Living Knowledge blog

20 May 2015

British Library web strategy: start anywhere, go anywhere

Our mission at the British Library is to make our intellectual heritage available to everyone for research, inspiration and enjoyment. Very often, our website is the first point of contact many people have with us: it’s the gateway to information about us and also to our digital collections and online services.

About five years ago, however, the British Library website was a long way from where we wanted it to be. When we started a major root-and-branch redevelopment of the Library’s 100+ ‘websites’ in 2011, growth in online usage had pretty much flat-lined and customer satisfaction was nose-diving. Three-and-a-bit years later, we’re now looking at a much more encouraging picture and the beginnings of a sustained turnaround in usage of our digital collections and online services.

Website visits graph
Visitor growth was 20% in the last six months of 2014/15 as big chunks of the ‘new’ website started to come on-stream in earnest. That compares to almost no growth in 2011/12 and sluggish performances in 2012/13 and 2013/14.

That means half a million more people in March 2015 than in March 2011 were researching, being inspired by and simply enjoying our intellectual heritage via our website.

The British Library has always been great at creating content, but the main factor in this sea-change has been the development of a consistent and scalable information architecture and design that allows us to develop new content without pouring it into silos, away from related material, in the way that the old bespoke-build model did.

We recognised very early on in the web redevelopment programme that the major challenge facing an organisation with 150 million things to talk about was finding a way for anyone to “say anything, about anything” without creating a hopelessly fragmented experience for our users.

If someone wants to talk about the British constitution, they can. If someone wants to talk about privacy in the digital age, they can. These are distinctive issues but they are connected through the unique collection items to which they refer – in this case Magna Carta, 1215 – so our users can make lateral journeys through our content without getting stuck in a deep, deep hole.

Disco Lit screengrab
Discovering Literature, launched in May 2014, demonstrates how our web redeveopment programme aims to present Library content in more attractive and engaging ways.

This is sometimes referred to as the “start anywhere, go anywhere” strategy and reflects the reality that most people don’t take the route into your website that you meticulously map out for them on your homepage. Most jump straight in from Google and want to know quickly where they are, if it’s right for them, and where to go next. This orientation, overview and onward journey job is the purpose of pages like which have helped us double our organic search traffic to over a 1 million visits a month.

With fewer than half of the Library’s 100+ sites tackled and big new sections in development – including some of our ecommerce sites like shop and donations – we’re hoping this is the start of larger transformation of the British Library’s reach and engagement way beyond the radius of our London and Yorkshire buildings.

Graham MacFadyen

Head of Digital and Marketing Operations



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