My study looked at both features and characteristics of a small sample of exemplary school library sites. That is, it looked at both the “whats” and the “hows” of effective practice online.

Regarding the “hows,” one of my research questions was: What common organizational structures and design characteristics are employed in exemplary school library sites?

With the guidance of a Delphi panel, I divided site characteristics into five categories: curricular connectedness, organization and navigation, aesthetics, collaboration and interactivity, freshness.
(Note: School and district differences may impact the differences among schools libraries relating to the characteristics they employ in online communication. Some schools require all departments to share a template. School and district policies may also determine whether or not a site might incorporate images or such 2.0 applications as blogs and wikis.)

Most sites in the sample displayed connection to curriculum in their collections of databases, pathfinders for particular assignments, and promotion of reading as a life-long activity. Most displayed evidence of collaboration with the learning community and support of reading.
The sample sites appear to seriously consider users in elements relating to navigation. Some sites consciously replaced library-specific terms like “OPAC” with phrases like, “Find a book,” in the spirit of Kupersmith’s research relating to library terminology. Nearly all of the sample sites presented no download wait issues.

Interestingly, not one site in the study passed the University of Toronto’s ATRC (accessibility check). The ATRC checker examines sites for their compliance to current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standards established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Nevertheless, most of the sites offer clear labels, embedded explanations–often mouseovers–to describe content for their secondary school audiences. Nearly all annotate their links. In terms of navigation and organization nearly all of these exemplary sites offered legible text, consistent design, logical strategies for organizing content into understandable categories. Most offer either a site map or a site search to facilitate navigation. Only two of the ten sites offer neither.

Sites vary dramatically in terms of aesthetics. Though several sites are recognizing the value of including images of learners, materials, and events, original art and media are surprisingly sparse. This is particularly strange in the 2006/2007 school year–a year in which media sharing sites are widely popular.

The biggest trend in terms of strategies or characteristics is in the area of opportunities for collaboration, feedback, and involvement. While use of streamed media and wikis is limited, sites display other interactive strategies. Half of the sites include student work and use interactive forms. Use of blogs by nearly all–eight of the 10 sample sites– demonstrates the growing importance of Web 2.0 tools for communicating with online audiences.

The fifth category considered freshness, or strategies relating to updates, revisions, and currency. In spite of their useful content, some Delphi panelists felt that sample sites with a 1990s look would have limited appeal for Web-savvy young users. While some sites appeared quite fresh (without a 1990s “visual accent”), others, despite their valuable content, spoke with a bit of an accent.