Metaphors for discovery: a survey of library interfaces

Last week I attended Digital Humanities Australasia 2014 in Perth. It was my first conference as a doctoral student and well worth the trip across the country. I also had the opportunity to present for the first time. I’m posting a shorter, webified, version of my paper for those who asked.

This paper presents a survey of graphical user interfaces used to search and browse library collections. The intent is to better understand how metaphors used within these interfaces shape our relationship with and understanding of collections. It is presented from a visual communication design perspective.

I’m using Johanna Drucker’s (2011) call for a ‘humanities approach’ to interface as a starting point from which to provide an analysis of these interfaces from a visual communication design perspective.

Drucker quote

For Drucker, there is an assumption underlying current theories that interfaces are ‘neutral’. There hasn’t been sustained consideration of the metaphors used within them and the assumptions that underpin them.

Interfaces are viewed as pragmatic and instrumental rather than rhetorical and persuasive. Interfaces for libraries have been designed to resemble experience, as if they are a window or portal to an existing reality but it could be argued that they actually shape our experience.

The problem

An Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS). Image: UBC Library

An Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS). Image: UBC Library 

As many libraries are now holding digital editions of books, or removing public access to book holdings – for instance, the underground automated storage and retrieval system at the University of Technology, Sydney – we have a good opportunity to question the way in which the interfaces currently in use shape our relationship with collections.

In the UTS system, like other ASRS, books will be stored underground in giant steel boxes, arranged by size and best fit, they will be retrieved by a robot when requested by a patron.

Whilst the inability to browse books on shelves is not unique – many libraries have used closed stacks for years – it does seem to inspire emotional reactions. People express a feeling of loss, and not merely of the loss of books as an object but of the loss of an experience. The debate over the changes underway in the Mitchell Reading Room in Sydney is one example (Farrelly, 2014). Just what this experience is, is difficult to quantify or describe but I’m not convinced it is bound up in the book as object.

During the second half of this doctorate I will use design practice as a way in which to explore this experience and whether interfaces, particularly through metaphor, can offer us an experience that need not be the same but is equally satisfying.

What is lost

For some, there is a perceived loss of the potential for serendipitous discovery. Browsing becomes more difficult. We can no longer use visual and material methods to understand the collection and make decisions about individual items.

The books – and their arrangement on the shelves – provide a context that is not replaced by current interfaces. This context can help us make serendipitous connections, which is important particularly in research.

In their empirical study on serendipity and information seeking Allen Foster and Nigel Ford describe serendipity as “a phenomenon arising from both conditions and strategies – as both a purposive and non-purposive component of information seeking”. They found serendipity not only plays a role in finding information or sources but in many fields it plays a large part in the process of research itself, particularly in the humanities. It plays a role “in revealing hidden connections or ‘hidden analogies’, enabling creative connections to develop.” It is not only an information retrieval model but also a way of thinking.

What is gained

Of course, whilst there are some experiences that are lost or diminished, there are some things that are gained by removing books from shelves, particularly around the role and use of order.

David Weinberger (Weinberger 2007) explains how the way in which we impose order and thus access to physical objects and information has been freed by the digital. In Weinberger’s three “orders of order” we have moved from:

  • a “first order” limited by matter (your bookcase at home for example)
  • through a “second order” where information about objects is maintained separate from the objects themselves (but the information is limited by matter – the card catalog for example)
  • through to the “third order” which is miscellaneous. Order is defined dynamically, through searches, selections and recommendation engines (like Amazon).

Three orders of order

In an automated storage system, where books are stored by size and retrieved by robot, the catalog doesn’t need to relate to the storage system because patrons don’t have to locate the book itself.

This provides us with the potential to explore:

  1. what could be done when you break the relationship of the Dewey system to the physical arrangement of books on the shelves and thus
  2. the potential of new and novel metaphors through which we might experience the collection.

Library interfaces

Library interfaces are built around the metaphors of an existing system: Dewey/LC and the card catalog.

There is an underlying assumption that collection items are placed in an order and the job of the interface is to help users match their query to the catalog so that they may find the place of an item in that order.

There is a sense of constraint. These interfaces reinforce the cataloging concept of a single entry: that in cataloging an item it is possible to find the ‘proper place’ for it.

Library interfaces are caught between a rock and a hard place: the structured world of the library catalog and the ad-hoc, user-centric, free text world of Google. They are limited by catalog data and things like proprietary software but they labour under the expectations of users who want their search, for example, to work like Google.


To get a start in a digital catalog interface you more often than not have to perform a search. This immediately requires the user to have at least some inkling of what they are looking for and the terms with which they should use. Despite the digital having the potential to offer us more options than the physical, large collection interfaces are often paradoxically focused on search, on narrowing options.

dh-presentation copy.008Search results are often presented in a manner that mimics a card catalog format. Results are formal and structured. The entire search function relies on a transactional metaphor: instead of handing over money and receiving goods, we ask a question and get an answer.

dh-presentation copy.009Alongside the search results some interfaces provide the ability to browse using a pre-defined view of the collection through a single parameter such as geographic location or time. Sometimes you can combine these things but the techniques used to communicate these views are simple lists. They reinforce the order. You can turn the collection around and view it from different angles but you can’t change the relationships between individual parts.

Some libraries have tried to deal with the issue of discovery through the interface. Some examples of this:

  1. Curation
    Items are chosen and presented around a theme.
  2. Visualisation of facet views
    Some libraries are using visualization to display what others do in lists: different ways of sorting search results. This includes geographic and time-based visualitions. This does allow us to slice and dice the results in different and sometimes visually appealing ways, but it doesn’t help us if we don’t have a search query. We always have to start the conversation.
  3. Visualisation of shelf position
    The visualization of shelf position and thus context is a metaphor based on experience but is a somewhat disappointing and thin copy for the real thing.

dh-presentation copy.011Instead of replicating the physical, perhaps we should be looking at ways in which we can encourage a physical relationship through the use of different metaphors. For example: Art + Com’s ‘Floating numbers’ for the Jewish Museum in Berlin uses the metaphor of a stream, or running water, to induce physical interaction. Viewers interact in a physical, and serendipitous way, with a curated, but un-ordered set of data.

floating.numbers Jewish Museum Berlin, 2004 from ART+COM on Vimeo.

Potential interfaces

If we recognize that interfaces shape experience we could free up our design work and potentially the way in which we think about the collection.

For example: you could argue that we don’t need the order. The books don’t need to be in the right place in order for me to find them. They need to be there at the right time. Frederick Kilgour recognized this in his descriptions of the potential of computerised catalogs in 1970.


One way we could address this through a speculative design is to ask questions:

  • What does the miscellaneous look like?
  • How does it behave and how can we interact with it?
  • What is the role of order in the serendipitous finds we make in a library? It is critical not to automatically equate randomness with serendipity. If you make everything random, whether digitally or physically, the sheer amount of material available could be enough to overwhelm us to the point where we find nothing of relevance or interest.
  • Can the visual design provide a curatorial or editorial touch that is light, almost invisible?
  • Can we design the environment that enables users to make connections, without them being dictated by order or metadata restraints?

Art and the concept of order

One avenue of exploration for this work has been to review ways in which the concept of order has been exposed through art.

From order to miscellaneous

Some works provide us with an opportunity to explore moments when order becomes miscellaneous.

Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View shows us a shed blown to bits but then suspended, so that we can take in individual parts; they are removed from their place in the shape of the shed and we can observe them from different angles.

Jeff Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind provides us with, at a basic level, an example of a moment where the order of a book is blow apart by the wind. What was ordered has become miscellaneous and we are offered the potential of seeing the bits of it removed from their ‘proper place’. Paul Cocksedge’s work Borrasque  offers a similar moment.


From miscellaneous to order

Some works impose order on what was miscellaneous point to the sometimes arbitrary nature of order and lists: Ursus Wehrli imposes order where it is almost farcical. Barry Rosenthanl photographs rubbish in a mode that resembles the botanical: detritus classified and pinned down. Like butterflies.


Ursus Wehrli: The Art of Clean Up

From order to (re)order

Some works take what was previously dictated by an outside idea (what a bike looks like, a geographic map) is broken down into parts and placed into another order. Todd McLellan takes things apart: a bike, a telephone, a lawn mower, lays them out meticulously and photographs them. Armelle Caron screen prints maps, breaks them down into parts and orders them according to shape.


Todd McLennan: Things Come Apart

All these examples show the potential of discovering a collection in a different way; of how new and meaningful connections are potentially made when you break the order.

The relationship we have with physical collections cannot be discarded but it also cannot be re-created in the digital realm. The interface will soon become the collection: our understanding of the collection is performed through our interaction with this interface. Moving beyond a transactional, ordered interface that is considered to provide a ‘window’ rather than a surface on which we can interact and negotiate is essential.

Drucker, J. 2011, ‘Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory‘, Culture Machine, vol. 12, pp. 1-20.

Farrelly, E. 2014, ‘Mitchell Library malaise a sign of a deeper struggle‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 2014.

Foster, A. & Ford, N. 2003, ‘Serendipity and information seeking: an empirical study’, Journal of Documentation, vol. 59, no. 3,pp. 321-40.

Kilgour, F.G. 1970, ‘Concept of an On-Line Computerized Library Catalog‘, J Libr Automat.

McLennan, T. 2013, Things Come Apart: a Teardown Manual for Modern Living, Thames and Hudson.

Wehrli, U. 2013,The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy, Chronicle.

Weinberger, D. 2007, Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder, Macmillan.


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