The Harvard Library is the largest academic library system in the country with nearly 80 individual libraries holding over 18 million volumes.
The Harvard Library wanted to strengthen its image of being a pre-eminent research destination for scholars and the Harvard community, and ensure that its website served as an accurate online reflection of the value of The Library to the world. Redesign its website offered Harvard the unique opportunity to reimagine its digital library experience from the ground up.
The aim of the new site was to provide a creative, intuitive, and seamless digital experience to users, regardless of the varying back-end platforms that they could potentially be accessing content from. It would be endlessly helpful, mirroring the wonder and delight that accompanies research and learning in a physical library setting. While access to the physical libraries is restricted to Harvard University ID holders, the site would extend Harvard’s reach, allowing it to share its vast stores of information with a global audience. The new site would truly empower The Harvard Library to better fulfil its mission of making knowledge accessible.
One of the primary challenges with The Harvard Library’s previous legacy solution was that content was delivered through multiple platforms and websites. These different sites and platforms were built on varying technologies, managed by different teams, and updated inconsistently, resulting in a disjointed user experience for those accessing the Library’s content online.
The visual look and feel of these sites was dated, lacking alignment with the prestigious Harvard brand. Additionally, the search experience and content organization on these sites was sub-par making content difficult to find (in certain instances users weren’t even aware of some of the resources and tools that were available to them), and further adding to a frustrating user experience.
With the new website, the Harvard Library aimed to better connect students, faculty, and researchers at all levels to everything it had to offer. With this in mind, the joint project team of library and Velir stakeholders identified the following guiding principles:
1.Put the user at the center of everything that was done
The team was committed to creating a website that was intuitive to use and endlessly helpful. To this end, user-centered design was a core tenet of all project decisions and outputs. The project kicked off with extensive user research, laying the groundwork for recurring user testing and surveying throughout the remainder of the design and development phases. Using an iterative design process, the team launched a beta version of the new site to collect valuable feedback from prospective users, test assumptions, and make the needed updates to the site.
2.Make information accessible, not just available
The Library’s digital ecosystem was filled with vast amounts of information – over 6,000 pages of content, in addition to 200-plus million items from the HOLLIS catalog. To improve discoverability of all this content, the team did a number of things from a content audit, to rewriting information in a clear, concise, visual manner, and establishing writing guidelines and a governance structure.
3.The website will never be “done”
This project wasn’t just about a building a new website. It was about creating a digital library experience that supports continuous innovation. In addition to collaborating with The library team to produce the site deliverables, the Velir team also partnered with them to provide a deep understanding of our processes and industry knowledge. This empowers the Harvard Library team to adopt these tools and put them into practice moving forward, ensuring that the website never stops evolving or meeting users’ needs.
4.Use open source solutions and practices, and pay it forward.
The project team was committed to making sure that the significant amount of work done for this initiative benefitted other digital projects at Harvard and beyond. The team used open-source solutions, building the site on Drupal 8 and integrating it with other open-source 3rd party tools, and contributed to the development community by open-sourcing the solution’s code.
The library team also shared the decisions made and knowledge gained throughout the project to inspire others in a similar position. Through a series of blog posts and by inviting others to participate in the process at various intervals, the team has been a resource and partner to the community, learning and teaching as the project took place.
5. Processes and Team Dynamics
Regarding the actual process used for the project, the team used an Agile methodology to integrate the four stages of the project – content strategy, sketching and wireframing, visual design, and development.
The team also utilized insights from workshops about high-performance teams and the Stanford Design Feedback process to create a collaborative, safe, and productive team dynamic that could result in the best-quality outputs.
Acquia Cloud simplified a lot of variables early on freeing up the project team to focus on delivering features, instead of fret over usual hosting procurement woes. Harvard Library was able to start development shortly after kicking off the project, by using Acquia Cloud to let the developers build features and share code, while the specifics of permanent hosting requirements were ironed out by the stakeholders. Transitioning over to Acquia Cloud Enterprise after the initial beta site launch was a breeze. In a project that nearly lasted a year, there was hardly ever an issue with the environment servers, uptime, or reliability. Having all of the critical services up and running quickly definitely saved a lot of time upfront that could instead be put into true development instead of IT overhead.
Acquia BLT proved to be a game changer for this project. It allowed us to easily scaffold a manageable Drupal 8 codebase and add custom tasks to our build process, providing us tailored workflows such as leaning on a Pattern Lab as a dependency and incorporating it into our build pipeline for deployment. Without it, creating deployment routines and adding custom scripts or tasks would have been more challenging and time consuming to do.
Acquia Lightning's out of the box media management made it dead simple to upload and embed media in fields and the WYSIWYG editor, and enabled editors to easily add additional metadata to media like titles, captions, and links to display on the front-end.
The new Harvard Library site launched in July 2018 and provides a unified digital front door for the library – integrating library.harvard.edu, hcl.harvard.edu, and hollis.harvard.edu.
In addition to fulfilling the above-mentioned goals and objectives, the new digital platform is focused on a “culture of sse,” providing comprehensive access to the Harvard Library’s immense collection of information, resources, and tools. It features numerous custom solutions. Space Finder (modeled after Cambridge U.K. library’s version) is an easy-to-use tool for students and researchers to find study spaces based on a wide variety of criteria like “type of seating” to “how busy”. Another unique feature built into the solution is being able to search the entire library system to determine which locations are open at a given hour and compare results side-by-side.
The site is designed responsively for users on the go, providing a seamless experience as users transition across their multitude of devices from mobile, to tablet and desktop. It also meets the accessibility requirements for WCAG 2.0 AA.
Initial anecdotal feedback from users has been positive, welcoming the new modern look and feel of the site, and the improved ease of access to desired content. Specific numeric changes to project KPIs will be available in the following months, as further usage of the site provides a better comparison against the baselines that were measured at the project outset.