Way-Finding in an Electronic World

If you follow this blog, you’ve seen a number of posts concerning e-books. Langsdale is exploring what direction to take with e-books, and we’ve been soliciting feedback through the blog and informal surveys in the library. The library literature is full of articles on e-books in terms of circulation models, pricing formulas and the like, and we’re determining what might be a plan for us.

I recently read a blog posting on MIT’s Technology Review, however, that gave me pause in the rush to e-books. The author talks about the lack of visual/spatial reference in an e-book. One might remember a favorite passage was about 1/4 ” into the book and immediately go there to reread it. How many of you have turned immediately to the photos in a biography because the pages are different for photos? Sure, you can search an e-book for a phrase or name, but sometimes it is just easier to return to the dog-eared page or quickly turn to p. 245.

That made me think of the organization of e-books in a library as well. Of course, many students don’t understand our Library of Congress organization system and have difficulty finding a book on the shelf; perhaps an e-book is easier to find from the catalog. But there are those who literally know a book by its cover – the blue-green set of psychology encyclopedias, for example – and they know it by its location – on the first row of reference. It’s surprising how many people recognize an edition by its color or size or another physical characteristic. This visual way-finding is lost on e-books.

There are also some users who still browse the stacks – they know the general area for a topic in criminal justice, for example, and they find it easier to browse through books on the shelf rather than search in the catalog. They struggle with limiting an online search with what they want; they can’t seem to find the search terms to use, so they just browse the shelves instead.

These are certainly not strong reasons for slowing the advance of e-books; there are many who greatly value their convenience and easy access. However, it is incumbent on librarians to consider ways to increase way-finding with e-books through fully developed catalog records. We need to make online searching and browsing easier so that users find the e-books they want.

As always, we’d like to hear your thoughts.

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