Library Research Guides: Best Practices

Many librarians have a set of research guides that they are responsible for keeping up to date, but finding time to devote to this important task can be extremely difficult. As libraries migrate to LibGuides 2.0, many are using this opportunity to study their users’ preferences, implement new policies, and completely refresh their research guide collection. If your library is going through this process, or you are simply planning on using the (relatively) calm summer months to update your research guides, here are ten best practice tips to keep in mind.

Create a clean and consistent look. User studies reveal that library users tend to emphasize, by a wide margin, the importance of a clean and simple layout, with clear tabs and headings, and a thoughtful use of white space. They also value consistency across guides.  Consider creating templates and simple guidelines, to bring uniformity to your research guides and help users navigate them more effectively.

Wireframe Design Outline
one quick way to simplify designs – draw a wireframe outline (Image by Shawn Campbell)

Create guides for specific tasks or courses. Users are more likely to understand what a research guide is about, and whether it is relevant to their information needs, if it based on a specific task or course, instead of a broad subject area.

Quality over quantity. Include carefully curated lists of the most useful resources, rather than exhaustive lists of all possible resources.

descriptive text wireframes
Image by Mark Jensen

Provide short resource descriptions and tutorials. For each resource, include a short annotation describing its scope and purpose. (Keep in mind, users are typically unwilling to read an annotation longer than one or two sentences.) When possible, embed screenshots or short video tutorials that explain how to use resources. In one study, users expressed that they “did not want to simply be pointed to a resource, they wanted to be told how best to make use of it.”

Break down the research process into smaller parts or steps. This helps users develop self-regulated learning strategies.


individual steps wireframe
Image by Benoit Meunier

Keep text to a minimum. Users skim when reading online, so be succinct and place the most important information at the top of the page. Break up text with lists and headings, to facilitate scanning, and to separate ideas.

Avoid or define library terms. Many users lack familiarity with common library terms (ex: stacks, monograph, catalog). A webpage defining basic library terms can serve as a backup for jargon that librarians assume users understand.

profile sketch
Image by Jeremy Keith

Add a human element. Include a photo of yourself and your contact information. At the University of Rochester, librarians found that by including photos and contact information in their research guides, students began requesting subject librarians by name, and appeared to be more comfortable approaching librarians that they recognized from photos.

Provide prominent access points. Promote your guides, and post links in multiple locations where your users are most likely to find them. For example, academic libraries can prominently display guides on the library homepage, and also link guides to related course webpages in course management systems, like Blackboard.

Update guides regularly. As mentioned above, finding time to update guides can be difficult. The East Carolina University’s Joyner Library has addressed this issue by conducting an annual LibGuides Summer Project. Over the summer, a project leader provides a brief, weekly instruction session on a best practice tip or a LibGuides feature. Librarians then have one to two weeks to apply the lesson to their own guides. Focusing on discrete tasks each week can make the task of updating research guides more manageable, while ensuring that all guides are systematically checked and refreshed at least once per year.


For more information, see:

Laura Cobus-Kuo, et al., Bringing in the Experts: Library Research Guide Usability Testing in a Computer Science Class, 8 Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 44 (2013).

Kimberley Hintz, et al., Letting Students Take the Lead: A User-Centered Approach to Evaluating Subject Guides, 5 Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 4 (2010).

Jennifer Little, Cognitive Load Theory and Library Research Guides, Internet Reference Services Quarterly, Jan.-Mar. 2010, at 53.

Brenda Reeb & Susan Gibbons, Students, Librarians, and Subject Guides: Improving a Poor Rate of Return, Portal: Libraries and the Academy, Jan. 2004, at 123.

Katy Kavanagh Webb, What I Did Over My Summer Vacation: LibGuides Summer Project, College & Research Libraries News, May 2015, at 278.