Searching for the Library: University Home Page Design and Missing Links

Article excerpt

Genre analysis is used to explain the placement of links to the library on more than one hundred college and university home pages. Despite the lack of established standards, university home page design falls into common patterns, indicating genre development. However, a number of university home pages do not provide a direct link to the library Web pages and thus disrupt user expectations. On those sites, the Web designers provide other access to the library Web pages either through redundancy or by classifying the library with other services. Omitting an active link to the library does not serve design principles, users, or universities well.

Almost every college and university in the United States has an official Web site. These sites appear to serve three functions: digital college catalog, public relations brochure, and access point to university online services. However, the home pages of a number of colleges and universities do not provide an active or visible link to the university libraries. Using qualitative methodologies, particularly genre analysis (usually applied to other contemporary media), this article analyzes the home page designs of the 109 U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities that are members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in an attempt to understand the placement of links to the library.[1] The analysis focuses on the Web page only. It attempts to identify formal characteristics of the text itself. It does not compare the nature of university home pages created by public information offices to library home pages. It does not analyze user perceptions of Web pages or the intentions of university officials and Web page designers. It analyzes what appears to be the first gateway Web page of a university in an attempt to learn something about university home pages that do not provide an immediately visible link to the library.

Media, Genre, and Analysis

A number of researchers have begun to use the concept of genre in their analyses of digital documents and the Internet.[2] While genre is perhaps most commonly understood as a synonym for category, contemporary theories of print, broadcast, and electronic media define genre as semiological frameworks within which both the producers and users of media texts operate. That is, a genre provides a shared code, a set of expectations about the resulting media product.[3] McQuail says that "... genre may be considered as a practical advice for helping any mass medium to produce consistently and efficiently and to relate its production to the expectations of its customers."[4]

Television audiences, for example, have learned and now expect that situation comedies will end happily, with all problems resolved at the end of the half hour. At the same time, the formula provided by the genre facilitates production, since the writers, directors, and producers are not producing a new form from scratch, impossible to do on the weekly basis commercial television demands. As it has been developed within the television industry, genre offers guidelines about almost everything from the duration of each scene to the number and placement of cameras. Attempts to change generic expectations, such as adding music to news shows or killing off sitcom characters, tend to produce controversy and discomfort among audience members.[5] Perhaps more importantly to those of us concerned about Web page design, disrupting audience expectations of a particular genre tends to frustrate that audience into abandoning the show.

But what of successful new genres? The lines between genres can blur when producers experiment, producing such "recombinant genres" as prime-time soaps, entertainment news, and TV news magazines.[6] In addition, new technologies have provided the institutional impetus for new or modified genres. Printing technology, for example, modified our expectations about the form that a book takes by allowing for the development of the table of contents and by producing identical copies of a book. …