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Bridging the gap: Achieving a consistent and quality online experience for non-English speakers

Seattle Public Library
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Problem Statement

Web site information for non-English speakers on how to use and enjoy services at The Seattle Public Library was not the same as what was offered to English speakers. While we wanted to bring consistency to the user experience, a major challenge was developing a system to support this commitment moving forward. Seattle’s population is mainly white and we have few language librarians. Expanding pages for non-English speakers is much more than hiring a translation service. It’s about simplifying language, ensuring information is culturally appropriate, relevant and easy to use.


We successfully matched the content and branding of key Library information in English in our four “core” languages: Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish. Event calendars are now offered in those languages. We also added information for the first time in Somali and Amharic (six pages each). We are the first Library to offer pages that are exact translations of the English language section of its Web site (30 pages each in the four core languages) and the first library to offer information in African languages. Our Web site covers more languages and more pages in those languages than any other library in the U.S. and Canada. The project seamlessly merged content, graphics and interface design. We translated important documents such as the Library card application, purchase suggestions and ILL forms into all six languages. We created videos in those languages to introduce immigrants to Library services. The project, completed in April 2009, included:

  • Rewriting 30 pages of information on our Web site in four languages, simplifying the language, removing jargon and making it culturally neutral
  • Bilingual staff members developing language-specific style guides for translators
  • Creating an ad hoc advisory group of Library staff to provide continual feedback
  • Working with a translation vendor to do initial translation work, which was all edited by bilingual staff members and coded by our programming team
  • Creating links between English and translated versions of Web pages to allow English-speaking staff members to reference and print translated information
  • Establishing a system to easily manage the pages going forward where any changes to the English pages triggers an update to the world language pages.


Usage of our world language information pages grew four-fold, from 14,000 page views for the four core languages in the year prior to the project, to 63,000 page views in the year after the project’s completion. In addition, almost 10,000 pages of information have been viewed in Amharic and Somali in the 10 months since these Web pages launched. We also received positive feedback from Library staff members.