How to Make a Website (With a Whole Lot of Trying)

When I started at my internship, I sort of naturally fell into a tech support role for the library. This turned into requests to update the old website using Dreamweaver, which was fine until I went to upload the changes – after the wave of staff turnover just before I came, no one had the correct password to our host. Not the end of the world, since we got back in, but a sign that something needed to change. Before I’d started, a friend who knew the library well had showed me a new website that was supposedly “in the works.” More than a little frustrated, I asked about it.

And so it became my assignment. It had gotten a bit overlooked in the rush of the early fall staffing shortage, and since I was asking, I was now in charge.

Whoa.

I’d only just put this website up earlier this year, and my coding knowledge is limited, to say the least. What made it worse was the template I inherited – it seemed like a direct copy of the old site with more flashy pictures and not a lot of information. Very pretty, not very useful. It was also quite badly coded (it was a child of a rather simple Premium WordPress theme that got weird real fast), or at least coded in a way that didn’t make sense to any of the people I pulled in to help – it took a seriously techy friend of mine to decode it. And then said techy friend found himself pulled into the whole project (thanks, Andy!)

The basics: it’s a WordPress site, so I at least understood the basics of editing, plugins, pages, posts, etc. This is the part where I rolled up my sleeves. I made some priorities (and some bad decisions), but the website went live last week, and it seems to be functional, if not yet perfected.

There are best practices all over the web, but I was given a month and no budget (I’m an unpaid intern, so we’re really talking $0 here). Obviously, then, we had to make up our own best practices as we went along.

1. What are the basics of a good library page?

I bit off more than I could chew with this one – I wanted the site to have all the bells and whistles of a much bigger library’s site. My library is small – serves about 19k people – but I used places like Multnomah County Library and Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh as example site maps. Someday, we could have all these things, but we have a lot more basic things that need work and a lot less staff. This is going to continue to get tweaked even now that the site is live.

2. What are the special things about your library that the site needs to showcase?

The Carnegie Library of Homestead has a lot of these. We have a lot of really amazing history (including pictures) that the board wanted available. We also are rolled into a single entity (The Carnegie of Homestead) with an Athletic Club and a Music Hall, both of which needed sections on the site.

This created some problems, since I didn’t have easy access to information about either of the other 2 sections, nor did I have administrative access to the Music Hall’s separate websites (there are 2 of those).

We also have some grant programs that have websites or marketing requirements that needed to make it onto the site. One of which nobody knew about (staff turnover) until the last minute. Coordinating information before we began the site layout should have been more comprehensive. I’m not sure that the small volunteer team we had could have done more, but it’s something to keep in mind.

3. What absolutely needs to be done for launch?

When we designed our site map, I highlighted essential things without which it wouldn’t make sense to reroute to the new site. This included things like the library catalog, research databases, an events calendar, etc. We prioritized for those.

4. Hit your head against the wall because your template simply was not built to be easy to use.

I actually don’t recommend this, and it might be avoidable if you’re not inheriting a half-built site (which you have to unbuild to rebuild).

5. If you build it – find somebody who knows how to track it.

We put in some analytics tools to judge whether this was a success – we used a combination of Google Analytics and Woopra, both of which I also use for my personal site.

6. Try to delegate.

In my case, there wasn’t anyone else in the library who knew how to build the site, so I knew that actual construction stayed with the few volunteers. But I asked for content to be written. It didn’t come in on deadline, and we unpublished the pages that were delegated out but not completed. Anticipating this, we had delegated pages considered medium importance – they need done, but the site isn’t useless without them.

7. When all else fails, fudge it.

Some things that the powers that be expected of the website simply weren’t possible. We explained that to them, and with a lot of hesitation, they understood. We had cut corners (the corners can be squared off later), but made a functional website that the community can interact with. It’s dynamic, full of new content, and organized to make updates easy.

At this point, the website was released (it actually escaped), and we started to gather feedback on the first iteration. We tweaked, got feedback, continued to get feedback, etc. Some of it got put on the back burner because of finals, but small changes are consistently being made.

Overall, it’s a much better website. We’re working with library staff to get them up to speed on how to manage content, as well as use social media integration within the site to minimize their workload.

But for a website with one month and no budget, it went well,and I’m glad to have been a part of it. What do you think? Let me know in the comments here. http://www.carnegieofhomestead.com

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