Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Subject Guides 2.0: The first installment

Underused and neglected, subject guides seem to struggle to pull their weight in today's library. Students rarely seem to know that they exist, while pages are either outdated or barely touch the surface of potential online and library resources. Notwithstanding, subject guides often remain the only web presence that bibliographers have in the tightly controlled library website. Furthermore, this page may be one of the only contacts the digital native student has with the library.

2.0 subject guides still fulfill their original purpose of pointing students in the direction of resources but they expand the potential of the subject guide by creating a dynamic learning community. By providing a one stop shop for easily accessible research resources, the subject guide serves as a complete community or subject hub. This helps students become immersed and grounded within their subject, making their research more relevant and thereby directly contributing to academic learning objectives.

Many different tools are used to create subject guides in libraries; LibGuides from Springshare are a popular choice, while other libraries have gone with blogs and wikis, or stuck with plain html. Whatever the format, this column aims to provide ideas to jazz up research guides and convert static subject guides into dynamic learning communities.
According to Jakob Nielsen, most people take under 1 second to decide whether to stay on a webpage or not. Most web page visits last 2-4 minutes. Therefore, if we want to ensure patrons use our subject guides, it is important that they are attractive (clear, easy to use) and have enough easily accessible content to make them stay there- and to return. Furthermore, it is important to remember that patrons come looking for answers, not tools. While a list of useful tools make the librarian happy, the same list can be off putting and overwhelming to patrons who have no idea how or where to start. So how can we include useful academic content in a visually attractive way that inspires students to use our resources?

One simple way is to embed widgets into the subject guide. A widget is a chunk of code that you can easily paste into your page and which provides a dynamic link back to an original resource. A widget is usually a tool that can be used directly from your page, for example a search box for a database. Widgets break up the text on a page and mean that students can find and use resources straightaway rather than following endless links to the library's main page. Furthermore, a search box is a familiar option that implies immediate results; an attractive option for students!

Widgets are starting to become more and more frequent. They already exist for many Spanish and Portuguese databases, including ones housed through Proquest and Ebsco. Redalyc and JSTOR among others are also in on the action. Widgets also include tools that students might need during their research. Oxford Language Dictionaries Online or Wordreference both provide code for dictionary widget search boxes. Including easy access to tools that students use in their research not only makes your page look more thoughtful and user friendly but it also contributes to the learning community feel of the subject guide and encourages use of academic tools.

Videos and video tutorials are also prime candidates to embed on your webpage. Many libraries are uploading video tutorials directly to Youtube, Google video or other video sharing websites. These videos are easy to embed on your web page; simply cut and paste the code on the right of the video. On the other hand, it may be easier to produce your own video tutorial. Jing, free screencasting software, is a very simple and user friendly way to record five minute videos. It also automatically uploads and provides the embedding code for your video. For videos that don't provide embedding code, here is a quick tutorial.

If you can copy and paste, you can embed a widget. And, if you are using Libguides, it is even easier to embed these tools. Widgetify your life!

The next column will include more ideas to transform your subject guide.

Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder
Alison.Hicks @


  1. Here is a fresh look at Subject Guides and something I will pass along to my colleagues.

  2. Thanks, Tess! I hope some of the ideas work out for you. I should be posting Part II shortly.