SOPAC for the Smaller Set

By Kate Sheehan |

The Darien Library’s new website and SOPAC 2.0 have been live for just over a week, during which time we staffers have had a chance to reflect on our wonderful new online presence. John Blyberg offers a thorough explanation of the technical details at his blog. The impact of SOPAC on the larger library world has been under exploration by much of the biblioblogosphere. Behind the scenes, it's been just as exciting.

The transition to a new website can be a major undertaking for any library. Even if your previous website is terrible, staff are used to it. Like a family trying to sell their house, librarians and webmasters don’t see their own clutter, poor layouts or lousy artwork. However, like a new house, a new site is an opportunity to start fresh, to pick new paint and claim a new room to set up just the way you like.

All images created by John Blyberg for the new

Our staff of active bloggers were undaunted by the prospect of a CMS-based site that would involve of lot of user and staff participation. Having lived through Moveable Type 3.0, we welcomed Drupal 6 like a box of popsicles in mid-July. Our blogs , however, remained old school (yes, blogging is old enough to have an old school iteration) and were separate from the site. The home page linked to the blogs regularly, but postings updated only the blogs, not the website.

The change to a CMS and SOPAC 2.0 has had a tremendous impact on our library, particularly on the area of the site devoted to children, which has blossomed in just two weeks. I spoke with our Head of Children’s Services, Gretchen Hams, about the new site, writing on the web for children and virtual worlds.

KJS: You and your department have done such a wonderful job of creating content on the site. How is the web different for kids?

GH: Kids use the site in a very different way. Kids are searchers. They aren’t going to look and browse. They want to search for their answers. There’s a lot of research out there with kids using eye-tracking software: they don’t read a page like adults do. They start in the middle and then they jump around and look for what’s relevant to them. We tried to keep our categories and options as simple and as connected to their needs as possible. In the Kids section, we only have four categories. In the First Five section, there are more because it’s really for the parents.

 KJS: How does that work out in your interactions with children at the desk?

GH: I never use the staff interface to search when I’m working with children. On the new site, I can use keywords and string together words and I get much better results on the site than I do on the back end. We can use more nuance in our search on the site, we can even use parts of the call number- ER for Easy Reader, for example. When working with our patrons I can constantly teach informally with that experience. I’m not doing something only I can do, where I’m the expert and they can’t get to the same information I can. I’m modeling how to do it, which is a big part of childhood development- modeling behaviors.

KJS: How about the staff’s relationship with the web? Has that changed?

GH: When the blogs were a separate function of the old site, they were disconnected from our online presence. Blogging was doled out as a staff responsibility to one or two people. When we first started working in the staging site, I encouraged everyone to participate, which took some adjusting to for most of the department. There are a couple of staff members who discovered with the new website that they had a great voice and lots of really interesting things to share. Part of what makes any library staff strong is having varied experiences and bringing a wide range of voices to the table and sharing that range is a way to reach out to the community. Many of the staff are feeling invigorated with this new aspect of their jobs, especially part time staffers. I’m really happy to encourage it because it’s so wonderful. This is just like when you are learning to play the piano and you have to practice. The more you do it, the better it gets. In the two weeks since we’ve been live, they’re posting more and more and their posts are getting better and better.

KJS: I’ve been surprised by the difference between blogs and a Drupal-driven site. Even though it seems like they’d be similar for the staff--log in, write something, click publish--it’s very different.

GH: Yes, we can respond immediately to things that are happening in our community. With any challenge we’re facing--even a parent who can’t find a certain type of book or something ordinary like that–we can respond immediately to help that person. Since we’re posting online, we’re helping those who aren’t stopping to ask us about books they can’t find or for homework help. The bonus of being able to respond immediately has a flip side: children’s librarians are ALWAYS BUSY. This creates another obligation for us, but if we think about it in the right way- as another service point- it moves up the priority list.

KJS: What’s at the top of your priority list now?

GH: I feel like we still have work to do--part of having this electronic conversation needs more work, particularly in the First Five section. That age is much more dynamic than we can do even with the site as it is. We need to add podcasts and videos of us doing rhymes and songs and stories. What’s special about this site is that it will be US doing it. It’s frustrating because we aren’t there yet, but it’s wonderful because we will be doing that. The reason it’s so essential is that we have these tools is that for really small children, early literacy development is not just reading books to them. All of the motor skills and development are part of that and those don’t just happen when the library is open. Parents can put books on hold after 9 pm, but what about that mom who has a fussy baby who’s trying to get to sleep at 1am and she’s trying to remember lullabies? She can go on the library’s website and get them… we’ll be able to provide 24 hour library service for this really bit part of our population. Children, especially small children don’t have Monday- Friday 9-5 schedules.

KJS: So, what’s next?

GH: One of the most popular websites kids use is Club Penguin. Kids will sit right next to each other and hang out on Club Penguin. They’ll be communicating in both the physical and virtual space. Sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz are what kids expect to see online. They’re fun but they’re not made with a lot of mediocre clip art; they look good. We'd love to use this site to be able to create something similar where kids and families can communicate through the physical and virtual space under the umbrella of the library's mission and vision. So we’re working towards message boards and forums for Darien families to communicate with each other. Why not have it come through the library website?