Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Co-Branding and Libraries
The common business practice of co-branding enables an organization to purchase content or service while making it appear as if it were its own. A typical such arrangement may involve a news feed that goes to any client that licenses that service. The content is "co-branded" with the client's look and feel, and there may be no clue as to the content's source. Such an arrangement is as old as the hills, notably with newswires. The Associated Press (AP) has provided content (first photos, then stories) to newspapers around the world since 1934 -- and those newspapers acknowledge the AP with different levels of clarity. But libraries are not newspapers, nor e-commerce sites, so why should librarians care about co-branding? Guiding users? Imagine library users who come to a local library's web site in search of some information. A typical library has licensed a number of online databases on behalf of its clientele and has put together a list of useful resources. If the user has difficulty determining which resource to choose, and the library has done its job well, the user should also find the phone number of the reference desk and a label like "Questions? Call us!" (Don't use the jargon "reference desk" unless you absolutely must.) Or the library may link to topical pathfinders that provide advice on how to use databases. But as soon as users select a database to search, they have jumped off the cliff in most cases. Any assistance the library wishes to provide disappears as the user's screen is entirely taken over by the database provider. There is no phone number for help. There is no link back to the library's web site. Users are left to their own devices in an interface that may be completely new. This describes the situation in almost all libraries today. Content is provided in "silos" that neither acknowledge nor accommodate the needs of the organizations purchasing it. This is simply ridiculous. It's a business practice that must change if libraries have any hope of fulfilling their responsibilities to their users. A better example Luckily, we already have an example of co-branding in the library world. For some time, the Librarians' Index to the Internet (LII), a searchable, annotated subject directory of more than 7000 Internet resources, has provided co-branding to any library that wants it. To see how this works, check the co-branding page for LII. To co-brand, the library simply provides HTML for its own design, and then that "look" is applied to the content. All the links are also altered to make sure that the localized look carries forward to all subsequent LII links. If you visit a few of these co-branded versions (all linked from the co-branding page), you will see just how dramatically the site can change and yet still retain the same content. Still, once you select a link to a particular resource you leave the controlled environment of the LII and thus lose the co-branding. The only way to make co-branding "stick" as the user navigates around the web is to use HTML frames, which have their own problems -- as I will describe below. Thus there is unfortunately no way to provide a button or link to seek help from a librarian that will never go away -- users must use the back button or reenter the original URL. Adding co-branding in the form of a top or side menu bar shrinks the available screen space, but not as much as had HTML frames been used. Frames chop the screen into two or more separate spaces that allow one portion to change while the others stay consistent. Thus framing is a popular co-branding technique and can even be used -- and in some cases is often used -- to co-brand sites with which there is no relationship. For an example of "co-branding kidnapping," see About.com; when you click on another web site to which About.com points, the About.com menu bar remains. By using HTML frames, About.com can make your browser retain its branding and menu selections. If it isn't clear by now, this type of co-branding is unethical at the very least (because the hapless user has very little evidence that About.com has not created the resources to which it points) and may even be illegal. For more on the legality of framing, see "Legal Issues on the Internet: Hyperlinking and Framing." Co-branding should always be a decision between the two parties involved. Technical feasibility It takes very little technical savvy to offer co-branding. In most systems, it's easy to co-brand content that is dynamically generated (as opposed to static web pages). If a software program is already looking for parameters to guide it to construct the requested page, an additional parameter could identify the requesting location. Based on that location, a different set of buttons and styles can be sent to the client along with the (unchanged) content. I know this is trivial because I've done it. So if a vendor tries to put you off by bemoaning the difficulty in customizing its screens, ask for specifics. Benefits to libraries Co-branding offers at least a few benefits to libraries. With very little effort, libraries can add apparent depth to their web offerings. If content looks like it comes from the local library, then users will assume the local library has had a hand in shaping, creating, or paying for it. Small libraries can suddenly appear to be able to offer services that only large libraries could previously provide. This capacity to mark licensed content as a service provided by the library can help preserve or expand funding support. Co-branding allows libraries to offer support methods even as users visit off-site locations, all without using problem-causing, unethical, and possibly illegal HTML frames. As information systems increase in complexity, it's essential to offer local assistance. Also, licensing and co-branding databases can be a major advantage that libraries (and their reference services) have over question-answering competitors such as Webhelp.com, which must rely on free web resources. Finally, co-branding may be a first step toward offering a more unified user interface to a variety of resources -- e.g., how the search and results screens look, and the labels for standard functions. Infonautics provides a co-branding service for its Electric Library and Encyclopedia.com products on a case-by-case basis to "medium and large" web sites (click on Current Partners). Ebrary.com also provides a co-branding service for library partners. Other vendors have established co-branded services (such as Northern Light), but usually with large commercial web sites rather than libraries. More vendors should start providing co-branding opportunities to libraries, and librarians should request such services from their vendors. Those vendors that do so will find that they have a marketing edge. If libraries cannot add that service layer, we will continue to lack the means to serve our patrons wherever their search takes them. LINK LIST About.com http://www.about.com Co-Branding the Librarians' Index http://lii.org/search/file/cobrand ebrary.com http://www.ebrary.com Infonautics Co-brands http://mediakit.infonautics.com/ cobranding.html Legal Issues on the Internet: Hyperlinking and Framing http://www.dlib.org/dlib/april98/ 04orourke.html Northern Light http://www.northernlight.com Webhelp.com http://www.webhelp.com