Carrying the library in your heart (and your web browser): embedding learning content into the user’s path

Matthew Smith
Academic Librarian (Medicine, Health Sciences, Social Work, and Sociology), University of East Anglia

I love creating online guides that students can access anywhere, anytime. The three users who stumble upon the guides also love them. Given that size of audience, I might as well shout my top tips for using Pubmed out of my office window and save myself two hours of painstaking video editing. So goes one of the key dilemmas of modern librarianship: reaching all of one’s users is only possible through online provision, but users will only find your online provision if you stand over them and direct them to the right place, which rather defeats the object. I have long felt there must be a better way. Step in Lean Library Futures and its new onboarding functionality.

But before I look at the solution, let me define the problem a little further. At the University of East Anglia (UEA), I support departments that, in total, contain around 5,000 staff and students. I get to see a good deal of these at least once a year in a classroom setting but it is difficult to convey all the information students might find useful through these alone. Therefore, I supplement my in-person sessions with a mix of written materials on our VLE, video content hosted on YouTube or our local streaming tool, Microsoft Sways (which draw content together really nicely), and snippets via my professional social media. And that is without counting content we as a library service share via our internal and external websites, libguides, and various microsites. Oh, and our blog. And podcast. In short, our online offering is messy. For a student to find a guide at a time that it is useful is, to borrow a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald, a matter of infinite hope.

The only solution, I was convinced, was to present online guides such that they intersected the user’s journey at the point of need. Happily, at UEA we have a good working relationship with the folks at Lean Library (now a SAGE Publishing company) – whose browser plugin allows users to be automatically redirected to online resources via authenticated links – and so were invited in 2020 to take part in a pilot of new functionality coming to Lean Library’s browser plugin.

The original Lean Library browser plugin in action

The new functionality, part of a new offering they call Lean Library Futures, allows one to have pop-ups appear on particular webpages. In other words, I could have my guide to using Pubmed pop-up whenever a user with the Lean Library plugin installed arrived at the site. This seemed to us at UEA a very exciting development, and so we leapt into the pilot. Here’s what we found…

With Lean Library Futures, you have access to prime real-estate on any web space

We have been using the base functionality of the Lean Library browser plugin for around two and a half years and we encourage all new students to install it. The plugin then sits in the background and only becomes active when it is useful. Nevertheless, despite having 15,000+ students and staff at UEA, we only have ~2,500 active users of the Lean Library browser plugin currently. 

The new add-on we are piloting – Lean Library Futures (specifically the onboarding element) – does not require an additional download from our users, so we consider those ~2,500 active users as our potential audience. While this is a healthy number, it is worth noting that it is still less than 20% of our total user base so any positives we gained during the pilot should be tempered by this fact.

 Setting up a pop-up from Lean Library’s back-end

The Lean Library Futures functionality is managed from the Lean Library back-end. For each pop-up you have to key-in three elements: (1) the website where the pop-up is to appear; (2) what should appear in the pop-up (either an iframe, or content entered using Lean Library’s WYSIWYG editor); (3) specific settings, e.g. whether the pop-up should appear every time the user arrives at the site, or just the first time (or not at all and only be accessible via a small menu bar).  

I configured my CINAHL guide to pop up every time a user arrived at the database

I was eager to see if I could get more usage for my guides on using EBSCO databases (which I had created using Microsoft Sway). I set each of these to appear when a user first visited the database to which the guide related and every time after until they marked it as ‘read’.

My CINAHL guide popping up – all videos are playable from within the pop-up meaning users don’t have to leave the page to make the most of the guide

After having this pop-up running for a couple of months, usage of the guide has increased by 55x. I am quite sure a lot of those new views are users who simply closed the guide down and got on with searching the database, but it is reassuring to know that the guide is there for those who need it, and that it appears at the point a user is most likely to find it helpful.

At this point, I am certainly a convert to the onboarding element of Lean Library Futures, but it is important to acknowledge the downsides too. It is still a new tool and as such there are issues to be ironed out. One of the important ones is that guides pop up based on the URL that the user has arrived at, but specifying the correct URL can be trickier than one might imagine. It took a few goes to work out which part of the URL string from EBSCO databases we would have to use to have our pop-ups appearing. It is also important to remember that the pop-ups may feel invasive to some students – particularly when you realise that you can place them on any webpage on the web, not just library resources (a guide to fact checking on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed anyone?). Being sensitive to perceived encroachment on personal virtual space is important and at UEA we have opted to have some of our pop-ups accessible only from the expandable menu that appears on the right of any webpage where Lean Library Futures is active.

Pop-ups can be launched manually by the user from the right-hand menu, which appears on any page where a Lean Library pop-up is available

I have come away from our trial with Lean Library Futures with real excitement about how we might use it in the future: a way to embed feedback forms on resources we are trialling; an opportunity to run digital treasure hunts during induction; the ability to have a full-page gif of your head librarian nodding sagely when a student has reached a particularly good resource (ok, maybe not this one). The possibilities are enormous.

We’ve already started using Lean Library Futures to embed feedback forms (built in Microsoft Forms) on resources we are trialling

If you would like to read a fuller case study, click here.

HLG Newsletter
Spring 2021

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