Almost as soon as the public announcements about the California Digital Library were disseminated, we began to receive questions about how to reach it, what it contained, and how to use it.  The embryonic CDL does exist but in scattered sites, somewhat elusive links to journal content, and familiar forms of access that have not yet acquired a new look.  One of the highest priorities is to provide a locus for the CDL and a strong identity to showcase its potential to faculty, librarians, students, University administration, Academic Council, the Budget Office, the State Library, and the countless others who have a role in using and advancing the CDL.

The process of building the California Digital Library web site has begun, with the goal of providing a beta site this summer and public release in time for the fall term.  If the site is not ready for fall release, it will be delayed to the start of the winter term rather than be released in the middle of a term.  We want to be sure it is fully tested and functional, and provide advance notice so that libraries can incorporate it into their planning, training and publicity.  The site will be a work in progress for the foreseeable future, but we hope to develop a compelling framework that will be flexible enough to support the growth of the site during the near term.

Because of the short time frame, the fact that the CDL management staff is just now being appointed, and the ambitious nature of the project, the design process for the site is unusual.  The “design team” currently consists of the CDL senior management staff: Richard Lucier, Gary Lawrence, Bob Brandriff, Laine Farley, Beverlee French, and John Ober (when he joins the staff in May).  Susan Starr has also participated but will be leaving on April 10 to return to UC San Diego.  Although this group will be responsible for final decisions about the site, we will draw upon the expertise of various other groups from the campuses during the process.

The design team has met several times to discuss major components of the site as well as the design process.  Overall, we want to create a true library, albeit a new kind of library.  We hope to incorporate the feel of a traditional library, the aspects that make libraries a welcoming and appealing space, while making the transition to new ways of delivering content and services.  To test and guide decisions, we have developed a preliminary set of design principles:

– Responsive: fast, convenient, unobtrusive, predictable/comfortable, with minimal layers; simple but functional
– Reflecting the concept of one university, one library: integration of collections, a design that promotes and encourages movement to one digital library
– Collaboration/inclusiveness: the graphic identity should suggest the collaborative nature; the architecture should facilitate collaborative development
– Substantive: emphasis on carefully selected, high quality content, accompanied by tools and services that are essential for knowledge management in teaching and scholarship
– Integration and transition: integration of print and digital resources; use of technology to facilitate the transition to new models of teaching and research

Since the California Digital Library has no physical location, the graphic identity and presence of the site is especially important for conveying the mission and substance of the library.  The design team has selected a professional graphics design firm, Porchlight Productions, which has experience in designing other library-related and academic sites.  As the examples on their web site illustrate, they have a clean and distinctive graphic style that is well-suited to task-oriented, interactive sites.  The designer will develop the graphic identity, including a logo, color scheme, and a graphical aesthetic for creating other elements to provide a coherent scheme for the site.  The designer then will apply these elements to specific pages within the site, and test and refine the working site.  To complete the project, he will deliver a style guide that documents the design components and process and can be used for future development of the site.

We have selected another firm, Argus Associates, to work with us on developing something less tangible but equally as important — the information architecture for the site.  They describe the elements of information architecture as the “navigation systems, labeling systems, organization schemes, indexing, searching methods, metaphors [that] are the glue that holds together a web site and allows it to evolve smoothly.” The principals of this firm are professional librarians and have recently published a book on this topic (Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates, 1998).  This firm will produce a project plan and guide for ongoing development.  Although we are actively recruiting a Design Coordinator who will be responsible for this aspect of the site, we felt this firm would give us a head start and offer a firm basis on which to build the site.  They will meet with us on April 6 and 7 for an intensive review and analysis of the architectural issues based on our design goals, resulting in an initial project plan and guide for ongoing development.

Besides these two firms, we expect to consult with various groups of experts at key points in the process.  For example, one objective in developing the architecture is to facilitate collaborative development with campus libraries.  We might consult with campus library web coordinators to evaluate the architecture for that purpose.  We also anticipate consulting with project teams for specific applications and projects that will be part of the CDL, such as the Online Archive of California finding aids, technical reports, and Project Alexandria.  STIC members will also provide valuable advice on how the charter collection should be integrated.  The Melvyl web interface will continue to evolve, and the Resources section will be revamped to make links to other databases and electronic journals more visible.

To the extent that time allows, we hope to use focus groups to gauge reactions to the graphics from key audiences, such as faculty and students.  It will be a challenge to develop a design that appeals to both audiences and the various academic disciplines they represent.  We are considering using focus groups to gain insight from library staff as well on particular aspects of the site.

For the long-term development of the site, we anticipate that a standing design committee will provide high level principles and guidelines for maintaining the coherence, integrity and responsiveness of the site.  As mentioned previously, the Design Coordinator will play a key role in the ongoing development of the site, working closely with this committee, campus library web managers, technical staff and project teams.  Focus groups, usability studies, user feedback, statistics and other means of formal evaluation will continue to influence the direction of the site and priorities for making improvements.

Designing for a complex, constantly changing, and high-profile site is a major challenge and one that will by no means be “finished” at the time of public release. We will continue to rely on all parts of the University community to advise and assist in making this new library an essential part of their work.