to the university website is like that moment you come back from a long holiday and find a mass of letters, brochures, business cards and magazines stuffed through your letterbox. Where to start?
I’ve not run any focus groups, but I suspect that researchers would find it difficult to find information about these university services. Most will resort to Google, or knocking or their neighbour’s door. These can be useful solutions, but they don’t necessarily point back to the library services. The library is leaking customers.
Before we try and find solutions to this, it’s worth looking at some of the particular problems we face in dumping all our service information on the university website. If we start to identify these, then we can start to create something better for researchers.
1) Siloed content – Services are not presented in an integrated way. For instance, one service for data management might be run by library, and a related one by ICT. But they do not refer to one another at all.
2) Guidance is text heavy – do visitors really like wading through long scrolls of text? Some might, but they are few. But others need quick, immediate guidance via text, image, video or walkthrough. (Additionally, how can we make the services themselves more intuitive so less guidance is needed?)
3) Excess of articles. Researchers are pressed for time. They want to concentrate on their research. So having multiple pages describe features will drive researchers to distraction
4) For editors and administrators, it’s not easy either. Publishing information via a website Content Management System can be a distressing usability experience. Often the website editor is not the expert on the actual service, leading to further difficulties in getting the right content online.
5) University websites are organisation focussed not service focussed; they are organised in a way that reflect how a department is line managed. (Good businesses never do this) But researchers don’t really care which service or department runs a tool they need – they just want to get access to the tool.
6) Lack of community ownership. This is a more intangible problem. Researchers often avoid library or other websites run by the support teams, because such websites don’t quite speak the researchers’ language. The don’t build up a sense of a user community. Truly great university services and related guidance would give researchers a stake in how these services are run and described
So, there we have it. Some of the key problems in advertising library and other services. I will follow this up with a second blog post looking at some of the solutions.