National library associations websites and electronic discussion

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					National library associations: websites and electronic discussion groups Al-Amin Yusuph1
Al-Amin Yusuph Library and Information Services Manager, British Council, PO Box 9100, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania Al-Amin.Yusuph@britishcouncil.or.tz

Abstract
This article reviews the state of national library association websites in Africa based on an examination and analysis of the Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia sites. Problems identified include lack of regular updates, technical errors, lack of funds to acquire quality website editing tools and hosting facilities, and lack of promotion. Few electronic discussion groups exist, and those that do are mainly operated through free hosts such as yahoogroups, and are password protected. They are not well promoted and therefore not searchable using search engines. Recommended improvements for websites include proper hosting services and URL registrations, promotion through links with weblogs, assistance in training webmasters, and encouragement so that they can network and share experiences.

Introduction
Although the commercial sector has been able to use the World Wide Web successfully to extend its reach to customers, the library and information services sector in Africa has not yet managed to harness the Web’s potential fully. This study aims to review the state of existing national library association websites in Africa, identifying their strengths and their shortcomings and also identifying possible ways of improving their impact. Desk research was done by analysing the websites of the Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia associations. The South African website, which was initially sampled, was dropped from the list after realising that it was the only website built from PHP code. The South African website

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however can be used as a model which other library association websites might consider emulating. The observation involved looking at the content and technical features built on the national websites; testing of the correctness and observance of website design rules using the HTML validation tools and links checking tools from http://www.anybrowser.com/. Anybrowser.com is one of the general validation tools recommended by the World Wide Web consortium (www.w3c.org). Other factors observed were the frequency with which the websites were updated; the number of pages built into the websites; identifying the popularity of using free hosting services; the use of national top level domain names (TLDs); the availability of discussion lists linked to the national websites; the techniques used to link external websites and other resources; and the websites’ strengths in marketing were tested using the search engine view to determine how the search engines view the websites. The existence of African national library associations online is still limited. In the few cases where national library association websites exist, they are not regularly updated on time, have many technical errors and are not well promoted. The findings also indicate lack of funds that can be used to acquire quality website editing tools and hosting facilities. The findings are not necessarily representative because the sampled websites are very few due to the low online presence of national library associations in Africa. The tests were also not validated using many testing tools. There is also a limited focus on electronic discussion groups because very few exist, and the few that exist are mainly operated through free hosts such as Yahoogroups, and are password protected. The few existing electronic discussion groups are not well promoted and therefore not searchable using search engines. The methodology section can provide guidance for other national library associations that consider designing and maintaining their websites. The findings can shed light on the reasons that hinder national library associations from creating their presence on the World Wide Web. These findings can also be used by national library associations in Africa to raise funds for training and deploying more quality websites as well as acting as a catalyst to encourage the selection of appropriate technologies used in their design. This study utilized a unique combination of usability testing, survey questionnaire and data collection methods that may be adopted to form a system of testing and monitoring national library association websites in Africa.

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Literature review
Figure 1 The implementation circle of websites

Source: Lawton Henry 2005

All web components must work together in order for the web to be accessible. When accessibility features are effectively implemented in one component, the other components are more likely to implement them. The components include technical specifications, World Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines, developers, authoring tools, evaluation tools, user agents, assistive technologies and users’ knowledge (Lawton Henry 2005). The home page plays a pivotal role in gaining and holding consumers’ attention, either luring them into the website or driving them away. The home pages work as the main navigation parts of any website. The careful design of the site navigation is very important in ensuring a smooth customer journey. It is through the navigation tools that site users maintain a mental map of where they are in the web site, and how the various sections of the web site, and the various pages, are related to each other (Geissler 2001, Clyde 2000). Testing of the content on the homepage and the technology in use is also essential. In this study the validation tools tested on the compliance of the websites to HTML 4.0. A good web homepage should have information of what

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is on offer, what is inside and the contact details. The design should also take into consideration users who may not have computers that can cope with the very latest technical capabilities (Geissler 2001). The unprecedented rise in the popularity of search engines such as Google, and the improved capabilities of search engines have made searching of the web an easy feat. Users no longer need to remember the URLs of websites. Websites that are not search engine friendly lose many potential users. From a business perspective, companies with inaccessible websites are missing out on millions of consumers (Loiacono and McCoy 2004). Other technical errors that can destroy user experiences includes visual and dynamic effects that do not meet the needs of users; overwhelming users with too much information; and ignoring structure, navigation, and content integrity (Shelstad 2005). There may be a general lack of web design and web management skills amongst the library and information professionals in Africa. Today, unfortunately, most libraries do not have any formal methodology in place for developing usability skills in their staff, let alone on an on-going basis (Cervone 2005). There may also be a lack of skills required for those writing for the web. Writing for the web is even more public than writing a print brochure. It requires good writing skills and sometimes journalism skills. This is not a task that can be handed to just anyone though the amount of bad writing on the web suggests that this is sometimes the case (Clyde 2000). Despite the low online presence of African library associations, the few sites available are, arguably, a success. The majority of library association members are aware of the existence of the websites. But the question still remains as to what constitutes a successful website. Is it the number of hits, or the number of downloads, or the good looks of the site? Success for a web site can be defined in a variety of ways, depending upon its aim. Success could be return on investment, profitability, effectiveness, reliability, utility, or competitive advantage (Phippen et al. 2004). On the other hand traditional measures of success such as hits and pages views can be woefully inadequate for assessing the success of web sites, due to the fact that their simplistic and ambiguous nature can induce misleading conclusions (for example, the spidering of a website can indicate lots of hits and the use of frames can greatly increase the number of page views) (Phippen 2004).

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Findings
Websites The existence of library association websites in Africa is still scanty compared to the number of existing associations. Is the low presence attributed to the low internet connectivity in Africa which translates to few target users? Does it reflect the level of web development skills amongst the library and information professionals in Africa, or the existence and vibrancy of library associations? Many library associations would like to have an online presence, but they lack human and financial resources to deploy websites and electronic discussion groups. In some instances the resources are available but what is required is an energetic champion who could lead the deployment programme. For instance the Sierra Leone and Ghana library associations have been intending to set up websites, but time has been the main constraint. The notion that library associations may not have enough users due to low internet connectivity is unfounded because depending on the content built on the site, websites could offer a good return on investment by saving association members time and resources. Here is a good example of the possible return on investment from a library association with 200 members who need membership application forms once every year from their association and maybe two more application forms for different workshops and seminars available from the library association. This example assumes that on the one hand, the members use either the post office, or email the library association to request for the application forms. The costs for posting (and emailing) remove? application forms are compared with the costs of downloading the application forms from commercial cyber cafes. Both the estimated direct and indirect costs are reflected in Tables 1 and 2 below and are based on Tanzanian costs.
Table 1 Direct costs and time savings per one application form

Mechanism

Item cost

Cost x 200

Posting letters Downloading from website

$0.50 $0.17

$100 $34

Average time spent transacting 20 days 10 minutes

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Table 2 Indirect costs that can be attributed to posting 600 application forms in three months

Costs

Investment x 1 event Electricity 50 units $10 Staffing/monthly $500 Toner, paper $500 Internet/month $100 Space/3 square metres $15 Maintenance/depreciation $100 costs Total $1225

X3 events $30 $1500 $1500 $300 $45 $300 $3675

Downloading Savings costs

$34

$34

$3641

The calculations shown above show that the savings that a website can offer to the library association and 200 members who download application forms three times in the year could amount to about $3,500 to $4,000. This figure does not include time spent transacting business through the post. The results on the possible return on investment (ROI) for just three events provides enough evidence of the strategic need for the existence of national library associations websites. Most of the library association websites sampled are designed by volunteer webmasters who have other full time jobs. The webmasters develop the websites with general content that will not require frequent editing. Only two websites out of the six national library association websites sampled on 14 October 2005 were edited within the previous three months. The technical tests conducted on the sampled websites validate the assumption that national library association webmasters are busy, and do not have the time to thoroughly test the sites after completion. The tests conducted show that the average errors on the homepages were 27 errors per page. Some of the sampled websites have been completely developed using web authoring tools such as Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver, to mention just a few. The high rate of errors might be a result of too much reliance and dependence of using web authoring tools. The reliance of web authoring tools indicates that webmasters do not have time to design websites thoroughly and the hard way. Web authoring tools offer quick fixes due to their ability to quickly design and deploy websites. The errors generated show that there were on average more errors in the body text (21) compared to errors on the head of the pages (4). The body text, being the biggest part of a website, is more likely to have errors. However having an average of four errors on the website header raises questions about the accuracy of the web authoring tools.

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Tests to check homepage links showed that on average the sampled national library association websites had 30 links on their home pages alone. In this study, a link is defined as any connection between content within the site, and connections between content in the site and other content from external websites. For instance an image that acts as a connection between the national library association website homepage internal or external site is considered to be a link. There were on average three bad links for each national library association homepage. Bad links are a recipe to search engine failure to spider the site, for instance Google’s search spider crawls websites by moving from link to link. Any broken links will prevent the spider from seeing other parts of the site (Marshall 2004). There is a saying among website experts that “an image tells a thousand words”. Images, if used well, can be highly effective in catching user attention and giving out information in an effective way. Unfortunately there is very little use of images on national library association websites in Africa. The average library association website in Africa contains 10-20 pages and use of top level country domain names is popular. There are however a few cases where non-national top level domain names are used, maybe because in a situation where resources are scarce, diverting resources to register and maintain a local top level domain name is not considered to be a priority. Some of the association websites for instance still run on free hosting servers. Hypertext Markup language (HTML) is the dominant scripting language used to develop library association websites. HTML is easy to build and is easily supported by many applications. Websites built from HTML are also fast as the browsers that web visitors use do not have to run the websites from the server end (that concept is professionally known as server side scripts). Other formats such as Active Server Pages (ASP) and Personal Home Pages (PHP) are all server-side-run and therefore slower in response. ASP and PHP are however more flexible and interactive than pure HTML which is basically a static website. PHP is an open source technology, and therefore a cost effective solution that could improve the national library association websites. In general the observations made above show that library association websites are lighter, smaller, faster and to a large extent static. National library association websites can therefore be improved by making them more interactive through the use of PHP and ASP scripting.

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Table 3 Results of tests conducted on the sampled websites

Generator Macromedia Generator Mozilla Generator FrontPage Generator Text Errors in <Head> Errors in <Body> Total Home page links Bad links in Home page Total Errors

Namibia Senegal Tanzania Swaziland Nigeria Botswana √ √ √ √ 1 0 20 2 3 1 2 4 0 3 0 16 43 1 17 0 22 20 0 22 √ 2 34 37 1 37 17 50 53 15 82

A website that is designed, uploaded and left on the World Wide Web without marketing is like a lonely star in the constellation. The number of pages indexed by Google for instance, is more than 4,285,199,774, and the number is growing at a very fast rate (Marshall 2004). There are several ways to market a website, including listing the site on directories such as Yahoo, Alta Vista and Google. The exercise of listing the website requires careful identification of the appropriate category. Registration is not usually instantaneous but takes a while to be put into effect. Another method of marketing sites is through search engine registration. Search engines such as Google no longer use the ranking method to identify popular websites, but they use links to identify the popularity of websites. The idea behind this concept is that the more the website is linked to other sites the more popular the website is likely to be. Tests conducted on the library association websites showed that almost all their external links open in the same browser windows, which means that library association websites lose visitors by allowing them to wander off the World Wide Web. The average web visitor is usually an impatient information seeker, most of the time constrained by time, or information overload. The average user might also be constrained by the fact that internet access needs to be paid for, and that the

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more time he or she spends looking for information the more money is wasted. Tests on the sampled library association websites shows that there is a lot of content that is accessible only by scrolling down web pages. To the impatient web visitor such hidden content is equivalent to unavailable content. Marketing of library association websites can also be done outside the website itself by publishing the URL on stationery, announcements and other published materials. There is room for more marketing of national library association websites to search engines. Two websites out of the six sampled had clear introductory notes and keywords. One of the websites even had code that has been built on the homepage to forbid search engines to spider the website. Electronic discussion groups Electronic discussion groups are slowly gaining popularity in Africa. Three of the national association websites are linked to electronic discussion groups. Discussion groups have created new communication channels for library associations. With electronic discussion lists, library association office bearers can easily communicate information to the association members. Many library association members in Africa have web email addresses. The predominant email accounts in use are Yahoo and Hotmail. However, not all members are able to access their emails regularly leading to bouncing emails due to inactive accounts. Due to lack of time, the electronic discussion lists are not well moderated. The lack of moderation results in circulation of spam, chain emails and even viruses. Below are the settings of the Tanzania Library Association electronic discussion group that have proved to be effective in managing the group with minimum moderation. Tanzania Library Association uses Yahoogroups.

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Table 4 Ideal settings for electronic discussion lists: the case of Tanzania

Activity New members joining

Settings Restricted

Posting emails

Un-moderated

Posting attachments

Attachments stripped from messages Allowed

Uploading files on websites

Reply message to all

Allowed as default setting

Reasons To ensure only genuine members join the group – stop spam by restricting spammers to join Moderator does not have time to moderate each posting – quality already assured by restricting those who joined To restrict circulating viruses and other malware to members Members encouraged to upload attachments on website instead of circulating by email Encourage information sharing

Despite their effectiveness, free electronic discussion groups cannot be fully branded and have non-meaningful URLs that are not closely related to the identities of library associations.

Conclusions
There is obviously very little investment in the development of library association websites in Africa. The low investment is a direct result of the resource constraints that library associations face. Despite this, webmasters of the sites should be encouraged to test websites and correct errors as well as update the websites regularly. Marketing of national library association websites needs improving. One of the effective techniques that association websites could use to promote their websites is through the use of weblogs. These have proven to be very effective in raising the profile of websites. African library associations might consider exchanging links, linking their websites to their discussion groups and weblogs. The more sites that link to your pages, the more likely you are to appear at the top of the search engine results (Marshall 2004).

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The marketing of websites can be done from all fronts, including during the actual design of the websites. For instance, webmasters might consider designing their sites to open any external links in new browser windows. External links that open in the same browser windows encourage web users to wander off the site. Links that open in new windows encourage users to return to the site, and at the same time register more visitor time with the website (statistical) tracking tools. Websites should be designed with consideration of impatient and timeconstrained web visitors. For instance pages loaded with content may be linked with subject headings that appear on the top of the page, and then bookmarked to the actual content within the pages. The rule of thumb is never to keep content more than three clicks away. One to two clicks is the ideal. Library associations in Africa should be assisted to get proper hosting services and URL registrations. Technical assistance is also needed to train webmasters and encourage them to network and share experiences. The formation of a network of national library association webmasters may be a good beginning. There is a need for library associations to get funding to acquire better web authoring tools. There is also a need to investigate the possible use of databases and other technologies that can make the websites more interactive. If the commercial world has managed to design websites that offer the customer the full benefits of reviewing, comparing, shopping and buying online, why is it not possible for national library associations to do the same? Another affordable technology that is worth investigating is the RSS news feeds. None of the national library associations in Africa utilise the technology. The distant future of national library associations in Africa lies in more creative use of websites such as the use of the websites for information delivery, managing transactions and the provision of subscription services and access authentication systems for purposes of offering continuing professional development. Association websites will then be able to offer resources such as professional journals and other publications to members. Whereas fixed lines telephony and internet penetration is still low in Africa, many users are having more access to mobile telephony, GSM technology in particular. There is also a need to investigate the possible convergence of wireless and mobile technology with web content.

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References
Abou-Zahra, Shadi et al. 2005. Evaluation, repair, and transformation tools for Web content accessibility. http://www.w3.org/WAI/ER/existingtools.html#Evaluation Accessed 10 October 2005. Cervone, Frank. 2005. Usability training, an overlooked component in an ongoing program of web assessment and development. OCLC systems & services 21(3): 244-251. Clyde, Laurel A. 2000. A strategic planning approach to web site management. The electronic library 18(2): 97-108. Geissler, Gary L. 2001. Building customer relationships online: the web designers’ perspective. Journal of consumer marketing 18 (6): 488-502. Lawton Henry, Shawn. World accessibility initiative guidelines. http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/components Accessed 10 October 2005. Loiacono, Eleanor and Scott McCoy. 2004. Web site accessibility: an online sector analysis. Information technology and people 17(1): 87-101. Marshall, Gary. 2004. Search engine secrets. .Net May: 28-35. Nielsen, J. 2000. Why at: www.useit.com/alertbox/20000319.html Accessed 8 October 2005. Phippen, A. et al. 2004. A practical evaluation of web analytics. Internet research 14(4): 284-293. Shelstad, Mark. 2005. Content matters: analysis of a web redesign. OCLC systems & services 21(3): 209-225. Tolliver, Robert et al. 2005. Website redesign and testing with a usability consultant: lessons learned. OCLC systems & services 21(3): 156-166.

Endnote
The author is webmaster for the Tanzania Library Association and the SCECSAL XVII conference websites.
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