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Preview the new website of the New York Public Library

December 16, 2009 | 10:30 am

Newnyplsite

The New York Public Library has redesigned -- and restructured -- its website. While the existing website is still online, curious visitors can view the upcoming version, which is in beta mode, fully online and functional.

The home page, pictured above, is a shift away from the existing version, which has a traditional black-text-on-white-background format. Those big blocks of color aren't the top of the page: They are the page. It's a bold choice, putting fewer things on the landing page of a site that contains so much content. And it forces attention to the nine choices in the gray navigation bar, which are based on surveys of what site visitors need.

Is it an improvement? A brief scratch of the surface shows that is in some clear ways. The existing site has two search boxes on its home page -- confusing! The new site, thankfully, has just one. The old site had a prominent calendar of events happening that day, across its large branch network -- good if you're trying to find a storytime anywhere, but not good when you're looking for something nearby or making advance plans. That event information is now down several layers, accessed after selecting "locations and hours" and choosing the specific library you're interested in. Not only more logical, but also a better use of home page space.

The new site's prominent Connect/Follow section leads users to a page that links off to a number of online meeting places, including the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, an archive of NYPL photos on Flickr, and NYPL multimedia at YouTube and iTunes (a recent event with members of the band the Velvet Underground, which sold out in less than four minutes, is online in its entirety). This shows that the NYPL is interested in connecting website users where they live -- online -- even if they don't reside in New York City.

Geeks may be interested to learn that the new site was built in Drupal, a robust open source content management system. In a video about the new website, the NYPL explains that librarians and other staff members will be able to, on an ongoing basis, direct attention to content that's interesting and unique. The features offered by Drupal, like tagging, make this possible, flexible and expandable.

The real challenge for libraries is getting information out of card catalogs and onto the Web in a comprehensible way. The model of card cataloging, which is exhaustive and refined, seems slightly byzantine for those acclimated to seeing exactly what they need with a single Google search. Search for "Charles Dickens" on the new site and there's a haphazardness to the results: "Great Expectations," a popular book by Dickens, is immediately followed by a book about Dickens. New sorting options -- by location, collection, language and so on -- appear down the left side of the page, and they help, but it shows that catalog searching still has room for improvement.

A live chat service, Ask NYPL, is available from every page; it opens a small chat window. Staff members from the NYPL, mostly librarians, are online from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time. Nick, who answered my questions, swore he was a real person and not a bot. He was efficient, though; he was less interested in being chatty than in providing links to answer my questions. I wanted to know whether he could find me Los Angeles' first newspaper: It was the Los Angeles Star, published from 1851 to 1875.

Maybe someday, someone will ask the librarians what the NYPL website used to look like. For now, you can see the long-standing site and the site of the future.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: NYPL.org

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