What does Reading Level have to do with Racism and Equity?

As the Web Services Librarian, I play an important role in determining the standards for content on the Boston Public Library website. The blogs are some of the most important content I oversee. They’re important because they let library workers talk about things they and their patrons care about. I think that connection to the public is special and needs to be protected.

As a part of the annual training bloggers go through, I remind them to keep their posts to a 10th grade reading level or below (ideally 8th grade). The few exceptions are on a case-by-case basis. However, staff members come back to me and say that the requirement is too restrictive, and what’s the big deal anyway?

When you don’t consider the reading level of your content, you are shutting out people who don’t read at the same level as you. Those people will most likely include, but are not limited to:

  • People of color
  • People who are poor
  • People with learning disabilities
  • People who don’t speak English as their first language

TL;DR: The reading level of your content is a racism and equity issue. If you’re not thinking about the reading levels of your content, you are preventing large groups of disadvantaged people from reading it. About half of adults in the U.S. do not read above an eighth grade reading level, and you are excluding them. Use hemingwayapp.com to help you reduce the reading level of your content.

Continue reading “What does Reading Level have to do with Racism and Equity?”
A bell curve graph that has a color legend on the top right, and uses color to differentiate five sections of the bell curve. This graph's colors will pass the color blindness filter tests.

Accessibility in Academic Research: Using Color

So my fiancé is a PhD student. That fact is only relevant in that it’s my main source of information about processes at various academic institutions. While he is a student and works for only one university, he is on projects with other universities, and regularly reviews papers for journals.

There are times he shows me or tells me about websites, surveys, graphs, or practices that clearly violate current accessibility standards. At times he has mentioned this to the people in charge of these items and he frequently gets the response along the lines of “I don’t think people with visual impairments will use this.”

As someone who strives to ensure accessibility practices are followed, this response makes me frustrated. But, rather than having this be a series with me venting about these transgressions, I’d like to take this time to give a brief overview on how academic faculty and staff (or other researchers) can build accessibility practices into their workflow and why they should.

This series is going to focus on a few main problems with accessibility in academic research, but by no means are they they only ones. If you’re curious about other accessibility considerations, take a look at Anne Gibson’s Alphabet of Accessibility on the Pastry Box Project; it’s fantastic.

Continue reading “Accessibility in Academic Research: Using Color”

What I’m Working On/Reading: July 2019

It’s been a while since I posted, but this is the first time I’ve had some free time to sit down and think about things I want to say or share.

When I did usability testing for the redesign of the Boston Public Library website last year, we found that seniors had the most difficulty using the new website. At the time, we didn’t have time to explore much into it. We made the edits we needed based on their feedback, but I wanted to revisit this. Seniors tend to be the demographic group with the most difficulty with technology, and changes. However, they’re also a significant part of the population. I want to make sure as we look forward, we aren’t leaving them behind. Now, we finally have the time to work on this project, so here are a few things I’m reading as I think about how I want to approach this.

Continue reading “What I’m Working On/Reading: July 2019”

photo of a public library website within a city library's website

What Not to Do on Your Library Website, or the Library Websites’ Hall of Shame: Not Having Your Own Website

This is a continuation of my Hall of Shame series. One of the many things I work on as a librarian is websites, more specifically, the usability, accessibility, and navigation of a website. In this series I will show examples of website sins libraries commit, and explain why they’re not good ideas. In all of my examples, the names of the libraries, and any other identifying information, will be blacked out to protect those guilty of these sins.

Before I go into this month’s post, I want to say this disclaimer: The issues I’m pointing out are very relevant, and should be rectified if there is a chance to do so. I don’t claim to know the budgets of these libraries or the reasoning behind their decisions, so I can only go off what I see on their websites.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin. This post is about libraries that don’t have their own website. Their website is folded into the university or city’s own websites. Below, are three big reasons why that is problematic, with screenshots of library websites to back up the evidence.

Continue reading “What Not to Do on Your Library Website, or the Library Websites’ Hall of Shame: Not Having Your Own Website”

So…What does a Web Librarian do?

This post expands on one of my earlier posts, Who and Where are the Librarians?.

I am currently employed as a Web Services Librarian in a public library, and I frequently am asked, what does a web librarian do, and why did you go to library school for that?

As a web services librarian, I’m basically a user experience professional, but I work specifically for libraries, and I work for one library instead of working in a company assigned to various companies’ projects.

With regards to my degree from library school, if I wanted to keep doing my job in the library world (which I do), I would be required to have one, but it also really prepared me for several key components of my job.

User Experience

So, what is user experience? One professional said, “A user experience, if it’s done well, it’s invisible, right?…by taking these bad experiences away, customers are happy, they come back.” My job is to make my library’s website easy to navigate and search so that the user feels the process is seamless and doesn’t have any problems finding information. This means looking at the organization of content, making sure the website is accessible to people with disabilities, and learning more about the users so I can make sure the website doesn’t do anything the user doesn’t want it to do.

Knowing the Users

One of the things that helps to create a good user experience is knowing our users, which is one of the parts of the job where having a Masters in Library Science (MLS) comes in handy. One of the many things I learned in graduate school was about how many different users interact with the library, and how people interact with websites in general, and their expectations for those interactions.

I also learned about survey design from grad school, since libraries constantly have a need to survey their users, either about their web presence, or about their services in general, or even to find more information about the population they serve. I use surveys in my job to learn more about the users who use the library and what they are most interested in finding at the library and on the website.

Organizing Information aka Information Architecture

One of the major components of library school is learning how to organize information. I don’t just mean cataloging, which is a required course, but studying library science is basically learning how best to organize information, and then do things with it, like teaching it, or deciding what information is worth purchasing, etc. This comes really in handy with library websites, because like all information, information on website needs to be organized too. Creating organic pathways for users to discover the information they seek is a big component of the job and making sure the categories used to group pages are both intuitive and explicit. You want your users to know exactly what you mean when you say, “Visit Us,” so that they hopefully know that they can find your hours and holiday closures in that category, and that they don’t expect to find the organization’s mission statement in that section.

Managing Content

One of the challenges of working on a website within a services profession, and this is especially true of librarians, is that they want to help. What this means is that they frequently have the urge to include all information that may be useful on the website, just in case the user wants it. However, there’s a point at which there’s just too much information, and the user can’t find it, or it becomes too overwhelming to process, and neither of those are good scenarios for the user’s experience. One of my jobs is to step in and talk to the librarians and get them to think realistically about what are the most important, and most needed things the users need on the website, and what are things they might need occasionally, and won’t have a problem contacting a librarian to obtain.

User Testing

Another aspect of my job is user testing. In this case, we are completely overhauling our current website, so before we unveil the new website, we want to do significant user testing. We especially want to make sure that we haven’t created any problems with people who have disabilities, as well as users who aren’t as savvy with technology, or any other group of users who come to our website. The more people who test out the website and can tell us what they think, the better that is for us. But, when we do this, I have to keep in mind that we cannot please everyone. We will never be able to make the website 100% perfect for everyone, so I have to take each suggestion with a grain of salt, and that can be hard to do. It can be really hard to decide what is an actual problem, and what is a minor inconvenience or something that’s just unexpected as users adjust to a drastically different website. While I might have been able to learn about this through another program, I was able to learn about user testing though library school, which gave me a good foundation to learn about how to create usability tests, as well as those judgement calls on user suggestions.


This is not at all an exhaustive list of things that I do in my job, or that other people with similar jobs do, but it represents some of the bigger items that I have to grapple with, and how library school prepared me for them.