Editors Note: Over the next twelve weeks, The Content Wrangler will present a series of articles designed to provide useful insights and practical guidance for those who produce online help websites. Columnist Robert Norris will teach you how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online help websites starting with this first installment that encourages us to, “Think like a Librarian.”

By Robert Norris, special to The Content Wrangler

When engaging a new client who needs assistance with their online help system(s), I often characterize my role as consulting librarian. It is typically more meaningful to the staff than “knowledge manager,” “content troubleshooter” or any other label I might choose. I’ve also noticed that it is generally non-threatening to departmental subject matter experts and their colleagues from IT.  Moreover, the stereotypical librarian engenders confidence by projecting competence and calmness ,  albeit with a useful touch of unquestioned authority: “Ssshhh”. I have the education and experience to warrant the label, but the lack of an MLIS does not prevent any of us from thinking like a librarian to invoke the advantages such a perspective can bestow.

Here are five practical and useful aspects of librarianship we might adapt to our practice:

  1. Target Effectiveness Before Seeking Efficiency. Librarians curating new collections typically don’t start with a pre-ordained organization scheme and plug resources into it because of the risks posed by unknown factors. Most of us have personal experience with this flawed approach: If our pantry and/or garage is difficult to navigate (i.e., it’s hard to locate and access needed resources), chances are that an organization scheme was imposed at the outset that became unmanageable as the quantity and diversity of content changed over time. While being a source of annoyance at home, organization that is unsuited to our business needs is a serious obstacle at work. Suggested Approach:  When assembling a collection, invoke a simplistic organizing scheme from the outset with the stated intention of monitoring demand, user behavior and feedback to surface nuanced requirements before the fine-tuning begins.  This approach also has the advantage of calibrating the expectation at the outset that – for improvements to happen – users have a key role to play.
  2. Embrace Diversity of Design. The most common misconception about librarianship is that all libraries are clones with respect to the mechanisms of organization, management and navigation of content. Just as building codes set certain parameters that allow architects the flexibility to design wonderfully different structures, libraries are developed within a common framework of standards and best practices, but emerge as richly diverse. Implication:  It is unnecessarily inhibiting to imagine that there is one best way to organize resources. Rather, it is empowering to consider that a spectrum of options are available to meet the unique needs of our audiences.  Seek contributors who enjoy organizing resources and are eager to embrace the opportunity for discovery and creativity.
  3. Craft Tailored Solutions. Librarians focus both on the nature of the resources and the needs of the users.  Most importantly, they expect to refine their approach over time. For example, observing that only the current issue of a periodical is in high demand leads to a much different navigation scheme than that for a periodical whose past issues are routinely used. Suggested Approach: Invoke a phased approach that defines success during the initial period of discovery as collaboratively determining what does (and does not) work.  When a concept has gelled, build an exemplar collection to determine feasibility and garner feedback before shifting to production.
  4. Compromise. Unless the library is serving the needs of a single type of user (like my tool bench), the scheme for organizing and navigating its collections must be a compromise. Put another way: Optimizing for one set of users will adversely impact others, e.g. the needs of experts and novices are vastly different, yet it may be that both must be accommodated. Suggested Approach:  Identify the target audiences and involve advocates for each to help calibrate unique needs.  Seek advocates from those who routinely engage the audience, e.g. existing customers and support team, new hires & onboarding team, potential customers and sales.
  5. Enhance. Librarians are keen to spot opportunities to add value. When a user engages a topic, it is an opportunity for someone with knowledge of complementary resources to be of service. Of course — with virtual copies — it is much simpler to do this online than within a physical library. Suggested Approach:  Build problem-solving toolkits that present the user with the tools — links to policy, guidance, forms and examples — needed to achieve the desired outcome, e.g. everything needed to submit an expense report for an international trip.

Though some of the traits of librarianship described above may not align with your particular circumstance, I will close by sharing three insights I’ve found to be nearly universal:

  • Online help systems are dynamic. Requirements change, so the knowledge base must be refined over time. This is why digital librarians try to avoid rigid parameters while planning to accommodate change. For example, a controlled vocabulary of descriptive labels (tags) needs to be instantiated in such a way as to be refined as conditions change.  This topic will be covered in two weeks.
  • Expect technical constraints to be overcome. This may seem counter-intuitive, but that which is causing you a headache today is likely to become negligible soon — e.g., browser incompatibility with a format that is growing in popularity, file size constraints for multimedia.
  • Don’t expect colleagues to comply with standards. If multiple people will be contributing to a knowledge base, standards should be applied automatically. Look no further than file-naming: The people who conceive of file naming standards find the structure comforting and logical; colleagues treat them as onerous red tape. Voluntary standards are a maintenance and quality-control headache waiting to happen. Critically examine the burden of a standard and be realistic: If you don’t want .wmv files — and do want .mp4 — don’t expect that publishers will comply; think like a librarian and enforce it on the back end.

Part Two:  Robert’s next article, “Building Problem-Solving Toolkits,” details how to configure virtual copies of knowledge base resources into useful collections without the maintenance headache of duplicating content.