Your Digital Branch: Much More than Your Website
Think of your favorite brick-and-mortar store for a second. You probably think it's a pretty awesome store and visit often. The staff are friendly and helpful, and you probably like what you buy there.
Now think of that same store's website. What if the website didn't live up to the standards of the physical store? What if the website was hard to navigate, the product catalog was difficult to find and use, and there was no place to contact the store for online help? Well … you would probably not visit that store's website very often. I would say the store is doing great with physical services but is falling behind on their "digital storefront."
The same can be said for a library's online services. I'd like to give you a different way to think about all those tools and services and websites. Let's bundle them into a single umbrella term - the Digital Branch.
What's a Digital Branch?
Think of the digital branch as the sum total of your library's digital presence on the web. I like to think of that library web presence as an actual library branch – like your physical library branches – hence the phrase "digital branch." Thinking in these terms can help define the services and information a library needs to deliver online.
Calling your library's web presence a digital branch makes a lot of sense because the library's physical and digital branches share some similarities. The digital branch actually provides some of the same things as your physical building.
Some of those similarities include:
• A place to visit
• Something to do
• Content to use
• Staff to interact with
Let's explore each of those things in more detail:
A place to visit: Your website is the digital branch "building." Just like a physical building, the digital branch houses materials and information. It has signage to help customers easily move around during their visit. It needs to be accessible, so everyone can use the building. It needs to be easy to use so visitors can be successful. Both buildings also have maintenance that needs to be regularly performed so that the structures are up-to-date and usable.
Something to do: The digital branch can offer quite a lot to do during a visit. Some examples include reading news and information about the library, attending a program or event, or browsing the collection – which leads to our next point.
Content to use: Your digital branch offers some content that is unique to the digital branch. For example, the library catalog is one of the most important "digital branch only" tools. Unless your library still uses an old-school wooden card catalog, you probably have a web-based ILS system. That ILS system, by nature, only exists on the digital branch. You have to go online to use it.
Ebooks and econtent are another example of library content that only exists in the digital branch. You can advertise them in the building, you can check them out while you are in the building … but you have to go online to the digital branch in order to access them.
Staff to interact with: Customers have multiple ways to interact with library staff in the physical building. They should have a similar experience while visiting the library's digital branch. For example, at my library's digital branch, customers can ask a question through our Ask a Librarian service. They can leave a comment on a blog post that will be answered by staff. Customers can like and share social media posts created by library staff. On Facebook, we regularly ask "What are you reading?" and customers answer, and end up interacting with staff and with other library customers in the process.
What might be included in today's digital branch?
We have discussed what a digital branch should do for customers, but what exactly makes up a digital branch? Let's start with the obvious choice: library's website. Your ILS system is also part of the digital branch. Usually, the ILS is technically a separate website, on a separate server, with its own set of analytics. Even though it's a separate site, it's still part of the digital branch.
There are many other services and tools that you can think of in the same way. For example, your library might use an event and meeting room management system like Communico or LibraryMarket's LibraryCalendar. The library will probably have a number of online databases. If the library has a local history collection, you might use OCLC's ContentDM for local digital content. My library uses MuseumPlus for our art gallery's online collection. Each of these tools and services is part of the overall digital branch.
Social media channels are also part of the digital branch. Your library might use a few of these, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. Each of those accounts are all included as part of the digital branch.
Needs of the Digital Branch
Your library's digital branch has some important needs that must be met to successfully operate. They include:
Ease of Use: At some point, you might have done a usability study to improve the library's website, or maybe you have discussed how to refine the customer's experience while using the website. Think a bit outside the website box, and include the whole digital branch in those improvements. Make sure everything is easy to find, that there are easy links between the tools (if possible), and that the visual branding is as consistent as possible for all parts of the digital branch.
Make sure there are clear pointers to your library's social media accounts on the library's website. Also make sure there are clear pointers back to the library's website from each social media account. If your library uses mobile apps, have an apps page on your website.
Adding Content: An active digital branch needs content. As your library adds new services and tools, pointers to each should be easily found on your digital branch. Make sure to add descriptions and help guides for each new service and tool as needed.
Once you have added content, don't stop there. You'll need to regularly revisit older pages to make sure the content is still accurate. The web changes fast, and as it changes, so do the web-based tools and services that we offer to customers. Sometimes even seemingly unchangeable content needs to be updated. For example, every library I have worked for had incorrect driving directions to the physical library building. I actually hopped in my car and drove around in order to get accurate directions to post.
Even if a tool or service hasn't changed, it's possible there might be a better way to describe it. So, it's definitely worth a re-visit at least once a year in order to make sure all content is up-to-date, accurate, and easily understandable.
Being Present: I'll bet that your library has multiple service points throughout the building for customers in need of help. At the least, you probably have a circulation desk and one or more reference desks. Think of your website as another service point that needs to be fully staffed. For example, if there's an ask-a-librarian service … assign someone to regularly check for new questions and ensure that the questions are quickly answered. In today's savvy online social world, customers expect a quick response from social media channels like Twitter or Facebook. Think of each social media channel as a service point and make sure someone is assigned to answer questions and comments as needed.
"Being present" can also mean seeing new activity happening on the digital branch, via new content being added. You'll need to add content regularly, just so it looks like you are actually present at the library's digital branch. Don't be one of those digital branches I've seen that hasn't updated the "Library News" blog since 2012, and that only sporadically posts on the library's Facebook Page. No new content makes it look like no one's home.
Today's digital branch can be a vibrant, active site. It should be a set of tools, services and service points to help customers find what they need, when they need it – and have fun while visiting.
If your digital branch is as healthy, vibrant and exciting as your physical building, your customers will love you for it!
Copyright 2019 by David Lee King.
About the author: David Lee King (email@example.com) is the digital services director at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Topeka, KS. He explores social media, emerging trends and libraries on his blog at davidleeking.com.