How Usable Are School Library Websites? A Random Sample from All Fifty States

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Anthony S. Chow, Ph.D. Associate Professor, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Rebecca J. Morris, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Library and Information Studies

Amy Figley, MLIS

Karla Regan, MLIS candidate, Eastern Guilford High School Librarian

Samantha Lam, MLIS, Smithfield-Selma High School Librarian

Jessica Sherard, MLIS, Grimsley High School Librarian

Chow, Anthony S., Rebecca J. Morris, Amy Figley, Karla Regan, Samantha Lam, and Jessica Sherard. How Usable Are School Library Websites? A Random Sample from All Fifty States. Journal of Research on Libraries & Young Adults 7 (2016): n. page. Web. <Date accessed>.

Abstract

This study examines the basic design layout, content, and usability of 300 randomly sampled elementary (n = 100), middle school (n = 100), and high school (n = 100) library websites representing all fifty states in the United States. Of the schools selected, 102 of the school librarians also completed a survey examining their libraries’ information and service priorities, site maintenance, and primary users. The results show that the majority of school library websites contain information intended for students but rate low on recommended youth-oriented website standards for cognitive, affective (or emotional), and general design best practices regardless of the age group served. Trends in design layouts and content were also identified. Major implications of the study include a best-practices checklist and preliminary design and content guidelines to help school librarians create more age-appropriate websites for their students.

Introduction

This study explores how best practices identified through the growing body of research in cognitive information-seeking behaviors and website design are applicable to the general usability of school library websites. Research suggests significant differences between how adults and youth seek information and their preferences in seeking information in online digital environments.[i] Given the growing body of knowledge about these differences, our study sought to explore several questions: What does a typical school library website look like in terms of design and content? How does it compare to research-based best practices? And is it age-appropriate-designed more for youth or adults?

Literature Review

To better understand the efficacy of school library website design, it is essential to understand the context in which teachers, librarians, and students seek and use information. Based on a growing body of research, information-seeking differences between adults and youths appear to be largely due to affective and cognitive factors and widely variant goals. Adults are generally more confident, able to process and sift through large amounts of less concrete information, and, in general, are goal-oriented.[ii] Youth, on the other hand, are less confident, need more assurance and support, are less able to process large amounts of abstract information, and are more exploratory than goal-oriented when seeking information.[iii]

Youth Information-Seeking Behaviors

In terms of information seeking, youth can be broken down into four discrete information-seeking groups defined by their ability to read and Piaget’s cognitive developmental stages. Coinciding with these stages, Cai and Zhao contend that youths store and retrieve information based on their cognitive ability and have two primary information-processing deficiencies.[iv]

1) Pre-readers (3–5 years old) are in Piaget’s sensory motor stage.

2) Beginning readers (5–8 years old) are in Piaget’s pre-operational stage and in preschool or early elementary school; this phase is characterized by “ego-centrism,” where children are self-centered and expect the world to operate according to their worldview and perspective.[v] Children who are pre-readers or beginning readers around seven years old or younger tend to suffer from meditational deficiencies and are considered limited processors, which reflect this age group’s inability to use effective information storage and retrieval strategies.

3) Intermediate readers (9–12 years old) are in Piaget’s concrete operational stage; these preteens understand the world through concrete objects and trial-and-error learning.[vi] Youth who are intermediate readers around 9–12 years old tend to suffer from production deficiencies and are considered cued processors who are able to begin using more effective storage and retrieval strategies, but only when they have cues guiding them.

4) Advanced readers (13–17 years old) are teens and in Piaget’s formal operational stage, where symbols associated with abstract concepts are meaningful as they begin to emerge into adult information seekers.[vii]

Youth older than twelve or thirteen tend to be advanced readers and outgrow these cognitive deficiencies; they are referred to as strategic processors, which reflects adult information-seeking tendencies.[viii] Pre-adolescent web information seekers (10–13) prefer visual cues over dense text, and their information-seeking behavior focuses more on exploration rather than strategic searching for clearly defined information goals. Sites that keep this age group’s attention use bright colors and are visually appealing with the common use of animation, sound, and visual graphics and icons. This age group does not like to scroll, prefers to browse over using search engines, and becomes quickly frustrated with lack of success.[ix]

Adolescent web information seekers (14–18) still prefer to browse rather than conduct specific keyword searches.[x] This group also likes sites that have “cool” graphics, are interactive so they can socialize with others, and enable them to leave their mark on the site through online quizzes, voting, blogging, and games.[xi] This age group has begun to more closely reflect adult information-seeking behavior, and teens like to scan pages quickly looking for visual cues that allow them to quickly determine whether the site is a usable site for them – that is, relevant with high-quality information.[xii] Like adults, most teens find moving images, sounds, and other scrolling information “distracting” and tend to ignore them with some disdain.[xiii]

Designing Websites for Today’s Students

Prensky coined the term digital natives to describe youths who were born with digital access to computing and the Internet, while older generations represent digital immigrants.[xiv] Too often teachers make the mistake of assuming that being a digital native is synonymous with information-seeking expertise because “their extensive use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) often creates a false sense of competency, as well as the misperception among many adults that contemporary youth are “media savvy.”[xv] Often adult web designers create sites intended for youth but with adult users in mind.[xvi] Design goals for youths such as “cool,” “engaging,” and “age-appropriate” that are defined using an adult-centered paradigm are usually off target. Chow, Smith, and Sun refer to the process of more accurately operationalizing youth ideas and meaning into youth-oriented websites as concept actualization.[xvii] A growing body of research suggests that working with youth throughout the life cycle of a website – analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation—is the appropriate way to ensure that youth perspectives and priorities are appropriately included.[xviii]

A thorough review of the literature suggests three domains to consider when designing websites for youth: cognitive, affective, and design. The cognitive domain reflects age appropriateness, with a match between the age of youth for which the site is intended and site design involving seven primary factors (see table 1).

Table 1. Age-Appropriate Cognitive Factors
1. Amount of text on a page (Bilal 2005)
2. Vocabulary (Cooper 2005; Dubroy 2010)
3. Graphics (Large, Beheshti, and Rahman 2002)
4. Cues (Rose, Rose, and Blodgett 2009)
5. Pictorial searching (Rose, Rose, and Blodgett 2009)
6. Icons to represent ideas (Cooper 2005; Dubroy 2010)
7. Games (Nielsen 2000)

The affective domain involves ensuring an emotionally safe environment that minimizes uncertainty and fear of failure by providing feedback and using clear organization.[xix] Establishing a positive affective environment for youths on the web involves seven factors (see table 2).

Table 2. Age-Appropriate Affective and Emotional Factors
1. Images that youths can relate to and are comforted by (Cooper 2005)
2. Sounds that provide feedback and reflect interaction (Cooper 2005)
3. Interactivity with others (Teo, Oh, and Lui 2003; Bilal 2005; Dubroy 2010)
4. Personalization (Large, Beheshti, and Rahman 2002; Dubroy 2010)
5. Play (Dubroy, 2010; Large et al. 2009; Cooper 2005)
6. Open exploration (Bilal 2005)
7. Self-paced (Cooper 2005)

The design domain involves actually incorporating identified best practices that help make a website an inviting, age-appropriate digital environment designed to maximize interest and present information that youth can effectively search and engage with. There are four primary design factors to account for (see table 3).

Table 3. Age-Appropriate Design Factors
1. A child-centered, youth-oriented approach (Druin 1999; Bilal 2002; Large, Beheshti, and Rahman 2002; Large, Beheshti, Nesset, and Bowler 2004)
2. Allow youths to control the pace and create their own, unique paths (Cooper 2005)
3. Ability to leave a footprint (Bauman 2009; Large et al. 2002; Dubroy 2010)
4. Simple, youth-oriented layouts (Cooper 2005; Nielson 2002):
         Bright colors (Bilal and Kirby 2002; Bilal 2005; Dubroy 2010; Large,   Beheshti, and Rahman 2002; Large, Beheshti, Nesset, and Bowler 2004)
         Site mascots (Bowler 2004), creative icons (Bowler 2004; Large et al. 2004)
         Fun name (Large, Nessit, Beheshti, and Bowler 2004)
         Animation and graphics (Bowler 2004; Large et al. 2002; Dubroy 2010; Large et al. 2004; Nielsen 2002)
         Characterization (Bowler 2004)
         Logo in upper left corner (Nielsen 2004; Nielsen 2010)
         Homepage search box with keyword searching (Nielsen 2004)
         Horizontal breadcrumbs (if used) (Nielsen 2004; Nielsen 2010)

Chow, Smith, and Sun utilized these three domains as a best-practices checklist to create age-appropriate websites for middle school and high school students as part of the NSF-funded STARS Alliance, which focused on broadening participation in computing and information technology.[xx] Working with youth design partners, the middle school site (figure 1) was defined by bright colors in the background and foreground, smiling faces, sound effects, animation, and access to online games and fun quizzes. The high school design (figure 2) was a bit less colorful, based on high school student feedback, and focused more on social communication (blogs and polls), careers, and answering specific questions on subjects such as types of jobs, salaries, and sharing real stories.

Figure 1. Middle School Website
Figure 1

Figure 2. High School WebsiteFigure 2

Usability

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) formally defines usability (standard ISO 9241-11) as the “extent to which the product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” Effectiveness is the “percentage of goals achieved, percentage of users successfully completing tasks, and average accuracy of completed tasks”; efficiency is the “time to complete a task, tasks completed per unit time, and monetary cost of performing the task”; and satisfaction is a “rating scale for satisfaction, frequency of discretionary use, and frequency of complaints.”

In practice, the concept of usability is experienced on the web in two measures. The first measure is the utility of a website and its ability to meet the information needs of its users. The second measure is ease of use, which is experienced as relatively “pain-free” information seeking free from lots of mental effort, confusion, and having to search too hard to find what a user is looking for. Application of this concept is difficult, however, because different users have both different information needs and preferences in how they search for information on the web. In essence, the path toward web usability is paved with a design that reflects the integration of the high-priority needs of its different user groups (referred to as features checklist) and organizational priorities along with a design that is focused on its specific user groups and their unique preferences in the cognitive, affective, and design domains.

School Library Websites

Tips and strategies for building school library websites are offered in practitioner-based publications.[xxi] There is a smaller body of research literature about school library website content, use, and exemplars. Valenza developed two taxonomies for describing features and characteristics of school library websites, based on a Delphi-method investigation of exemplary school library websites.[xxii] This study emphasizes the use of the library website by students and teachers in fulfilling curricular objectives for content areas as integrated with digital literacies. To this end, among the recommendations of the study was the suggestion that additional training may support school librarians in making websites more “accessible and engaging” for students.[xxiii] Also addressing the instructional potential of school library websites, Jackson studied the information literacy needs of a group of high school students. Based on the results, Jackson designed school library web pages with instructional scaffolds for cognitive, metacognitive, procedural, and strategic processes.[xxiv] Jurkowski conducted a content analysis of school library websites in Missouri and identified categories of basic, school library specific, content area, and “interesting features” of the websites.[xxv]

School library websites may be studied in comparison to other library websites and websites designed for children, but it is also helpful to consider school library websites as part of general K–12 school website development and use. Hartshorne et al. developed a checklist for evaluating elementary school websites, with categories of Design, Structure, and Content.[xxvi] In applying this checklist to fifty existing school websites, researchers found that the majority of school websites followed basic web design elements effectively. The websites earned good checklist scores in efficiency and ease of navigation, but scores dropped for not having group-specific pages. Also of note was that overall, the sites showed limited use in showing student work (which the authors assert is an important potential use of school websites, per related research findings) and no indication of adherence to accessibility guidelines.[xxvii]

A recent study by Naughton analyzed sixty teen library websites (TLW) and identified four types of website designs or models: Reading, Media-Oriented, Portal, and Information Discovery. The majority of websites evaluated reflected the Reading model: sites that heavily emphasize text and present “predominately a text-based content representation design, where information is presented as paragraphs or blocks of text throughout the user experience.” Naughton also noted that the predominance of the Reading design “can be a potential issue for the future of TLWs” because teens may find them “boring and plain,” and recommended that for a teen-oriented site to be successful, it must be “easily accessed and used.”[xxviii]

As the knowledge base of how to effectively develop youth websites continues to mature and evolve, our study sought to explore how well school library websites were incorporating these findings. We have found a scarcity of other studies in the literature examining youth website design applied to school library websites. Initially this study began as a funded summer project at a university in the southeastern United States, and then it evolved into a nationwide study that sought to answer four central research questions: (1) What does a typical school library website look like? (2) Who are school library websites designed for? (3) How do school library websites compare to recommended best practices? (4) How usable are school library websites?

Method

Sampling and Participants

To protect against sampling bias and to increase the likelihood that we were evaluating a “typical” school library website, we used random sampling to select school library websites across the country. In addition, the school librarian of each website evaluated was sent a survey so we could better understand the purpose and context of each site in terms of grade level, priorities, and support and maintenance.

Sampling. In order to ensure a representative sample of school libraries to evaluate, a random selection of one rural (a population of less than 50,000) and one urban county (a population greater than 50,000) from every state was first selected from the US Census Bureau website. From each of these selected counties, one elementary, middle, and high school was randomly selected for evaluation by identifying them through each district’s website.

Participants. A total of six school library websites were selected and evaluated in each of the fifty states (three from a rural county and three from a urban county) in the United States (n = 300; 100 elementary, 100 middle school, and 100 high school) using an instrument created for the study, the School Website Checklist (see figure 3).

Figure 3. Librarian SampleFigure 3

Instrumentation

The study utilized two instruments for the study: the School Website Checklist and the School Librarian Website Survey (as examined further under “School Librarian Perspectives,” below).

School Website Checklist. This is a 38-item online checklist developed for the study as derived from the literature. The checklist was organized into seven areas: site information, cognitive elements, affective elements, design factors, feature placement, content, and site ratings (see Appendix A: School Website Checklist).

School Librarian Website Survey. This survey was made up of nine items examining the library’s website design and management, as well as the top five information and service priorities of the library. Each school that was randomly selected was e-mailed an online survey to complete (see Appendix B: School Librarian Website Survey).

Results

The majority, or 82% (n = 240), of the 300 schools evaluated had a school library website. Overall, when compared to recommended best practices from the literature (e.g., use of color, graphics, animation, symbols, etc.), the evaluated sites appeared to be designed more for adults (50%, n = 112) than for youth (13%, n = 30), while many also appeared to be geared to both adults and youths (37%, n = 83) (see figure 4).

Figure 4 – Who Was the School Library Website Designed For?Figure 4

Cognitive Design

In terms of best practices for cognitive design as identified by the literature, ratings for youths were extremely low. For example, sites rated low on a 10-point quantitative scale (1 = low, 10 = high) for use of symbols that represent concrete objects (M = 3.3), bright and engaging colors that attract attention and keep youth interested (M = 3.3), well-thought-out portal names (M = 2.9), creative and significant icons (M = 2.6), and animation (M = 0.82).

The two factors that rated highest were age-appropriate graphics and vocabulary (M = 5.0) and access to electronic resources including databases, online reference, and e-books (M = 4.4).

Affective Design

The overall ratings for affective design were similarly low. Sites rated low for the opportunity to play and learn (M = 3.1), encouraging exploration (by being open-ended) (M = 2.3), active designs (M = 1.8), user control (M = 1.7), allowing for and responding to child input (M = 1.5), the ability to leave their footprint on the site (M = 0.60), and opportunities for social interaction (M = 0.60).

The highest-rated factor was reducing cognitive load by limiting distracting information and presenting only the information desired in a prominent, singular fashion (M = 4.6). Table 4 lists the mean ratings for all factors evaluated.

Table 4. Cognitive, Affective, and Design Ratings for School Library Websites
Web Factor Mean Rating
Are graphics and vocabulary age appropriate? 5.01
Does the site reduce cognitive load by limiting distracting information and presenting only the information desired in a prominent, singular fashion? 4.61
Is there a link to access electronic resources including databases, online reference, and e-books? 4.46
Does the website use symbols related to concrete objects? 3.34
Does the site use bright and engaging colors that attract attention and keep youths interested? 3.24
Can users enjoy themselves through play and learning? 3.07
Does the site have a well thought-out portal name? 2.92
Are there search tips or instructions for searching? 2.72
Does the site use creative and significant icons? 2.61
Does the website’s design encourage exploration (by being open-ended)? 2.28
Does the website balance familiarity with novelty? 1.76
Is the website design active? 1.75
Does the website design emphasize user control? 1.7
Does the site offer quick feedback? 1.64
Does the website allow for and respond to child input? 1.5
Does the site have a URL that’s easy to remember? 1.24
Does the site use animation? 0.82
Does the site allow for trial and error with physical, not abstract, objects? 0.67
Can users leave their footprint on the site? 0.62
Does the site support social interaction? 0.56
Does the site allow for progressive levels of expertise facilitating competence while offering new challenges? 0.52
Does the website involve multiple senses? 0.44
Does the site use sound effects? 0.19

Comparing Elementary, Middle, and High School Websites

Unexpectedly, we found that there were very few differences between school library website design and age group served. For example, for use of symbols and illustrations, it would be expected to see a higher use of these at the elementary school level, but very few school websites did this in general and there were no significant differences based on age group. Two significant differences, however, were identified. For age-appropriate graphics and vocabulary, high schools (M = 5.6 out of 10) and middle schools (M = 5.0) were found to be more age-appropriate (because most sites in general appeared to be developed by and for adults) than for elementary schools (M = 4.0). Links to electronic resources were also significantly higher for high school sites (M = 5.0) compared to middle school (M = 4.3) and elementary school (M = 3.9) sites.

Overall, 51% of all websites were deemed designed for adults, 36.5% for both adults and youth, and only 12.5% appeared to be designed for youth based on identified best practices.

Design: What Does a School Library Website Look Like?

In comparison to identified best practices for basic website design in terms of cognitive, affective, and design domains, only 1% (n = 2) were considered top tier and had age-appropriate web features from each of the three domains (upper 33%); 17% were considered mid-tier and had web features from at least two of the domains (mid 33%); and 81% were considered lower tier and had web features that were in only one domain or none at all (lower 33%). The most common features available were access to databases (76%, n = 120), access to information literacy resources (77%, n = 123), library hours (47%, n = 74), access to an OPAC (online public access catalog) (62%, n = 98), book recommendations and reviews (46%, n = 73), library news and events (45%, n = 71), library policies (40%, n = 64), and access to a personal account (39%, n = 62).

The majority of school library websites have their main navigation located on the left side (66.2%) or top center (52%). In terms of name and logo, 77% have them either located at the top center (43%) or center (34%) of the page header. Some libraries also had their name and logo on the top left (16%) of the page. The majority of the sites, however, did not have their library contact information on the homepage (60%), while those that did located it on the center (21%) of the page. In terms of library location information and business hours, again the majority of sites (64%) evaluated did not have this information available; those that did had this information placed at the bottom center (13%) or bottom left (9%) of the page. Table 5 shows the content found on school library websites.

Table 5. School Library Website Content and Services
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
Access information literacy resources 79.60% 187
Access databases 73.60% 173
Access an OPAC 63.00% 148
Find library hours 48.10% 113
Find book recommendations/reviews 43.40% 102
View library news and events 42.60% 100
View library policies (checkout, overdue policies, etc.) 41.30% 97
Access personal account 38.70% 91
View the library 35.70% 84
Receive help with research from a librarian 6.00% 14
Sign-up for a class with the librarian 4.30% 10
Renew library materials 4.30% 10
Reserve a library resource online 3.40% 8
Schedule a classroom 3.00% 7
Reserve technology 1.70% 4
Search for available hardware and software 0.40% 1
None 0.40% 1
Other (please specify) 8

Figure 5 shows an example of one of the higher-rated school library websites evaluated. The site contains the primary design layout, color scheme, and innovative use of technology that engages students.

Figure 5. Cane Creek Middle SchoolFigure 5

(http://www.buncombe.k12.nc.us//Domain/387)

School Librarian Perspectives

In addition to the 300 school libraries evaluated, each of the school libraries selected were sent an online survey, and 101 school librarians (37% elementary, 29% middle, 48% high school, and 9% other— K–12, pre-K, two separate schools, etc.) responded, which represents a 34% response rate.

Websites Designed for Students

For the librarian survey, 83% (n = 84) of the respondents said they had a website, 7% said they did not have a website, and 12% said they had a web page or multiple websites for multiple schools. Overall, librarians felt their websites, on a scale of 1–7 (1 = low, 7 = high), were designed mostly for students (M = 6.4), teachers (M = 5.8), parents (M = 5.2), and administration (M = 4.8) (see figure 6).

Figure 6. Who are School Library Websites Designed for?Figure 6

School Library Services

In terms of services, school libraries provided books, journals, and other print materials (100%), online databases (93%), computers or other technologies (93%), instruction and training (90%), areas for studying (88%), meeting spaces (85%), and technology support (75%) (see table 6).

Table 6. School Library Services
Services & Resources Response Percent Response Count
Provided by School Libraries
Books, journals, other printed materials 100% 80
Online databases 93% 74
Instruction/training 90% 72
Computers/technology 90% 72
Studying 88% 70
Meeting space 85% 68
Technology support 75% 60
CDs or other media 74% 59
Testing 61% 49
Socializing 60% 48
Access to social media 18% 14
Access to gaming 14% 11

High-priority services. Overall the main services used by patrons and library staff were similar. Librarians felt that both their number one goal and students’ and teachers’ highest-priority goal were books and other print materials (M = 1.47 ranking for patron usage). Whereas computers or other technology was the next highest priority for patrons (M = 2.06), librarians felt that instruction or training was their second highest priority. Librarians also held their online databases as a higher priority (M = 3.11) than patrons, who valued a place to study (M = 3.38) slightly higher. See table 7 for a comparison between what librarians felt were patron goals versus library goals.

Table 7. Highest-Priority Services for Librarians and Patrons
School Library Services Librarian Priority Patron Usage
1.       Books, journals, and other print material 4.47 4.61
2.       Computers or other technology 2.79 3.55
3.       Instruction or training 3.53 2.68
4.       Studying 1.62 2
5.       Online databases 2.47 2.25
6.       Technology support 1.48 1.69
7.       Meeting space 1.63 1.61

Figures 7 and 8 show librarians and their perceptions of patron priorities in rank order.

Figure 7. Top 5 Library PrioritiesFigure 7

Figure 8. Top 5 Patron PrioritiesFigure 8

The perceptions of librarians also revealed, however, some disagreement between their priorities and what they perceived as student preferences. Librarians were asked, “What are, in rank order, your library’s top five priorities (regardless of user preferences, where 1 = highest, 5 = lowest)? Please only choose five.” Social Media, Access to Gaming, and Socializing were ranked the lowest—out of 80 librarians who responded to this question, only 4 ranked Social Media in their top five; only 10 rated Socializing, and no librarians chose Access to Gaming as one of their top five priorities. They were also asked, “What are, in rank order, the top five school library resources and services (choose only five) for patrons in terms of usage (1 = highest, 5 = lowest)?” The number of librarians who chose these three areas increased, however, not by much: 8 librarians rated Social Media, 5 librarians rated Access to Gaming, and 17 individuals rated Socializing in the top five resources and services for patrons. These results suggest a slight disconnect between what school librarians perceive they should be offering versus what they think students in particular appear to prioritize and want.

Librarians manage their own websites. School librarians, for the most part, develop and maintain their websites (83%), followed by school IT staff (11.5%) and district IT staff (10.3%).

In general, school librarians felt that they had autonomy to change and update their content and design (M = 5.61 out of 7), their websites do a good job of serving the information needs of its users (M = 5.4), they have adequate resources to maintain their site (M = 5.0), and they have the proper training to manage their websites (M = 4.7) (see figure 9).

Figure 9. School Librarian Perspectives on Their WebsitesFigure 9

One school librarian stated, however, that the growing demand of her position was making it difficult to spend time on the maintaining the website:

Since we are in a state of transition, this was difficult for me to answer. When I started my page ten years ago, I received a lot of training and support. I had one planning period a week to update and maintain the site, and there was additional assistance available. In the past five years, I have had additional responsibilities placed on my shoulders, and there has been no compensation for this service or time for maintenance. I was unable to take additional training that would be paid for and supported by either the district or my building. I finally had to pull back because I was leaving later and later from my job, and the web page was apparently one of those tasks that were not viewed as important by my administration (school librarian, 2013).

Discussion

Examining a random sample of urban and rural school library websites across the United States, complemented by input from librarians, has established a picture of what a typical school library website looks like, who it is designed for, how well they compare to best practices recommended by the literature, and how usable they actually are, in relation to the needs of the users and the goals of the library.

  1. What Does a Typical School Library Website Look Like?

The study suggests that although there are some common trends, there is really no typical school library website design. There are similarities, however, to an academic or public library website in terms of navigation elements, as two-thirds of the sites evaluated had navigation on the left side of the page or top center of the page, and their name and logo at the top left or center of the page.[xxix] This provides a preliminary starting point in terms of design for school library websites. In terms of services, school library websites tended to provide access to information literacy resources, databases, and online public access catalogs from their homepages. The majority of school library websites, however, did not have library contact information, location, or operating hours on the homepage. Furthermore, access to other expected services were also missing from the majority of websites: library policies, news and events, access to social media, images of the library, access to personal accounts, and ability to renew library materials or to reserve technology or library space for classes or testing.

Our findings support Naughton’s findings[xxx] that the majority of school library websites reflected the Reading design and were defined largely by text-delivered data only, which could be problematic for students both in terms of differing reading levels as well as capturing and maintaining their attention. From a usability standpoint, this could lower the overall effectiveness (can’t use or find what they are looking for), efficiency (increase in time, mental effort), and satisfaction (few images, icons, and other mental cues outside of text) for students who use their school library websites.

  1. Who Are School Library Websites Designed For?

Like most websites, school library websites are designed for multiple groups. School librarians felt that their websites were predominantly designed to serve students, followed by teachers, parents, and administrators, respectively. Our randomly sampled evaluations, however, suggested that the majority of websites were geared more for adult users (e.g., mostly text with very few visual cues), and only a small percentage appeared specifically geared to students. The major services offered were access to books, journals, and other print materials, online databases, access to computers and other technology, instruction or training, a place to study, and a meeting space; technology support and testing were also identified as frequent services. As noted earlier, the majority of website designs appeared to adhere to Naughton’s Reading design,[xxxi] which favors adult users rather than youths. Without working closely with youth as design partners, it is very difficult to achieve what Chow, Smith, and Sun refer to as concept actualization, or being able to truly reflect and operationalize youth ideas, meaning, and perspectives in sites intended for youth.[xxxii]

Comparing what librarians felt were the highest priorities for patrons with what they felt were the library’s highest priorities suggests a high degree of alignment. These primary services also represent a checklist of information that patrons may expect to be included on school library websites. While access to databases and an online public access catalog were found on the majority of school library websites, information about computers and technology, instruction or training opportunities, technology support, and testing were not commonly found.

  1. How Do School Library Websites Compare to Recommended Best Practices?

School library websites did not compare favorably to recommended best practices for youth website design. In terms of cognitive design, only one factor—age-appropriate graphics and vocabulary—rated a mean rating of 5.0 (on a 10-point scale), followed by providing access to electronic resources. The following major cognitive factors affecting youth information seeking rated extremely low: use of symbols for concrete object, use of bright colors, well-thought-out and catchy site names, and use of animation or sounds. The only common theme identified for school library websites was the provision of information resources (approximately half of the sites evaluated), which is of course a core function of a website; this suggests many opportunities in terms of age-appropriate web design above and beyond content.

Ratings for affective or emotional design were even lower. Designs featuring factors that encouraged exploration, student input, and social interaction were rated extremely low. The highest-rated factor was reducing cognitive load (M = 4.6) due to the tendency of many school library sites to serve as basic information portals or a digital table of contents with just an index of links to choose from but little more in terms of age-appropriate design (e.g., use of icons, animation, color, etc.).

  1. How Usable Are School Library Websites?

The usability of school library websites can be viewed from two different perspectives. The first is providing information that is central to the needs of the users and the primary goals of the library. Librarians identified provision of books and other information and databases as their top priority, and over three-quarters of the websites independently examined did provide access to this information. The problem, however, is that information about other major library goals was not typically provided on school library websites. This would suggest that school library websites are only focused on providing information on one primary library goal: books and other information sources.

This is problematic and in contrast with recommended web design standards that identify prioritization of functionality, or what users want from a website, as the central focal point of good web design. The mission of the school library program as articulated by the American Association of School Librarians’ Empowering Learners is “to ensure that students and staff are effective users of information.”[xxxiii] Access to materials addresses only one component of this mission; library websites can do more to “empower students to be critical thinkers, enthusiastic readers, skillful researchers, and ethical users of information,” including instruction and support for diverse needs and the development of skills to use, evaluate, and create information and ideas.[xxxiv] Furthermore, websites help publically communicate the mission and value of an organization, and it appears that school libraries are under-utilizing the potential of websites to help educate school communities about all that they have to offer.

The second usability perspective is examining school library websites using general best practices as guidelines for how to develop age-appropriate information spaces for youths. School library websites did not compare favorably to any cognitive, affective, or design conventions. School library websites appear to be driven by content, and although librarians report designing for students, it would appear that this emphasis is focused more on content, best suited for adults and not youths and children, then any of these three dimensions. This most likely impacts the usability of school library websites negatively. Because of the unique needs of youths when seeking information on the web, poorly designed websites will cause a lack of interest and loss of attention, and are often at a reading level that is too high for some users. In addition, other major content areas identified outside of books and traditional information resources that would prove useful for parents, teachers, and administrators were not typically provided at all. Similar to the excitement and independent exploration felt by students exploring a library’s physical stacks, an age-appropriate website can do the same for students with digital resources.

Limitations and Future Study

This study also has some limitations to consider. First, the study does not include input from actual school library website users, only school librarians. Feedback from students, teachers, parents, and administrators needs to be collected, which will help determine a respective site’s usability and the specific information other user groups are looking for on school library websites. Second is a low sample size and response rate of school librarians; a larger sample will add validity to the study’s findings and conclusions. In addition, the results are not differentiated by urban and rural or high school, middle school, and elementary school participants at this time. They have only been analyzed in the aggregate. These results will be sorted and analyzed separately for future publication.

Finally, although this study applies a checklist of youth-centered web design principles to the school library websites, additional considerations may be incorporated into best practices for school library website design, such as curricular objectives, Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, district initiatives for reading, literacy, and/or implementation of Common Core State Standards, and considerations for website users with special needs.

Future research will involve re-analyzing the data based on stratifications as well as reaching out to actual school library website users to further triangulate the findings presented here. Directions for related studies may also consider school library website usability as aligned with other priorities for school librarianship and evolving trends in students’ technology and information needs, such as usability and access via mobile devices; usability for varied user groups and purposes (e.g., supporting librarian/teacher collaborations or emerging readers); and capacity of school library websites to support students’ transliteracy skills, such as creating content and digital citizenship.

Conclusion and Implications

The implications of the study center on taking a broader perspective for effectively providing information on the web and showing how websites may help both facilitate and supplement school library programs. Our findings suggest four main implications for school librarians to consider in terms of their library websites.

Implication 1: School Library Websites Are Not Currently Meeting Their Potential.

There remains untapped potential in how school libraries leverage the web to market its high-priority resources and services, educate the school community, and serve as an information resource for the entire school community. While the provision of quality information still remains first and foremost an essential goal of a good website, contemporary website design requires designers to increasingly understand who their users are, identify what information is most important to them, and provide it as efficiently and effectively as possible since users are increasingly impatient and will give a site little time to provide them the information they are searching for before moving on. School library websites should attempt to ensure that their primary resources and services are clearly presented and in such a way as to speak directly to their adult and student users.

This is a fundamental application of information science, an emerging skill set that all librarians need to pay close attention to as the world and educational settings continue to become more technology enriched. Carefully designed websites can prove to be tireless workers in delivering quality content to their users and helping organizations meet their goals; they are a potentially strong ally in the continuing fight for school libraries and school librarians to be better understood and properly valued by their school stakeholders.

Implication 2: There Are Some Basic Characteristics of School Library Websites.

Our findings suggest that there are some basic common features of school library websites, including placement of navigation (top left or top center) and branding (also top left or top center), and some common content, including access to electronic databases (76%), information literacy resources (77%), and an online public access catalog (62%). Content that is highly recommended for a website homepage but not as frequently found include library hours and contact information, library policies (e.g., check-out duration, overdue fines, etc.), library news and events, and book recommendations and reviews by grade level. All school library websites should consider having these basic features available on their homepage.

Implication 3: Most School Library Websites Are Not Age-Appropriate for Children and Youth.

The growing body of research in the area of children and youth information seeking on the web suggests very clear differences in both cognitive ability and preferences based on age. The random sample of websites from across the country evaluated in our study showed very little age-appropriate design as recommended by the literature, which was not a surprise; it is extremely difficult for adult web designers developing youth-oriented web spaces to properly understand the youth perspective, context, and their cognitive and information needs. This presents an opportunity for school librarians who wish to greater capitalize on the power of the web to engage and provide quality information to the entire school community; especially to the students they are serving. School librarians should attempt to engage their stakeholders as design partners as much as possible.

Implication 4: The Need to Develop of Content and Design Guidelines for Age-Appropriate Children and Youth Websites.

One of the core goals for our study was to compare and contrast school library websites with best practices identified in the research literature. While we found a significant opportunity for improvement for most school websites evaluated, it is our sincerest hope that the best-practices design and content tables provided in this paper can serve as a checklist to help school librarians develop more high-quality, engaging, and age-appropriate websites based on cognitive, affective, and design factors. The web has evolved over the years from merely a public space for sharing links of information into a vibrant multimedia rich space with many different purposes. These include marketing and informing others about the organization, being carefully designed to maximize usability for the user based on cognitive and design preferences, and directory structures and channels of information based on the information needs of disparate user groups.

The potential for school librarians to realize the power of the web to its fullest extent is an exciting opportunity to both educate their school communities about what they have to offer while simultaneously increasing their reach in the provision of quality information resources and services to teachers, students, administrators, parents, and the communities they serve.

Appendix A

Appendix AView the full survey here.

Appendix B

Appendix B
View the full survey here.

Notes

[i] Helene Blowers and Robin Bryan, Weaving a Library Web: A Guide to Developing Children’s Websites (Chicago: ALA, 2004); Andrew Large and Jamshid Behesti, “Interface Design, Web Portals, and Children,” Library Trends 54, no. 2 (2005): 318–42; Linda Z. Copper, “Developmentally Appropriate Digital Environments for Young Children,” Library Trends 54, no. 2 (2005): 286–302; Jakob Nielsen, “Usability of Websites for Teenagers,” http://www.useit.com/alertbox/teenagers.html (accessed June 2, 2009); Warren Buckleitner, “Like Taking Candy from a Baby: How Young Children Interact with Online Environments,” http://consumerwebwatch.org/pdfs/kidsonline.pdf (accessed June 20, 2011); Xiaomei Cai and Xiaoquan Zhao, “CLICK HERE, KIDS! Online Advertising Practices on Popular Websites,” Journal of Children and Media 4, no. 2 (2010): 135–54; David Considine, Julie Horton, and Gary Moorman, “Teaching and Reading the Millennial Generation through Media Literacy,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52, no. 6 (2009): 471–81.

[ii] Nielsen, “Usability of Websites for Teenagers.”

[iii] Cai and Zhao, “CLICK HERE, KIDS!”; Andrew Large, Jamshid Beheshti, and Tarjin Rahman, “Design Criteria for Children’s Web Portals: The Users Speak Out,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 53, no. 2 (2002): 79–94; Carolyn Milligan and Max Murdock, “Testing with Kids and Teens at IOMEGA,” Interactions 3, no. 5 (1996): 51–57.

[iv] Cai and Zhao, “CLICK HERE, KIDS!”

[v] Copper, “Developmentally Appropriate Digital Environments for Young Children.”

[vi] William Huitt and J. Hummel, “Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development,” http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cogsys/piaget.html (accessed June 13, 2011); Copper, “Developmentally Appropriate Digital Environments for Young Children.”

[vii] Huitt and Hummel, “Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development”; Blowers and Bryan, Weaving a Library Web; Michelle DuBroy, “Building Virtual Spaces for Children in the Digital Branch,” Australian Library Journal 59, no. 4 (2010): 211–23.

[viii] Cai and Zhao, “CLICK HERE, KIDS!”

[ix] Large, Beheshti, and Rahman, “Design Criteria for Children’s Web Portals”; Nielsen, “Usability of Websites for Teenagers.”

[x] Andrew Large et al., “Visualizing a Hierarchical Taxonomy in a Children’s Web Portal,” Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 33, nos. 3/4 (2009): 255–82.

[xi] Nielsen, “Usability of Websites for Teenagers”; Patrick DiMichele, “Prospective Student Usability Testing: Results and Recommendations Memorandum,” http://www.uh.edu/evolvinguh/documents/UH_usabilityMemo.pdf (accessed June 2, 2009).

[xii] Raya Fidel et al., “A Visit to the Information Mall: Web Searching Behavior of High School Students,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50 no. 1 (2008): 24–37.

[xiii] Nielsen, “Usability of Websites for Teenagers”; DiMichele, “Prospective Student Usability Testing.”

[xiv] Marc Prensky, “Young Minds, Fast Times: The Twenty-First-Century Digital Learner,” www.edutopia.org/ikid-digital-learner-technology-2008 (accessed November 15, 2011).

[xv] Considine, Horton, and Moorman, “Teaching and Reading the Millennial Generation through Media Literacy,” 472.

[xvi] Anthony Chow, “School Librarians and Web Usability: Why Would I Want to Use That?” (paper presented at Association for Educational Communications and Technology Annual Conference, Jacksonville, FL, November 9–11, 2011); Anthony Chow, Kathelene Smith, and Katherine Sun, “Youth as Design Partners: Age-Appropriate Web Sites for Middle and High School Students,” Journal of Educational Technology & Society 15, no. 4 (2012): 89–103; Canchu Lin, “Organizational Website Design as a Rhetorical Situation,” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 50, no. 1 (2007): 35–44.

[xvii] Chow, Smith, and Sun, “Youth as Design Partners.”

[xviii] Allison Druin, “The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology,” Behaviour & Information Technology 21, no. 1(1999): 1–25; Large et al., “Visualizing a Hierarchical Taxonomy in a Children’s Web Portal”; Jacqueline Harding et al., “Children Playing and Learning in an Online Environment: A Review of Previous Research and an Examination of Six Current Web Sites,” Young Consumers 10, no. 1 (2009): 17–34.

[xix] Dania Bilal, “Differences and Similarities in Information Seeking: Children and Adults as Web Users,” Information Processing & Management 38, no. 5 (1991): 649–70; Carol Kuhlthau, “Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User’s Perspective,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, no. 5 (1991): 361–71.

[xx] Chow, Smith, and Sun, “Youth as Design Partners.”

[xxi] Tom Johnson, “Legal Aspects of a School Library Website,” Library Media Connection 28, no. 3 (2009): 46; Walter Minkel, “The Best School Sites: Walter Minkel Reviews the School Library Winners of the netConnect/Web Feet Best of the Web Awards,” Library Journal 128, no. 12 (2003): 36; Joyce Kasman Valenza, “The Virtual Library,” Educational Leadership 63, no. 4 (2006): 54–59.

[xxii] Joyce Kasman Valenza, “Discovering a Descriptive Taxonomy of Attributes of Exemplary School Library Websites” (PhD diss., University of North Texas, 2007), 127.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Carolyn M. Jackson, “The High School Library Web Site: Scaffolding Information Literacy Skills” (PhD diss., Illinois State University, 2006).

[xxv] Odin Jurkowski, “School Library Website Components,” TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning 48, no. 6 (2004): 56–60.

[xxvi] Richard Hartshorne et al., “Analysis of Elementary School Web Sites,” Journal of Educational Technology & Society 11, no. 1 (2008): 291–303.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Robin Naughton, “Teen Library Website Models: Identifying Design Models of Public Library Websites for Teens,” Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults 6 (August 2015).

[xxix] Anthony Chow, Michelle Bridges, and Patricia Commander, “The Website Design and Usability of US Academic and Public Libraries Preliminary Guidelines from a Nationwide Study,” Reference and User Services Quarterly 53, no. 3 (Spring 2014): 253–65.

[xxx]  Naughton, “Teen Library Website Models.”

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii]  Chow, Bridges, and Commander, “The Website Design and Usability of US Academic and Public Libraries.”

[xxxiii] AASL, Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Media Programs (Chicago: ALA, 2009).

[xxxiv] Ibid., 8.

About Anna Lam

Anna Lam is a Communications Specialist for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).

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