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I built a library. Or, why content should always come first.

Gareth Cartman

I built a library, I did.
It was nice and shiny, it was.

I started off choosing the bricks. I made the library a nice shape, with a nice roof. And then I chose some windows. They were expensive, but they let lots of light in. Which is good for reading.

And then I chose some carpet, because you don’t want clicking heels disturbing people while they’re reading.
After that, I bought some bookshelves, because we’re going to need them. I bought 10, thinking that would be enough.

And then the books arrived.

That’s when the trouble started.

I had so many books, there was only room for half of them. I tried to organise them, but “Flora & Fauna” took up half the ground floor.

That didn’t make sense.

So everyone started arguing about which books should go into the library, and which books should stay out. We ended up not talking to each other because of the Fiction section.

So we just ended up stacking them in every available space we could find.
But then people started using the library and they couldn’t find the books because we’d put them in a stack in the corner. So they couldn’t be bothered to look through those piles.

We forgot signage too. So people were getting lost in the library. One person went to find a book on trains, and still hasn’t come back.

So we put up lots of signs. As many as we could. However, that only confused people because all they could see were signs. Endless signs. They ended up leaving without having read a single book.

If only we’d thought about the books first.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you. 

None of the above is factually true. I struggle to build a shed. However, I wouldn’t put up a massive shed just to house a lawnmower, and I wouldn’t put up a wendy house to store 20 boxes of junk.

And that’s why so many websites fail – content comes last. It comes in Word files at the last minute, once the site has been designed. And it can take designers & developers by surprise.

Content has to come first. You wouldn’t build a small library if you had 100,000 books to store.

And if you had 100,000 books, you’d have to think first about how people are going to find those books.

Content – and the rational organisation of that content – is the foundation of the site, not the gloss on top of the design.

And that’s where we can draw our inspiration from libraries. Go to your local library and try to find a book, for instance, “Fly Fishing” by JR Hartley (if you’re of a certain age, this will be mildly amusing, if not, bear with me).

The organisation of a library and its content is rational. You can see where to go, and then you see where to refine, and then you can sort alphabetically. Finding a book is easy.

And if you’re lost, there’s a sitemap for you (i.e. a filing system) to let you know where the book is.

If the library is pleasing and welcoming, with large windows to let in the light, and soft carpets to reduce noise, then remember that it’s only to increase your enjoyment of the content within it.

Websites are designed to increase your enjoyment of the content within. No different.

So don’t build a library without knowing how many books you have and how people are going to find them, and don’t build a website without knowing what content you’re including and how you’re going to organise it.