Children and the UI of a Public Library

Public libraries offer all children access to an environment that facilitates life long acquisition of knowledge through simple, consistent and accessible interaction patterns. In contrast, public library websites and Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs) for children are often not accessible and lack age discriminating features to support appropriate reading-level and comprehension skills.

Here is a review the children’s section of the Chicago Public Library's web site and a comparison of the user experience there to that in the children’s reading room. This blog entry is an adaptation to a paper I wrote back it 2004! It is disturbing that little changed, at least at CPL.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to design a user interface for a children library catalog, and will discuss that experience in one of my next entries. For now, here is a link to one deployment:

What factors influence how children choose books to read? In the physical building of a public library, children often have their own space and a subset of the general collection. The physical organization of the children’s section and the selection of available books, establish the scope of choice for the child. For example, younger children cannot reach books located on the higher shelves and are not attracted by books for older children, which have pages full of small typeface and few or no pictures.

Up to a certain age, children’s choice of books is mostly governed by choices adults make for them. When they choose books for themselves, young children attend primarily to physical properties, such as the cover, illustrations, typeface, paper texture, general conditions and even scent. Recognition of familiar characters, favorite animals and landscapes is a potential attraction trigger as well.

The sensation experienced when handling books assists in the book selection process, and minimal reading effort is required. Children’s experience in public libraries worldwide is similar in terms of the interaction with books and the required learning curve.

While affluent branches offer larger collections and more enmities, the individual sensory experience with books is universal regardless of the surroundings. Furthermore, the organization of the physical environment helps maintain a consistency of interaction as children grow and advance to using the adult sections of the library, facilitating life long relationship between the readers and the institution.

In contrast, the interaction experience with most library children’s catalogs is challenging because usually, a single interface supports material for ages 0 to 18. Moreover, a lot of reading is required for navigating the library web site, and children are presented with rows of bibliographical information from which they have to select when looking for books. Children are often treated as a single group of users when in reality a high degree of differentiation and adaptability is required to accommodate variations in developmental and skill levels.

In this entry I focus on the experience of emerging readers—usually children in the early grades of elementary school. I will review sample screens from the children’s interface of a large urban public library (Chicago Public) and compares the user experience there to that in the children’s reading room. Drawing on the interaction children experience in the physical library structure, I proposes ideas for a universally consistent, age appropriate and accessible design for a children’s library user interface.

Navigation and Independence
Independence in library use is important even at a young age not only because it increases children’s opportunity to explore and enjoy the library, but also because it contributes to the creation of habitual patterns for library use. The more opportunity children have to navigate independently the library catalogue, the earlier they will internalize search and selection routines that ultimately apply throughout the library. Most children’s OPACs, however, do not facilitate independent navigation by the young library users.

Figure 1: Can a 1st grader overcome this screen?

The home screen of the Chicago public library features nine main options from which a user can select (figure 1). A link labeled Kids and Teens is the 8th option on the list. The visual appearance of all choices is uniform, and a child has to read over 20 words just to find where is the children’s section. The words on the screen include terms such as ‘simultaneously’ and ‘databases’.

Figure 2: Where to go from here???
Let us suppose that our young library user selected the Kids and Teens link. The target screen (figure 2) is vaguely labeled ‘Sign of the Owl’. The screen fails to pass the W3C automatic checkpoints for priority 1 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. There is no explicit indication that this screen is indeed the home screen for the Kids and Teens section, nor is there an explanation of what the title means. The screen features a column of 13 menu choices, some of which are comprised of more than 4 words.

There does not seem to be an easily identifiable order for the list of options, and some items on the menu are quite obscure, such as the ‘Thomas Hughes Calendar of Events’. It is an example of extraneous detail that adds to the visual load but has no meaningful value to the user. Finally, while there is a menu item for Teens, there is no menu item for Kids.

Since there is no visual discrimination between the various menu items to help the young reader figure out which item to select, the large image next to the menu is very tempting to click on instead. In fact, an animated caption at the lower right corner invites the visitor to “click to play”. Accepting the invitation, our young reader is linked to an untitled screen (see figure 4). Apparently the topic here is Internet safety; but could you read it if you were a 1st grader?

Figure 3: Important, yet not quite comprehensible to young readers.

The Search link in the main Kids and Teens screen seems promising, but it takes the user to the screen displayed in figure 4: Kid’s Search Tools. This screen too is also not accessible and fails to pass the W3C automatic checkpoints for priority 2 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Furthermore, this screen invites the patron to use various search engines, consequently taking the user away from the Chicago Public Library web site.

Figure 4: Kids Search Tools screen. Are you kidding?

The Kid’s Search Tools screen does not allow the user access to the library’s own catalogue. In fact, it turns out that none of the links on the Sign of the Owl screen—the library’s Kids and Teens section—lead to the catalog of the Chicago Public Library. The link to the catalogue is available on the library’s home screen.

Although the Chicago Public Library has a wonderful collection of books for the emergent reader, the library’s catalogue does not facilitate children’s independent exploration of this resource. The library’s OPAC does not have a specialized interface for children. (figure 5)

Figure 5: Item details screen

The young reader will have a hard time trying to find a book using this interface. A typical details screen offers a wealth of bibliographical information most of which is irrelevant and incomprehensible for a young child. The bibliographical record either does not present information that can help beginning readers to select books (e.g. book covers or type size), or presents it in an inaccessible format (e.g. information about the length of the book). But it does not show a picture of the cover, which could greatly help the child choose the book. Of course, we need to assume that the child can negotiate the search screen and the result screen that preceded the details screen… (Figure 6)

Figure 6: Search results screen

The navigation of the Kids and Teens web section is confusing and it does not support independent use by young readers. The options that are likely to attract the younger child do not lead to the screens where books can be selected, and the path to book selection is not clearly marked.
Unlike the library reading room, where the physical arrangement of books allows children to make selections even if their reading skills are still limited, the children’s OPAC relies primarily on the user’s reading skills to navigate the library collection. Consequently, young children remain dependent on adult help when using the Kid’s catalogue and are not likely to develop effective patterns for library use until their reading skills can match the literacy requirements of the library web site.

We should be able to design an interface that gives children a sense of ownership and control over the library environment. The interface should take advantage of knowledge about interaction patterns of children with books in the physical library, and be an adaptation to the digital domain.

To be accessible for all children and their caregivers, the interface must conform to the strictest accessibility guidelines offered by the W3C. This should be probably the highest priority for such a design.

By implementing existing standards such as xhtml and css, it should be easy to integrate the interface, as a plug-in, to any library system and gain cost and maintenance efficiencies: Budgets for public libraries are tight, resources limited and IT staff stretched thin.

Librarians should be able easily and quickly customize, maintain and update content on the library site and not be bothered by proprietary code. More importantly, consistency across library sites can create opportunities for children to collaborate regardless of geographical boundaries. In addition, having a familiar interface to a new library when a family relocates will help the child adapt faster to a new environment, as the s/he can leverage knowledge of the previous system.
In commercial educational software user interaction at an appropriate age and reading level has been available for many years. Similar approaches should be applied to the library interface. The current cataloging standard used in the U.S supports age-specific grouping of the target audience into preschool, primary, pre-adolescent and adolescent readers; and there is also a less specific category of general and juvenile readership.

A library interface that is sensitive to these categories of young readers and can filter in a meaningful way is an important step towards children’s independent navigation. In order to accommodate varying reading abilities in the library interface, librarians would have to ensure that the bibliographic records of their holdings are cataloged appropriately. Nonetheless, the effort required to introduce new cataloguing practices for children’s books is worthwhile because it can significantly enhance the ability of the interface to support children’s independent use of the library online catalogue.


In the process of writing this entry I sampled dozens of public library websites worldwide. I am sad to say that most shared many of the issues discussed above. I chose to write about the Chicago Public Library because I live in Chicago and this is the system our family uses. As opposed to e-commerce where patrons have many choices of vendors to choose from, the local public library has no non-commercial alternatives.

The role of public libraries in education and civic life is critical, especially in rural and inner city communities. The web interface of the library should provide children and their families with the same ease of use and accessibility afforded by the brick and mortar building. I hope that researchers and practitioners will join forces with librarians and children to quickly improve the situation.