Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Design Considerations for Multilingual Web Sites

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Design Considerations for Multilingual Web Sites

Article excerpt

The most powerful marketing, service, and information-distribution tool a library has today is its Web site, but providing Web content in many languages is complex. Before allocating scarce technical and financial resources, it is valuable to learn about writing systems, types of writing, how computers render and represent writing systems, and to study potential problem areas and their possible solutions. The accepted Web standard for presenting languages is Unicode and a full understanding of its history and the coding tools it provides is essential to making appropriate decisions for specific multilingual and internationalization projects. Actual coding examples, as well as a sampling of existing multilingual library services, also serve to illuminate the path of implementation.

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The most powerful marketing, customer service, and information-distribution tool a library has today is its Web site. Providing dynamic, cost-effective service delivery, along with twenty-four-hour availability, Web sites are fast surpassing any other form of widespread information delivery and exchange, especially as Internet access approaches ubiquity. Unlike other types of mass media, Web sites are instantly and automatically available in every country, and Web designers can, with some basic knowledge of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), present sites to virtually any Internet user in any language.

This ease of distribution belies somewhat the real challenges inherent in planning for an intercultural, multilingual reach. Recent research efforts show that the United States now represents only 27 percent of the world's Internet users and that English is the first language of only 36 percent of the world's users. (1) Moreover, many academic and public libraries serve an increasingly diverse population within the U.S. For example, the Queens Borough (New York) Library reported in 2000 that "almost half the [local] residents speak a language other than English at home." (2) This knowledge constitutes a mandate not only to internationalize one's Web site to extend its reach to non-English-speaking people, but also to do so with care, in order to ensure true communication and excellent service for all customers, regardless of country of origin.

Jakob Nielsen, a leading Web-usability expert, has proposed three principal areas for investigation by designers converting a preexisting local site to one with an international scope: navigation and layout, language handling, and regional content variation. (3) While navigation and content are critical components, the focus here will be on written language, its intrinsic characteristics, and their implications for Web site design.

Before allocating scarce technical and financial resources, it is important to gain a fuller sense of the topic of Web site internationalization. For effective translation of Web site content into other languages, it is valuable to learn about different writing systems, types of writing, how computers render and represent writing systems, and to study potential problem areas and their possible solutions in Web site internationalization. Scholars in fields as varied as marketing, anthropology, and psychology have produced a wealth of information about writing and a summary of their observations contributes a variety of insights that are useful to Web designers. The accepted standard for presenting languages on a Web site is Unicode, and a full understanding of Unicode history and the coding tools it provides to developers is essential to making appropriate decisions for specific multilingual and internationalization projects. Actual coding examples--specifically, the codes for character set, language, and direction of the text--as well as a sampling of existing multilingual library services also serve to illuminate the path of implementation.

* Writing Systems Defined

In the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems, Coulmas defined a writing system as:

   A set of visible or tactile signs used to represent units
   of language in a systematic way, with the purpose of
   recording messages which can be cited by everyone who
   knows the language in question and the rules by virtue
   of which its units are encoded in the writing system. … 
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