Friday, January 23, 2009

Creating a Web Laboratory

by Roy “Todd” Vandenbark, Part-time Temporary Special Project Developer, Library Information Technology Services

I recently attended the Library Information Technology Association (LITA) Forum. Some of the sessions I attended were about topics such as distance learning, hacking prevention for Web 2.0 applications, and optimizing library resources for persons who read on screen.

One of the sessions most directly applicable to my work in the University Libraries was Jason Battles’ and Jody Combs’ session, “Building a Web-based Laboratory for Library Users.” As library technology staff develop new products and services, a major question is how to test and market the products effectively to students and faculty. To address this problem, Battles and Combs may have adopted an idea from Google that will prove useful in libraries.

Google Labs is a site that showcases prototypes of software, or beta versions. These are available to the public for “test driving” in return for feedback about the experience. Battles and Combs adapted this for the Vanderbilt University Libraries to seek suggestions for new services, highlight and seek feedback on projects under development, and recruit participants for usability studies and focus groups. This online “Web laboratory” is organized similar to a blog, with an RSS feed to allow visitors to track updates and additions to the site.

It also includes an integrated feedback mechanism in the form of comment boxes for each item and for the site as a whole. Responses are recorded in a database where administrators can track and analyze user comments. Their concept has proven so successful that four additional academic libraries in addition to Vanderbilt are using it: the University of Alabama, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Virginia.
Advantages of a Web Lab

A library’s “Web lab” offers a number of advantages available to institutions of any size. Because it can be set up in a blog format, its implementation is quick, easy, and does not require technical staff. It also frees libraries from forcing innovations to fit an academic calendar. Online testing and feedback also helps the library serve distance learners who do not necessarily use the physical library, allowing them to see and comment on how the library serves them. Feedback on major projects such as redesigning a Web site or library catalog interface can be honed for greater success, avoiding mistakes in interface design and functionality, and tailoring services to better meet the changing needs of patrons.

Ball State University Libraries’ efforts to remain at the cutting edge of innovation include adopting successful concepts developed at other institutions. Our Libraries’ version of this Web Lab is currently under development, visit

For more information, contact Roy “Todd” Vandenbark, University Libraries’ Part-time Temporary Special Project Developer,, 765-285-8032.

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