January 13, 2009

Tor.com & Globe and Mail Books: What can library websites learn

This was a hard post to title, in that I wanted it to be reasonably short yet pack in a lot of information. The real post title should be: What can library web sites learn from commercial book-related web sites such as Tor.com and the brand new Globe and Mail Books site?

First of all, a brief note about where I'm coming from. This is a a thought experiment. It's a thought experiment about a very particular idea of what library websites could look like. There are lots of other possible thought experiments I could have engaged in about different ideas.

One thing about library web sites is that they tend to focus on concrete problem solving behaviours: find a book, find some data, find some articles. Some library web sites are good at facilitating those activities, some not so much. One thing we tend not to focus on is creating our own entertaining and engaging content or explicitly promoting specific content created or curated by some other organizations. Again, some do do this, some well, some not so much.

As a result, library web presences can be a bit dry and static. How to spice things up a bit, content-wise? (Note for that the purposes of this thought experiment, I'm assuming that we do want to spice things up. In actual fact, I'm not entirely convinced of this but I think it's something that I explicitly want to explore.)

An interesting place to look is commercial web sites that are somewhat seriously intentioned but that are also engaging and entertaining. It would also be nice if the general topic of the site more-or-less maps to what we in libraries do. In other words, good old fashioned books. Now, a case can be made that we should follow the model of YouTube or Perez Hilton for creating our own engaging content, but this thought experiment is really driven by a couple of sites I've been following lately.

So, what can we learn from a couple of relatively new commercial sites that are about books.


Tor.com is the home page for the sffh book publisher Tor; in other words, they are ultimately trying to sell books.

I find it very interesting that this page actually has very little directly about Tor's products -- you have to follow the link to a different Tor Books page. I also find it very interesting that the home page for the publisher is a blog and that very few of the blog posts are directly about Tor's books but rather about the world of sffh in general. I presume they do this with the idea that if people go to the site a lot to read and interact with all this content and they get tons of pageviews, this will generate a certain brand awareness and product awareness that will translate into sales. Or more specifically, they will create a community (there are forums too) around their site and their content that will create brand loyalty in a way that merely publishing good books never could.

My take-away on this: As it happens, what I really find interesting and provocative is the idea of using a blog as your home page, the idea that you can leverage the content you create and put on the blog and direct it towards the "stealth" purpose. In Tor's case, that would be buying books. In the case of a library that would use a blog as it's home page, the stealth purpose would be to funnel students to our catalogue, online resources and various services.

Would this work? The first problem is finding enough interesting and engaging content to post on the blog that is even remotely related to the library mission. The second problem is to actually do the posting in a regular enough fashion to make the library a destination blog for the community. The third problem is actually getting students who dropped by the blog to read a cultural critique of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to actually follow through and use books and articles about Buffy (or biology). Or, having enjoyed the Buffy post, come back at some later time for information about biology or history or whatever. I'm not convinced that any of those three problems are easy to solve.

Globe and Mail Books

The Globe and Mail Books site is the newly launched hub for the G&M's book coverage; in other words, they are ultimately trying to use coverage of books and book-related topics to sell advertising. This site is more-or-less replacing a radically slimmed down print print books section, which used to be separate but is now merged with the Focus section. Books sections have been easy cost-cutting targets at newspapers for quite a while now so I'm happy to see that the Globe has seen the trend as more than just an opportunity to cut costs but as an opportunity to build something that responds to the rise of book review culture on the web. Books may be old media and the web new media, but an awful lot of the web seems to be about books.

As I said, this site is very new so I imagine that they'll be tweeking it a bit over the next little while to adjust to the early reception. However, I have to say that I like the site quite a bit. It has multimedia, feature stories, exclusive daily reviews, blogs, author interviews as well as linking to book stories elsewhere on the web. It includes all the content of the vestigal print edition as well as adding a fair bit of new stuff. I find that the site does definitely draw me in and get me exploring and clicking.

The blogs could be better integrated into the site as a whole and the external posts could be better positioned as well, but they do seem to be somewhat stuck with a common Globe look and feel. The stuff that's not in the print edition (ie the blogs) really needs to be featured and highlighted. Overall the site seems to lack a really exciting visual pop -- a bit too staid even for a book site. I hope they add more bloggers and begin to seriously highlight the work of the larger books blogosphere. I also hope they surface the interaction that happens in the comments sections of the articles and blogs better. User-generated content in the form of reviews and other stuff might be interesting too, as well as a way to recruit a new generation of reviewers.

Of course, I really hope they improve their coverage of science and technology books (as well as non-mystery genres like sf, fantasy and horror), but for that only time will tell.

My take-aways from this: Even if the site is lacking a bit of pizazz, the thing that I do find interesting is that they're assuming that coverage of old media like books will generate new media pageviews and result in advertising, advertising that I guess was disappearing from the print edition.

The interesting thing for library websites here I think revolves around the kind of content we could create for the kind of bloggy site that the Tor example could lead to. The stuff on the G&M Books site is seriously intentioned but also interesting. It's multimedia and interactive in a way that draws people in rather than away.

A lack of pizazz is not usually a good thing, design-wise, but I do thing the overall approach is something that a content-oriented library website could learn from.


The bottom line? Maybe cool and interesting content can be used to engage students and faculty and draw them to the library web site. And once they're there, maybe they'll stick around and make use of our other collections and services that are more directly related to their tasks as scholars. Or maybe not. I guess I'm still stuck on what actual problem that our users have that that they're going to want our websites to help them solve. Is their problem that they don't have enough YouTube videos to watch? I don't think so.

Is this whole thought experiment really a case of a solution in search of a problem? Is the problem we're solving by making our websites more interesting and interactive really about improving our own self-image?

So, what can library websites learn? As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on this one.

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