A common theme (other than complaints about the tightfistedness and lack of public spirit in publishers, artists rights organizations, and various other holders of copyright) is that the digital libraries tend to be notoriously difficult to navigate.
I’ve blogged about this topic before, but only from the perspective of automatically generating good (i.e. hierarchical, and faceted) browsing structures. (It seems I have inherited “views” about interfaces, search, browsing, and faceted metadata from my PhD advisor). What I haven’t addressed is why any particular browsing structures and interfaces should be considered “good” compared to others.
The information seeking mantra (introduced by Ben Shneiderman in 1996) is “overview, zoom and filter, then details on demand“. In the case of search user interfaces, this is supplemented by the additional goals:
- Strive for consistency
- Provide shortcuts
- Offer informative feedback
- Design for closure
- Provide simple error handling
- Permit easy reversal of actions
- Support user control
- Reduce short-term memory load
(Shneiderman, Byrd, & Croft, “Clarifying Search” DLIB Magazine, Jan ’97).
Combined with guidelines on how best to visualize, sort, and present the different types of metadata that occur in digital libraries, this leads to a constrained space in which good library interfaces must lie. Here is an extremely clear presentation targeted at laypeople (the first half) that gives a quick introduction to the big ideas.
There are a few libraries that I think are doing a great job learning from this research. The Library at the University of Virginia seems to be the source of the movement. They created Project Blacklight, free software that can be used to create high-quality indexes, searches, and faceted category interfaces for any digital collection. Their new library interface uses project Blacklight software.
Following UVA’s lead, and using Blacklight, Stanford University Libraries have developed their own experimental catalaog, intended to eventually replace their current (“traditional”) library catalog interface. They’re actually extending the Blacklight core to provide extra functionality: advanced search, tag clouds to provide a nice entry point to browsing the collection, and (very exciting) a “nearby on shelf” feature.
I think the “nearby on shelf” feature (screenshot below) is especially exciting because it addresses a problem I’ve witnessed so many humanities researchers complain about in digital libraries: the lack serendipity in the stacks. So often, the book you’re actually looking for isn’t the one whose call number you’ve got written down on that piece of paper. It’s one next to it, or slightly above it… nearby on the shelves. Brilliant.
A slightly different kind of university collection that’s also moved in this promising direction is the Historical State collection at North Carolina State University Historical State (NCSU Libraries). They have images as well as books, but they’ve also used Blacklight to create a great browsing interface. Also, look how inviting their website looks.
If you work at a digital library, consider succumbing to peer pressure. Download blacklight, hire some coders, and have a go at introducing faceted browsing structures to your collection.