Toronto Public Library goes virtual

The Toronto Public Library (TPL) has a new look, or at least its Web site does. With a flashier new appearance, the site promises users greater functionality and improved access to the library and its services.

The site was in need of a change after approximately four years without any overhauls, according to TPL spokesperson and Virtual Reference Library (VRL) project leader Kathy Scardellato. She said the home page previously consisted only of static HTML pages. Now, with the addition of the VRL, there’s a template design and a greater degree of content management. The VRL is now the main portal for electronic information, including access to full texts, magazines, newspapers and encyclopaedias, and there are additional links to the main portal.

Yet, the library’s basic function remains the same, she said, and the site makes getting to information that much easier. “The major advantage now, compared to the old site, is that from a design point of view the home page is much clearer (and) easier for users to locate the things which are most important to them.”

Internally, librarians are finding the site simpler to use, and are currently showing users how they can use the site for things such as renewing material, checking to see if books are overdue and explaining to students how to search for material in the full text database, she said. And, users can do these tasks remotely, she added.

The TPL contracted ecentricarts, a Toronto-based company, to redesign the home page. Scardellato said she was impressed with the work the company accomplished in conjunction with the TPL, adding: “They have helped us deliver a very user-centric design.”

Michel Blondeau, CEO at ecentricarts, said aside from revamping the home page, it provided the TPL with a graphical interface, some administration tools and training, and assisted in putting the application into its environment. The site had some major issues, and change was definitely needed, both from an aesthetics and functionality point of view, he said.

“It looked like a dog’s breakfast – and this is not uncommon when a site has major usability issues. It was confusing – navigation flooded all over the place.”

The dynamics of the home page have changed by adding colour in the sub sections, and the photographs also change when the user clicks on them, he added.

Despite all the improvements, Scardellato said additional changes are already being planned for next year. There are three specific areas targeted, including a change to the interface for the library catalogue itself, the ability to e-mail users about library services and material information and to give users the option to partly customize their own library Web site to reflect their personal needs.

In fact, having a Web site that works well is the most important thing to remember when revamping a design, according to Kate Harris, president at 4Meg Enterprises Inc. in Richmond, B.C., What makes a site a success isn’t necessarily the glitzy appearance, she said. “It’s always (about) functionality. If people don’t find what they’re looking for immediately, they’re gone. It’s great to have something that looks good, but functionality is more important.”

She said from an industry point of view, some companies’ usage of certain technologies are a liability. Flash, for example, works well, but users should have the option of skipping the introduction, or the developer should create the entire site in Flash, she said. And, as far as longevity of a site goes, she reiterated that so long as the site is user friendly and updated on a consistent basis, the overall look is secondary.

“There was stuff I did two years ago that doesn’t look as snazzy as things I would do these days, but as far as functionality goes, it’s still okay.”