Tag Archives: web stuff

New portal!

For a while I’ve been hankering for a personal and social media website portal of sorts—something simple, elegant, and responsive on various device sizes. With a little work and WordPress magic, I’ve turned megholle.com into just that, and have shifted my résumé/portfolio site to the subdomain librarian.megholle.com. I think it turned out pretty swell.

For you champs who rock it old school, I uhhh think I updated the RSS feed to properly port the content from the new subdomain into the existing/old RSS link at Subscribe in the upper right. I guess I’ll find out as soon as I publish this post….

After oh my… fifteen years? I still find thrashing around in web code stimulating and satisfying. Next on the hacking block is the Death Reference Desk, which after 5 years badly needs an overhaul. As I type this I realize that this website is also 5 years old. This was the spring/summer of graduating from library school, so I had some time on my hands. I think the design here has held up slightly better, though it still looks dated and could a new theme. Hrm… no promises on that just yet. 😉

user testing and style guides, oh my!

meg in action

Here I be in my staged-tidy cube in Walden University Library. Contrary to my pastiness in this photo, I did see the light of day this summer, I swear! But it’s been a breakneck speed, productive past several months, with two major accomplishments:

1. Website user testing

I’m on a team that has been developing a reorganization for the library website. The design will stay largely the same, but the current site has significant usability problems, mostly due to poor labeling and non-intuitive categorization—legacy decisions that leave us with loads of library jargon and way too many assumptions about user know-how.

Inspired by user experience discussions at MinneWebCon and Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy, I advocated for user testing and won—to my delight and terror. Without a user testing precedent in the library or elsewhere in the university as far as I could determine, I was on my own. Though some decisions were less than ideal, like using other staff as participants instead of actual students (it’s an online university, hey… can’t exactly post fliers by the washrooms), the pilot test proved most useful.

I designed and conducted the tests with input from two colleagues, also on the website team. We opted to get feedback on the existing site to confirm our suspicions about things that are confusing and to uncover new problems we hadn’t considered. The data collected was largely confirming but with plenty of the unexpected to keep it interesting.

Data was used to justify design decisions, to incorporate additional ones and to make a few emergency changes to the current site immediately—critical facepalms not fit to print. User testing overall was thrilling and embarrassing and yes, time-consuming, but at the same time so important, and despite the initial timesink, it wasn’t terribly complicated. With a process in place, future testing sessions can hopefully happen with greater frequency, and with our other user groups, like students and faculty.

2. A comprehensive style guide for all library content

The new website requires loads of revised and new content, the majority of which will be pushed through LibGuides, of which we already have a ton. A metric ton. An expletive ton, and honestly, sadly, they’re all over the place when it comes to consistency.

Consistency is quality—inescapably. But with incomplete guidelines and several librarians producing content, the guides as a whole lack cohesion.

Now was my chance to reign in our over 2,500 guides, exploiting my English degree and proofreading background to the fullest. After investigating the university style guide and APA style (the university-wide standard), plus considering deeply the merits of common use and sense (e-hyphen-mail? really?), I created a content style guide governing every aspect of content creation, including:

  • Grammar, spelling and usage
  • Screenshot creation and specs for annotations (call-out boxes, arrows, highlighting, etc.)
  • Link names and image descriptions (“alt tags”) that are mindful of screen readers to ensure all content is ADA compliant, or as close as we can get given tech constraints

The style guide applies across all platforms: the main site, LigGuides, LibAnswers, the blog, Facebook, YouTube, and all things to come. With the help of an instructional designer colleague, instructional best practices are included throughout.

The style guide is a thing of beauty—and was a wonderful exercise in choosing the fights worth having. I tend to lean toward the minimal. Serial comma?—hate it. But I let it go and let it inside. Two spaces instead of one between sentences? I knew enforcing a rule either way would cause a war, and didn’t even bother.

But killing the capital “I” on internet? Now that’s worth fighting for.

birth of the death reference desk

Death Reference Desk

A few months ago, once fellow Minneapolitan John Troyer, now a professor of death and dying practices at the University of Bath, England, approached me with a vision. Well, it was more like a statement: “We need a blog.” He and his colleague Kim Anderson, a public librarian in Portland, Oregon, were in the habit of swapping death-related news stories via email, sometimes posting them on Facebook. Ever the helpful information consumer and conduit, I too occasionally passed along to John death links I knew would be of interest—think less shock schlock morbidity than the culturally nuanced and historically intriguing bits of death and dying lore and lunacy.

John and Kim wanted an online space where they could share ideas and information with a wider audience. Recognized for my web prowess (and later, praised for the happy surprise of actually being able to turn a fuzzy idea into a solid, slick reality), I was courted to build and contribute to such a joint-venture website with the promise of zero dollars and uncertain outcomes all around. Ain’t that the way of it? But I loved the idea and signed on. After countless hours of WordPress hacking, tracking down permanent WorldCat URLs and trying to determine the best way to organize a collection that doesn’t yet exist, the Death Reference Desk was born.

The blog portion of DRD focuses on death and dying in the news. Topics range from death industry trends, new discoveries in anthropology and the effect of social networking on mourning and memorializing, to name a few. We also function as an email-the-librarians reference desk for death and dying subjects. We’ve only had a couple questions so far, so it’s hard to predict the range of questions we’ll receive and the magnitude of research required; we don’t track down obituaries nor do in-depth research, but we are more than happy to help with search advice and places to get started. DRD also has search term tips and a few research guides, and we hope to add more in the future.

I also maintain a DeathRef Twitter account; the lastest tweet appears on the homepage, with tweets announcing new DeathRef content or linking to articles that lack sufficient weight to warrant their own posts. While (*ahem,* in my humble opinion) Twitter is the most annoyingly hyped and often pointlessly appropriated web doodad of the year, for DRD it has proven surprisingly effective for identifying and making connections with unexpected audiences, namely, genealogists and obituary enthusiasts.

So far the Death Reference Desk journey has been a challenging and gratifying experience for me as a web designer, librarian and writer. I approached it first as a project manager, defining and predicting what we wanted to achieve and how to get there, including our purpose and possible trajectory, scope, audience and value (…both to others and ourselves—I plainly admit I hoped to improve my web skills and expand my portfolio, which I’ve definitely achieved).

Melding knowledge of blog management with information organization, I attempted to translate subject classification and indexing theory and best practices to the category and tag functions of a blog. This has been no easy feat, especially with multiple contributors adding content and metadata and not knowing what our “collection” might ultimately contain. As such, categories and tags shift and evolve. The tag “crime” has become its own category, “Death + Crime.” Given thus-far limited content, the categories “Death + Art” and “Death + Architecture” should perhaps be combined. I scowl nonstop at having both a “Monuments + Memorials” category plus a “memorializing” tag, but I’m not sure what to do about it yet, and so it remains, redundant and confusing.

Naturally, my aim is to make navigation and drill-down terms as logical and useful as possible from a user’s perspective. But it’s also difficult to know how exactly a visitor will and wants to use the site, and I fear usability studies at this point would be, to put it lightly, exceptionally silly. DRD, while interesting to others for its content, has been especially interesting to me as a vehicle by which to explore professional issues, but that doesn’t mean it always requires professional insight and application, nor that such things are feasible. Sad that it matters, but true, I can expend only so much effort while not getting paid, plus I am probably the only person in the whole WWW who cares whether our small-fry blog makes total sense all of the time.

Nevertheless, I am having a blast with it, and what I’ve been learning falls well beyond information organization and design. In addition to that and the requisite web-hashing, I view and work on DRD in terms of its branding, marketing, promotion and outreach (I’m considering delving into and answering relevant Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers questions); its editorial policy and the various means of locating and developing relevant, engaging content (thank you, RSS alert services!); researching and creating an appropriate privacy policy and disclaimer; and my personal quest to swallow my disgust and experiment with the grossness of online advertising.

Though I’ve maintained personal websites for nearly a decade, I’ve never considered myself a blogger, in fact, I’ve resented the term. I see blogging as quick and dirty—not necessarily thoughtless but with certainly less mental and emotional investment than the creative nonfiction of my prior web engagements. But whaddya know: finding, writing about and sharing things that I find interesting for people who will also find them interesting is fun as well as deeply satisfying—not to mention a pretty darn librarian thing to do.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. While it’s impossible to predict its long-term sustainability, I’m definitely enjoying it right now—for what it is, and in imagining what it might become and how to make it happen.

feedback thanks and dreamhost

Thanks everyone for the feedback, mentioned here and through other streams. I’ve already made a few changes. A couple SLAISers (read: classmates) have asked me about my hosting and domain name. I use DreamHost, a most excellent provider (it is a United States server, but uh… c’mon, it’s a new administration).

Contact me if you have questions about setting up a site, figuring out your domain (registration, redirection) for an existing site, or if you’d be interested in carving off a piece of my pie in the sky series of tubes for super cheap.