Establishing a Strategic Vision for Our Library’s Web Presence

Picture of a spider web


Over the past 20 years, the University of Michigan Library has led the way on creating digital collections and establishing best practices around digital preservation that have become benchmark standards for other libraries. However, as our web presence expanded, it became increasingly difficult to adapt it at scale, keep pace with the changing needs of research, and create cohesion between a growing number of applications, sites, and services. It eventually became clear that a new model for web governance was needed. In this post, learn about the library’s history around its web governance and what led us to establish a new committee to create a vision and strategy for our web presence. You’ll also read about some of the committee’s accomplishments so far and learn how the committee’s members are supporting the recently launched Library Search application and the ongoing website redesign.

But First, a Bit of History

In the early years of the library website, work around usability and user research was carried out by the Usability Group, a volunteer committee of interested library staff. Management of the library website was overseen by the Web Systems department, led by Ken Varnum. From 2008-2009, a Library Web Team of four people managed the library website migration to Drupal and set development priorities through September 2012 when it was superseded by the Web Committee (WebCom). In 2010, the User Experience department was created under the leadership of Suzanne Chapman, and the Usability Group was disbanded.

WebCom was charged to “think strategically and holistically about new development for U-M Library user interfaces, define the scope of the work, identify and prioritize areas for improvement, and discuss and help problem solve issues.” This group made significant headway and was effective at helping with early governance efforts of cleaning up and managing content of the website.

All of this work eventually led to the hiring of a web content strategist in the User Experience department. Over time, however, it became increasingly unclear what WebCom’s responsibilities versus the content strategist’s were. Even after the new Design & Discovery (D&D) department was formed in 2015 (combining the User Experience and Web Systems departments), WebCom’s focus and authority continued to be unclear as D&D was now responsible for user experience research, design, and content strategy across the website. With a new department head for D&D, Rachel Vacek, arriving in August 2016, WebCom prepared a report earlier that summer that outlined existing web governance challenges, highlighted web governance models at peer institutions, and made some recommendations for moving forward. In Summer 2017, the content strategist position was turned into a Web Project Manager & Content Strategist position, enabling the person in that role, Heidi Burkhardt, to have key roles in leading both the Web Content Coordinators Group (WCCG) and the eventual website redesign project.

Financial Support and Need for Strategic Vision and Authority

Over the years, the library’s web presence had become an aggregate of disparate platforms, solutions, delivery models, and technologies, accumulated over several technological eras. Not only was there an increasing amount of technical debt, the uncoordinated approach to managing the myriad of interfaces combined with the lack of cohesion of the user experience across the web presence was making everything feel disjointed and difficult to use. We recognized there was still a need for higher level strategy, policy creation, vision setting, and decision making authority for the overall web presence.

In Summer 2017, as part of its annual budget request to the Provost, the library asked for and received funding to embark on a holistic approach to a comprehensive virtual space redesign, including the library’s website as the core, but extending more broadly to the library’s whole suite of web-based applications and products that have a public-facing user interface. This funding, which included additional positions, training and professional development, as well as equipment and software for a usability lab, has provided us with an opportunity to grow our capacity to improve, test, and better manage the user interfaces and experiences across our entire web presence.

Improving our web presence intersects with several of the library's overall goals: taking a strategic approach to space planning, transforming our organizational culture, and developing skills and capacity within our organization to become more user-centric and service-centered. The library recognized early on that one cannot think about reimagining spaces without thinking about the all the services, whether in-person or online, in those spaces. Additionally, the library embraced the concept that our physical spaces are intertwined with our virtual spaces, and both are critical parts of our library ecosystem.

Steering the Direction of the Web Presence

In October 2017, Heidi and Rachel presented a recommendation for a new web presence governing structure to the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology (LIT), Maurice York, and to the library’s Technology Alignment & Stewardship Committee (TASC). In February 2018, the Web Presence Steering Committee (WPSC) was established and introduced through a presentation at a Library All Staff Meeting. The WPSC was charged with providing governance over the web presence and with being the home and the coordinating center for the vision presented in the budget proposal. The purpose of the WPSC is to create, steward, and champion a focused, clear, and unified vision for the library’s public-facing web presence. The WPSC also has the authority to set direction and standards broadly for user interfaces, to make recommendations driven from the perspective of user needs, and to provide stewardship and guidance to ensure a cohesive and connected overall web presence. Additionally, the WPSC charges and serves and delegates some decision-making to other groups such as Web Content Coordinators Group, Intranet Team, Discovery and Access Advisory Group, the Search Communication Task Force, and the Website Redesign Project Team.

Members of the Web Presence Steering Committee
Members of the Web Presence Steering Committee

Although the WPSC is charged to focus on the library’s web presence, there were steps that needed to happen before the group considered looking through the wider lens. The launch of Library Search in July 2018 was one of the first major steps to redesigning our web presence. Its goal was to “unify the user experience for our various search interfaces, provide a modern technological platform for our discovery interface, and improve accessibility and usability for all our users.” Since its launch, the WPSC has supported, and will continue to support into the Winter 2019 semester, the communication efforts about and continued user research around Library Search.

The next area of focus for the WPSC was to create a vision and guiding principles for the library website and support the redesign project, which includes a new Drupal infrastructure, design, and information architecture, among many other improvements. WPSC’s role has included providing guidance to the Website Redesign Project Team on its plans and helping with  communication broadly, allowing the team to focus on the priorities, timeline, user research, content strategy, design, and development of the project itself. WPSC co-chairs Rachel Vacek and Alexa Pearce gave a presentation to the entire library in December 2018 with the goal of being transparent about the status, user research, assessment plan, and timeline for the website redesign project.

Looking Ahead

As the WPSC has discussed the differences between the website and the concept of our web presence, we’ve developed a deeper understanding of how we define web presence. Initially in our charge it was defined as “all products created and/or supported by the University Library that have a public-facing user interface,” but we have developed a new working definition to better describe the complexities of our web presence:

The library’s web presence refers broadly to all aspects of the library’s online presence, inclusive of the ways people interact with and encounter the library, via the website and through resources and applications the library owns or provides, as well as through social media, web search results, and other channels that impact our branding and identity.  

As the U-M Library increasingly understands that its physical and virtual spaces are not independent functions but should be considered an integrated whole, the WPSC's role in streamlining our virtual access points and harmonizing them with our physical spaces will be fundamental to our future success. Additionally, the expanding interest in service design across the library enables the WPSC to more easily apply a user-centered and service-focused approach to improving the experiences of our users and being more thoughtful as we plan for the future of our website, discovery tools, and our entire web presence.