The Stuff of Life

My grandmother is a fiery little Italian-American/Native American lady, about five feet chock full of passion and active intellect, all accompanied by vigorous hand motions and a great laugh. She grew up in the Depression, and like most of her generation, they had a hard time of it. They didn’t have much stuff and what they had they sometimes weren’t able to keep for very long, including her father, who succumbed to tuberculosis when she was very small. She was a fabulous dancer in a fabulous time for dancing. The age of Big Band music swept she and my grandfather right into a marriage, and while that didn’t stand the test of time, her humor and love certainly have. Until recently, she could still cut a rug, too.

Two years ago my grandmother had a stroke. In fact, we discovered then she’d been having strokes – tiny wee ones, about twenty of them – over a long period of time, like aftershocks in reverse until finally The Big One hit. She’s fine now, although a bit more fragile, delicate like the onionskin pages of her favorite Bible.

However, this story isn’t actually about her, it’s about her house. She had been successfully avoiding doctors, nurses and the entire modern health-care industry for decades so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she hated the hospital. But, she couldn’t come home until there were paths cleared big enough for her new walker. This relatively straightforward task turned out to be quite an undertaking.

How much stuff do you have? How much stuff do you think you might be able to accumulate over eighty-some-odd years of living, nearly fifty in the same house, with three kids, five grandkids, a series of tenants, and a love for the thrift store paired with a ‘just in case’ mentality? A lot, as it turns out. Well, there we were – my mom, my Aunt Marcia, my fiancé-now-husband, and me – in a tiny bungalow packed full of clothes, furniture, old board games, photographs, knick-knacks … all manner of things. The Stuff of Life, you might say, except there was so much stuff nobody could really live there anymore.

We did the minimum we could to clear a path as fast as we could: it wasn’t our stuff and we didn’t want to be presumptuous. To be honest, it didn’t actually look that different to me ('just a few more pixels of padding,' I heard the UX designer in my head say). Gentler though she may be, her memory still reaches long, and to this day when I talk with my grandmother it’s not uncommon for her to mention something – it might only be a partial roll of wrapping paper – that ‘went missing.’

Being a nerd and an academic I naturally went meta on the whole situation and found myself nearly bowled over with the parallels between my personal life and the current project that was overtaking my time at the office – a website migration. Not just any migration, though; this one involved more than 8000 pages created over the period of a decade that had to be ported from a homegrown legacy content management system into Drupal. These pages were created for a library website, a large research library associated with a public institution – a library with hundreds of content creators and a print collection of around eight million volumes, growing all the time.

You might not have thought about it this way before, but let me break it down for you: research libraries hoard on purpose. It’s part of our job, actually. We collect as thoroughly as we can just in case. It’s not a problem for us to buy a book and have it gather dust for 10, 20, 30 years, because you never know, someone might need it and then we’ll have it. There are so many that we've had to construct a state-of-the-art offsite storage facility to house them safely for the ages. What can I say, we ran out of room. [Cue foreshadowing melody in a minor key.]

Most of the people tumbling into the library website spend most of their lives on the open web and only a little bit of time now and then in the library version.The library website is just one stop in their journey to finish a paper, an experiment, a degree, a dissertation, an academic career. They expect Amazon and Facebook, not Dewey and Ranganathan.

Our most dedicated users are, in fact, the library staff. After all, the library is their home. For them, the library website is a tool they use every day in their work, a Swiss Army knife, a giant shared radio channel manned separately and simultaneously by over a hundred DJs with eclectic tastes, each of whom have a copious backfile of deep cuts they yearn to share with the world. They are sitting on a gold mine of content and they want to share it with you.

So far it doesn't sound so bad. But as the joke goes, 'Librarians like to search; other people like to find.' In my experience, librarians also like directories, lists, and (I regret to say) tables. Remember that most of our mission historically has been about accumulating and then keeping things, forever. In a library, love means never having to say delete. You can probably begin to appreciate that the plight of the web team at an academic library is naturally fraught with contradiction.

Trust me: it can take a lot of web pages to adequately outline the contents of the miles and miles of stacks, and that doesn't even account for the information explosion of the Internet age. (Now we can have as many e-books as we can afford and still never have to buy new shelving!)

As a fellow librarian, I'm sympathetic to and supportive of this desire to make the collection accessible and discoverable; and I'm not saying bibliographies, finding aids, and all manner of research support documentation are not useful to researchers.

What I am saying is that, without putting a check on this constantly pulsating galaxy of information in the form of a robust content strategy, it makes for a totally bonkers website. A website full of furniture, clothes, old board games, photographs, knick-knacks ... all manner of things. The Stuff of Life, you might say, except there is so much stuff the website can't really live anymore. And God help you if you try to search it (a black hole is just a massive object that's imploded on itself, probably from insufficient metadata).

Content strategy is about making an accessible path. It's not all our stuff and we don't want to be presumptuous, but we have some novices that need to get through and who aren't really equipped to do so without some space to maneuver. So, dear colleagues, if your partial roll of wrapping paper goes missing, you know it was me.

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