Digital Reference Services For Teens

When designing a website offering digital reference services to teenagers, it is important to consider how the website can be structured to suit their information-seeking behaviour and preferences. When teens are looking for information, they tend not to have a very well-constructed plan for their search in mind (Chung and Neuman 2007). There are some students, however, that are able to approach their subjects more critically and consider what terms would be most appropriate for their need (Jacobson and Ignacio 1997). Digital services should be designed to cater to the needs of as many teens as possible, and so it is valuable to include multiple access features in a site. For a teen-focused library site that is providing links to web resources, provisions should be made for students that access information by keyword and for those who search by subject. In a digital environment, teachable moments are possible even when no teacher is present. Having both options will allow students who prefer one way of seeking information to be exposed to a new way. Libraries should consider messages that will point students to the list of subject headings to get new ideas for things to search. Although teenagers tend to repeat the same steps, regardless of their success, indicating that subject headings might be useful will introduce them to the idea and may influence future searches.

Websites for teens should be self-explanatory and intuitive, with clear navigation schemes and headings that will allow students to use the website with a minimal amount of effort (Braun 2002). This should be considered both when designing a library page for teens and when selecting resources to recommend for teen use. If a library website is well-designed and clear, but the suggested resources are confusing and inappropriate to the user’s needs, users are unlikely to consider the library for future information needs. Similarly, a poorly-designed library webpage with excellent suggested resources is unlikely to be used and so students will not be receiving the benefit of the resources available to them.

Equally important to the design of the website is the selection of the headings that will be used. This can refer to headings used in subject directories and headings used to access subpages of a website. If the heading for a subpage is unclear or misleading the information on that page is less likely to be accessed (Braun 2002). Library-specific vocabulary should be avoided in favour of more accessible terms, appropriate to the age and interests of those using the website. For example, the use of the term “Compose” on the Senior High Source @ 2Learn.ca may be inappropriate for their audience. A teenage user is not likely to think about writing a paper as “composing,” and may not make use of the resources available through that link. Appropriate language should also be considered when constructing a subject directory. Relying on terms from a classification system like the Library of Congress Subject Headings may not be appropriate or accessible for a teen audience.

Research has indicated that teens are highly likely to contact a person for an information need, either instead of going directly to a print or digital resource, or in conjunction with an alternate resource (Lorenzen 2001). It is, therefore, important for teen-centred websites to have immediate and obvious options for chatting with or sending email to people that can help them. Having an “Ask a Librarian” icon on every page of a teen website will reinforce the idea that librarians are there to help, and are pleased to help. Many teenagers are highly involved in technology, specifically email, chat and cellphone use (Janes 2003), and will appreciate that they can use the same technology to get help as they would to talk to their friends. Using a familiar format that eliminates the need to go into the physical library will be appealing to teens. It has also been suggested that the use of online forms may also be appropriate for teens. Using an email address requires students to open their email account and copy and paste the library’s email address into a new message before they can finally begin articulating their question. The use of a form, however, will allow teens to ask their question more immediately (Doyle 2007). While it may be the difference of only a few moments and a few clicks, the extra time and effort needed to open up a new page may be enough to discourage teens from asking their questions at all.

It has also been noted that students prefer to skim pages, rather than read and consider the entire contents of the page (Branch 2002). In order to accommodate this, information provided on introductory pages should be kept concise, with the most important links and notices towards the top of the page. Collapsible menus may also aid in keeping the length of a page relatively short, as users will not be exposed to more detailed information unless they actively seek it out. It has also been found that students prefer to use websites that provide visual interest, as well is informational content (Jacobson and Ignacio 1997). This can influence how a teen library website is designed, and what pages should be given as references. If a teenager is bored by the library website or the resource he or she has been referred to by the website, they may be missing out on potentially important information.