Not saying goodbye, just taking an extended leave of absence . . . (from Elisabeth)

All the same, it’s been hard to make the decision that I can’t continue as a regular participant in the Academic PKM blog.  Other commitments have made it increasingly difficult for me to contribute on a regular basis.  While I continue to use the tools for personal knowledge management to manage my own material, and I promote the ideas and practice of PKM with students, faculty, and fellow librarians, I don’t currently have the drive to be continually searching for new methods and ways to use them.

Writing for this blog has been a great opportunity for me to put my thoughts in order and to force me to think about what I may know that is worth sharing, but it’s not sustainable for me anymore.  I hope to read every week and comment when I have something worth saying.  I look forward to following Crystal and Mary wherever they may take us.

May curiosity sustain us all, Elisabeth

 **  Note:  Mary and I wish Elisabeth all success in her current endeavors.  Given the loss of her contributions, we have come to the decision to change this blog from weekly posts to posts biweekly.  We hope to welcome Elisabeth back as guest blogger often.

Crystal and Mary




What’s the Right Toolset for Digital Humanities?

Female Carpenter 18th centuryWe live in an age of invention, with so many people participating in the act of creation.  This creates a multiplier effect – the more tools people create, the easier it becomes to create more.

So it is in academia…where, in particular, one’s job is more dependent than most on being able to bring something new into the world, and sharing the results of human thought and ingenuity with students and the rest of the academic and/or wider world.

There are many tools available to help academics be more productive, and we have spent, now, almost two years in talking about them.  We have mostly concentrated on tools useful to any academic, or librarian.  Now, however, I would like to start a series of posts discussing the tools for specific disciplines.

Why?  While most of you in our readership are academic librarians, we do have some researchers and other kinds of librarians.  Any of you researching or helping a researcher find and use information might benefit from finding out what tools are useful in a particular discipline.  The truth is that different areas of studies differ widely in what they are trying to accomplish and so in the tools they need to get their work done.

First we are going to take a look at the digital humanities (DH).  It is an exciting field, one that has grown enormously in the last few years, although its antecedents go back to around the 1940s.  Because it is such a big field, we will look at defining the field and at identifying resources for getting started in it.  Later on we will look at notable subfields.

Digital Humanities – What is It?

Definitions of the humanities differ,  so it follows that definitions of digital humanities will also differ.  The Wikipedia definitions will serve as a starting point.  First the definition of humanities:

The humanities are academic disciplines that study human culture, using methods that are primarily critical, or speculative, and have a significant historical element—as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences. The humanities include ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts such as music and theatre. The humanities that are also sometimes regarded as social sciences include history, anthropology, area studies, communication studies, cultural studies, law and linguistics.

And next Digital Humanities (DH):

The Digital Humanities are an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Developing from the fields of humanities computing, humanistic computing, and digital humanities praxis (dh praxis) digital humanities embrace a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital humanities (often abbreviated DH) currently incorporate both digitized and born-digital materials and combine the methodologies from traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) and social sciences with tools provided by computing (such as data visualisation, information retrieval, data mining, statistics, text mining) and digital publishing.

Starting Points for the Digital Humanities

Given that the digital humanities include both literature and computing power, it isn’t then surprising that the marriage of the two has produced a voluminous number of how-to documents and articles.  One of the best is the post Getting Started in the Digital Humanities, by Lisa Spiro,  on her blog Digital Scholarship in  the Humanities.  Spiro is executive director of Digital Scholarship Services at Rice University’s Fondren Library and founding editor of the DiRT wiki, which is now Bamboo DiRT (a tool we have talked about before and will again).  The post is a great roundup of ways to get started, from deciding what interests to pursue in DH scholarship to guides, social media, DH examples, tutorials and training opportunities, and more.  Includes a variety of links to specific resources.

One that it mentions is the CUNY Digital Humanities Resource Guide, another excellent place to get an overview of DH.  It includes DH definitions, examples, readings, hot topics, online discussion forums, DH on Twitter, blogs, journals, conferences and events, training/professional development, scholarships/fellowships, funding/awards/competitions, DH centers, organizations/associations, tools and methods, data management tools, research and citation management tools, writing process tools and methods, DH programs and syllabi, Git and GitHub, jobs, tips, and other resources.

Another good introduction is aimed at librarians, and is from ACRL’s current awareness trend watching service Keeping Up With.  In Keeping Up with …Digital Humanities, it discusses definitions and controversies over what DH is, the opportunities it provides for collaborations outside the library, training and skills librarians need for DH work, and types of contributions librarians can make.  After the conclusion, it has a section of resources, including recommended reading, associations and centers, courses and continuing education, all about data, tools and tutorials, and other sites of note.

Jeffrey McClurken, of the University of Mary Washington, put together a 20 page Google document Digital Liberal Arts Workshop Links and Resources, which was updated in January 2014.  It includes links to definitions of DH and digital liberal arts, links to projects.  Categories of tools are digital publishing tools, research/bibliographic tools, collaborative writing tools, geography and geospatial visualization tools, data visualization and analysis tools, video/audio resources for class, multimedia editing tools, social media tools, and other tools/concepts.  Then it discusses Google Docs for classroom use, integrating technology into teaching, digital literacy, and making the case to others.

The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a journalistic view of DH in its article How the Humanities Compute, which examines how some professors are using the topic and how they got involved in it.  Lists a few good resources at the end, including the CUNY guide already mentioned and UCLA’s Introduction to Digital Humanities Coursebook.  The description of the coursebook is:

Based on the Introduction to Digital Humanities (DH101) course at UCLA, taught by Johanna Drucker (with David Kim) in 2011 and 2012, this online coursebook (and related collection of resources) is meant to provide introductory materials to digital approaches relevant to a wide range of disciplines. The lessons and tutorials assume no prior knowledge or experience and are meant to introduce fundamental skills and critical issues in digital humanities.

The four sections are (1) Concepts and readings; (2) Tutorials; (3) Student projects, and (4) Advanced Topics.

Finally, there are a couple of resources about tools that should be mentioned.  The first is Bamboo DiRT (Directory of Research Tools), which we have mentioned before because it is the best directory of such tools we know of.  Its intended audience is digital humanists, despite the fact that it also serves the needs of researchers in many disciplines.

ProfHacker has a fascinating post ‘Ready to Eat’ Academic Computing Infrastructure.  It describes AMIs (Amazon Machine Images) designed by James Smithies of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.  It is a way of setting up a DH web server that includes a number of ready-to-use programs such as Omeka and Omeka plugins, Open Journal Systems, GeoServer, Drupal, and Ushahidi.  This ready to eat server is designed for the new-to-DH academic to use as a sandbox to learn how to use these tools.

The digital humanities is an exciting field that is producing many new ways at looking at human culture, and creating new tools and new concepts about that topic.  Researchers interested in adding to this rich field, and librarians who support them, need starting points for getting involved, and the items mentioned above are examples of good ways to explore DH.  In the next posts on digital humanities I plan to explore the subfields of digital literature and then digital history.

Works Cited

Adams, J. and Gunn, K. (2013).  Keeping Up With…Digital HumanitiesACRL Keeping Up With … online current awareness column.

Edwards, C. and Gold, M. (nd).  CUNY Digital Humanities Resource GuideCUNY Digital Humanities Initiative (DHI).

Lawson, K.  (2014).  ‘Ready to Eat’ Academic Computing InfrastructureProfHacker blog, Chronicle of Higher Education.

McClurken, J. (2014)  Digital Liberal Arts Workshop Links and Resources.    Google Docs.

Parry, M. (2014). How the Humanities Compute in the Classroom. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 60(17), A28-A30.

Spiro, L. (2011).  Getting Started in the Digital HumanitiesDigital Scholarship in the Humanities (blog).

Content Curation: Beyond the Institutional Repository and Library Archives

If you are an academic librarian, you have been hearing about Data Curation, Content Curation, Information Curation or Digital Curation for years. And the terms can be applied in several different ways. There are the curation activities surrounding purchased library materials and the curation of faculty and student items (like theses and dissertations for example). Archivists have been intimately involved with all sorts of curation activities since archives existed, and were early adopters of digital curation and finding aids for the items they maintained. Most recently, Data Curation has been in the forefront of librarian discussions in response to government mandates to make research information widely available; first with the medical field, and more recently with the National Science Foundation requirements for data curation plans in all NSF grants.

The Digital Curation Centre defines the concept for us: “Digital curation involves maintaining, preserving and adding value to digital research data throughout its lifecycle.” Their goal is to actively manage research data in order to “reduce threats to their long-term research value and mitigate the risk of digital obsolescence.” The site has a great Digital Life Cycle Infographic which graphically illustrates the cyclical process.

There are numerous questions, policies, issues and opportunities in all the various curation activities in libraries today, but I would like to turn our attention to the topic of Content Curation beyond the repository and archive doors. The buzz about Content Curation has become popularized throughout the digital world as a result of the explosion of users who today create content as well as ingest it. Blog writing became more widespread when simple blogging tools like Blogger and WordPress became freely available. Facebook and YouTube “likes” gave us the social media push, allowing even more people to express opinions on the work of others. Amazon, and review sites like Kudzu, Yelp, Angie’s List and Healthgrades encouraged everyone to submit their opinions and the average person was suddenly creating content on the web (even though they might not have seen it as such!)

Tools like Evernote and OneNote gave us platforms for saving information that we found on the internet, and bookmarking sites like Delicious and Diigo added the social aspects of making our bookmarks public so that everyone could search for resources that others had found worth marking. While the tagging on bookmarking sites allowed for a rudimentary level of organization, information on why a particular link was included by the bookmarker was not captured. More recently, social networks on various platforms such as Google + and Twitter provided new sources for individuals with a shared interest to exchange information that they had found in their research with others. Information was everywhere and the average person was struggling under the load of its rapid pace.

Clay Shirky ( suggests that “[the problem] is not information overload. It’s filter failure.” How can we create better filters? Enter Digital Content Curation as a way to create new value from the current influx of lists of links to existing resources on a topic. Beth Kanter, a prolific and well respected blog author for non-profit marketers, defines content curation as “the process of sorting through the vast amounts of content on the web and presenting it in a meaningful and organized way around a specific theme.”  A good content curator is invaluable in this age of information because, Kanter says, “finding that information (and making sense of it) requires more and more time, attention, and focus.” And who among us has time, attention or focus to spare?

So, we’ve determined that curated content, when done well, offers great benefit to the reader. We have also acknowledged that it takes time, effort and focus to create this type of content. Other than accolades from a readership, what is in it for the curator? There are a number of benefits to the digital curator (Good, Robin):

  • One of the best ways to learn new topics or skills is by being able to teach it to someone else.
  • The process of digital curation makes you examine and evaluate the material in a “new and multi-dimensional way”
  • Curating helps clarify for both the author and the reader the relationships and links between groups of information
  • Helps develop critical thinking and writing skills
  • The overwhelming plethora of information today has learners seeking reliable and trusted guide to sources for well-organized and high quality information. (a new delivery point for a service librarians have provided for generations) (Metzger, Miriam)

Librarians are in an advantageous position to add this new area of expertise to the tool box that we offer in outreach to our academic faculty. Next month I will begin an exploration of some of the content curation tools popular today.


Good, Robin. Content Curation for Education and Learning, presented at Emerge 2012

Kanter, Beth. Content Curation 101.

Metzger, M. J. (2007). Making sense of credibility on the Web: Models for evaluating online information and recommendations for future research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(13),2078–2091.

Links Roundup #17

A PhotographerBack up Cloud Data

PC Mag has a useful article on ways to back up your data in the cloud – Back Up Your Cloud: How to Download All Your Data.  It covers Facebook, Twitter, various Google Services, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Evernote.  I can see that this may well be of use to libraries with a social media presence.

Classroom Apps

ProfHacker has a roundup of posts on iPad apps for the classroom.  This was followed a couple of weeks later with the post Android Apps for the Classroom.  Both will be worth checking back on occasionally as people add their favorite apps in the comments.  The Android article also mentions the site Android for Academics, which has five free apps as well as tips and a blog (not recently updated).

Design for Non-Designers

The LibraryTechTalk blog has a post on Canva, which is for those who haven’t mastered programs like Photoshop or Illustrator but want to create attractive flyers, posters, etc.  Canva is a free site.

Dictation App

Turn Your Android Device into a Dictation Tool discusses Dictadroid, its features and how to install and use it.  I am sure that for some people dictation is an important part of their productivity, and this seems to be the most powerful on the Android market.  Anyone suggest a comparable iOS app?

Evernote/OneNote/Note-Taking Apps

Evernote has teamed up with Swiftkey to produce a simplified note-taking app.  It is iOS only at the moment, but since Swiftkey is one of the most popular Android keyboards, I imagine it will be available for Android at some point.  I use Swiftkey on my Android phone and tablet and much prefer it to the stock keyboard. Evernote for Windows Desktop Gets an Update, Adds Improved Scan Management – I like that you can scan business cards and integrate that information with the person’s LinkedIn profile. Evernote Rolls Out New, More Customizable iPhone and iPad Apps… the article discusses Evernote’s updates in general and the company’s strategies for adding new features and fixing bugs.  Also see this brief note on Using Siri with Evernote. And also the Android beta, which I hope will be released soon, is adding the ability to write notes by hand.  Also mentions one little thing that I really want – adding a horizontal rule in the Android note editor (yes, small details do matter!). How I Do a Daily Review in Evernote by Jamie Todd Rubin is an excellent post.  Rubin created a saved search that finds the notes he created or updated in the latest day, and reviews that at night, adding any additional organization needed.  Nice modification of Getting Things Done (GTD). Evernote for Beginners: The Basics of The Most Popular Notebook App – Nice and recent introductory tutorial for Evernote and the Evernote Web Clipper from Tuts+, a site for “Tutorials, inspiration and videos to help you learn. Updated daily.”  This post links to the more advanced and also useful Taming the Elephant: Awesome Evernote Tips and Tricks, which discusses integrating Evernote with your email and IFTTT, advanced search syntax, and creating templates for notes.

Pomodoro Technique

Measuring Your Workday in Pomodoros is a GradHacker post that explains what the technique is and how to use it effectively to be more productive and more easily get work done that requires concentrated attention and focus.

Productivity Apps

10 Best Productivity Apps for Android – no big surprises here, but a useful collection particularly for a new Android user.  Apps included are Evernote, Dropbox, Wunderlist, Pocket, OneNote, Google Drive, QuickOffice,, Pomodoro Tasks, and Swiftkey.  Most of these, of course, are available on iOS as well.

Reference Management Software

Docear (pronounced Dogear) is a free academic management suite of software that grew out of Sciplore.  One of its advantages is that it offers mind mapping as a part of managing a research project.  Here is how they describe their advantages:

Docear is different than any other literature or reference manager (‘different’ as in ‘better’). It offers a single-section user-interface with all the information in a single place (see screenshot below). This approach offers three massive advantages. First, you can see annotations (comments, bookmarks, highlighted text) of different documents at the same time. Second, you can move annotations to exactly the category they belong to even if the corresponding document remains in a different category. Third, you can create categories within a PDF and sort annotations within that PDF.

Visit the site to see the explanation in more depth and with screen shots, the visualization helps one see the organization better.  Anyway, in January they came out with an in-depth article comparing Zotero, Mendeley, and Docear.  It covers far more features than most of this sort of post.

Stress/Anxiety Management

One particularly nice thing about GradHacker is that it has had a number of posts on staying mentally and physically fit through grad school, and that the posts tend to have useful tips and links.  An example is the recent post Traumatic Stress in Grad School, which has a list of useful apps and links about anxiety and coping mechanisms which are useful for anyone, not just grad students.  A similar post is Cultivating Happiness in Grad School.  These posts arise from a sincere belief that graduate school is hard to do well and that one’s physical and mental health is vital to achieving that goal.

Stylus for Handwriting on Touch Screens

Adonit Jot Script Stylus Review – the Adonit stylus is only for iOS, but the reviewer mentions that the Samsung S pen is similar.  Both have a much narrower tip, allowing an experience much more similar to handwriting.

Windows Phone Apps

25 Best Windows Phone Apps – good roundup of the current state of Windows Phone apps.  Good news is that the app store now has over 175,000 apps, including lots of the most-used apps.

Writing Tips

From Predator to Pet: Three Techniques for Taming Your Writing Project is an excellent post by Joli Jensen.  I really like the ventilation file idea, and the fifteen minutes a day is similar to Pomodoro.

Argument mapping

Today I want to discuss yet another form of knowledge mapping that I have found useful in my workflow: argument mapping.  Argument mapping shows the structure of a discussion.  You can use it to develop the flow of a piece you are putting together yourself (an article or presentation, for example), or you can use it to clarify how someone else is making their case.   It’s another visual way of aiding the thinking process.  Graphically, an argument map typically uses a few colors or icons to distinguish different parts of the argument, such as conclusions/contentions/hypotheses; supporting statements (or reasons); objections; and evidence.

Like mind maps and concept maps, argument maps (AM) can be drawn manually, but software is available as well – more on that at the end of this post.

I normally use argumentation software to develop new presentations, only creating a slideshow when I am satisfied with how I have developed my thesis.  Caroline Reid at Eastern Kentucky University discussed  what it helps her students do, and I find this applies to me also: “It enables the student to create/manipulate a visual representation of the logical structure of an argument ….[It] helps students to “tease out” the main parts of an argument . . . .  Unexamined assumptions are exposed and even the relevance of what may seem like a false dichotomy can become transparent” (Reid, 2011, 148 – 9). It can also help you see the holes in your case. When there’s a lack of balance, that also becomes obvious.

One of the strengths of argument mapping, like concept mapping, is that it cuts down on verbiage.  Succinct sentences and physical demonstration of relationships, usually hierarchical, help the user make sense of the material.  In fact, argument mapping is  even more rigidly structured than concept mapping, and certainly more so than mind mapping, which is meant to be creative and freely associative.  Argument mapping software programs contain predetermined elements, and the user must choose from among these elements to construct the map.

Here’s an example:

Argument map

Source:  Tim van Gelder, “What is argument mapping?“, posted at Bringing visual clarity to complex issues, accessed 2/16/2014

When arguments are complex, laying them out visually helps you identify  the multiple parts and understand how they are related to each other.  You begin by distinguishing the premises from the conclusion.  You must also understand whether each premise contributes independently to the conclusion, or whether certain premises must be linked to produce the conclusion (co-premises).  Arguments can have chains of (sub) conclusions, which are seen more clearly in graphic form than  in text.

While concept maps reflect one’s understanding of a domain and are normally laid out using single words or short phrases, argument maps are suited to representing positions that need to be defended using logic supported by evidence.

A typical map puts the conclusion/contention/hypothesis at the top.  The premises and objections are shown below, and evidence is shown at the foundation level.  Computer aided argument mapping programs (CAAM) typically use green to denote support and red for objections.

Applications in higher education

There’s been a certain amount of discussion of the use of AM in higher education.  Some have studied it as a form of note-taking, looking at whether it helps students understand and retain material (Dwyer, Hogan, and Stewart, 2009 and 2013).   Davies (2009) refers to those who use argument mapping to teach critical thinking skills.  Argument mapping has been used to guide problem based learning (Billings and Kowalski, 2008; Wu, Wang, Spector, and Yang, 2013).  As pointed out above, other educators have students use argument mapping to develop their own theses (see also Morrow and Weston, A Workbook for Arguments, 2011).

Using multiple types of mapping in PKM

Argument mapping is an appropriate tool for one stage in the sensemaking process – not for all of them.  Frustrating as it is, we need to learn a variety of tools to see us through the whole process, just as we need to learn to use hammers, screwdrivers and drills, or mixers, slow cookers, and paring knives.  AM works in place of text outlining to get the structure of a thesis right – but it’s not the right tool for sorting out where your thesis is situated within a discipline, or which part of a larger question you want to take on and how your piece relates to the rest.  Mind mapping or concept mapping might serve better for these tasks.

Wang et al. (2013) designed a study of dual mapping learning which combined argument mapping and concept mapping.  Argument mapping was used to guide medical students in complex practical problem solving, and concept mapping was used to ensure that this was then placed in an appropriate knowledge construction  process.

Software for argument mapping

A number of software packages are available.  It’s not usually hard to learn to use them; their shortcomings are often in how they are stored and shared.  Also, like both mind mappers and concept mappers, AM projects come and go, so be careful to choose one with a track record and which seems to offer future stability.

The one I have seen most frequently mentioned in the academic world is the commercial product Rationale, produced by the Australian company AusthinkCompendium is a free, open source tool which can be used as an argument mapper; it can also serve more loosely for mapping issues in discussions.  Sharing maps is somewhat awkward, in my experience, and now that Compendium has become open source, support is informal.  I used it for some years and loved it, but the difficulty of sharing maps limited its usefulness for me beyond strictly personal use.  Debategraph is free and web-based; it allows for very complex and subtle maps and seems to be stable.  I don’t care for the limited amount of information I can see on the screen at one time, compared to other applications.  Finally, there is a very new program available from Georgia Tech called Agora (“Argument mapping that stimulates reasoning, critique, deliberation, and creativity”); I saw this announced a few weeks ago and know little about it as yet.  As with both mind mapping and concept mapping, be careful when you stumble across a promising new application; developers get enthusiastic about the idea but projects die out when a university lab dissolves or developers move on to other interests.

I have found argument mapping enormously useful in helping me think more rigorously.  I have to say that I also just enjoy it — always a plus.


Billings, Diane M, and Karren Kowalski, 2008.  “Teaching Tips.”  Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing 39 (6), 246 – 247.

Dwyer, Christopher p., Michael J. Hogan, and Ian Stewart, 2010. “The evaluation of argument mapping as a learning tool: Comparing the effects of map reading versus text reading on comprehension and recall of arguments.”  Thinking Skills and Creativity 5 (1): 16 – 22.

Dwyer, Christopher p., Michael J. Hogan, and Ian Stewart, 2013.  “An examination of the effects of argument mapping on students’ memory and comprehension performance.”  Thinking Skills and Creativity 8: 11 – 24.

Morrow, David R. and Anthony Weston, 2011.  A workbook for arguments: a complete course in critical thinking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Reid, Caroline E., 2011.  “Rationale argument mapping software.”  Journal of Technology in Human Services 29 (2), 147 – 154.



Riding the Information Carousel: Library Technology Usability

Carousel photo by Jan Mehlich Lestat

Photo by Jan Mehlich Lestat (

Library Technology has been on a wild ride since the 1960s, when computer databases first became available.  Automation has made so many wonderful advances possible, but there are still so many frustrations and bottlenecks that leave our users overwhelmed and stressed.  While I try to discuss PKM/productivity tools more specifically, most of the time, this blog does focus on issues relating to the productivity of academic researchers.  Researchers do… well, research, and the usability of library resources is, in my view, integral to their productivity.

Take search engines, for example.  I did discuss this some in my last post, but the point now is the fragmentation.  There are so many databases with information from so many publishers.  Even a simple thing like trying to find the download pdf button for an article after identifying it in a database is frustrating, because every publisher puts it in a different place and some of them do not stand out well on the page. We all know the saga of the attempts to make searching library databases simpler and more Google-like, from federated search to web-scale discovery services (WSDS).  The more I use a WSDS, the more problems I find with it.  There are so many results that good items can get lost.  For example, our WSDS includes CQ Researcher results.  CQ Researcher is a database consisting of deep background reports on public policy topics, and the reports are rather like encyclopedia articles on steroids.  So they are an excellent place for a student to start researching a topic, as what they need at the beginning of researching a paper is a mental map, so to speak, of the concepts involved.  Yet CQ Researcher reports, which should be the first thing a student looks at, get lost in a search in WSDS.  Relevancy ranking is better than it used to be but still not as good as it needs to be.

My main focus for this article, however, is the serendipity factor.  My faculty are primarily social scientists, and we know that those in the social sciences and humanities tend more often to find useful material while browsing the book shelves in a library.  More and more libraries are moving print book collections off-site, or are planning to do so.  Moreover libraries are buying more electronic books and moving away from print ones.  Given these factors, is it possible to create a user-friendly browsing feature?

My thoughts here are heavily influenced by the future loss of physical books, but also a few  blog posts, which, of course, came into my awareness through serendipity 🙂 .  One is Planning for Serendipity, from the Digital Public Library of America (DLPA).  It discusses the problem, links to some other useful articles, and mentions features that might possibly help serendipitous discovery in online environments. It has to be admitted that a library catalog record simply doesn’t provide enough information for most users to decide if this particular book is going to be useful for them.  It would really be helpful if users could count on seeing things like the table of contents, the publisher’s blurb for the book, reviews by editorial writers and other users, and an idea of which books on a topic have been used most or cited most.

Our library uses the VuFind overlay on top of Voyager data, and it links to the Google Books preview (if there is one) and the Amazon record with its review data (if there are any).  That helps, if the users (a) see it; and (b) know what it can do for them.  Such things ought to be standard and in a unified interface.

Pieces of a solution to the problem exist now.  Google had an interesting experiment called WebGL Bookcase.  When you open it, you choose a subject and see a carousel of books: Google web gl






You can then choose a book and see its cover:

google web gl book cover








And, clicking on the book, you can see a synopsis of the book: google web gl book synopsis







Since the carousel has not been updated since 2011, Google may have abandoned it.  It seems like a good start, but could use still more metadata – a link to the table of contents, at the least.

Another interesting experiment along these lines is the library catalog for North Carolina State University (NCSU).  The Shelf Browse feature was put together by a couple of graduate students there.  So in the record for a book, there is a Browse the Shelf link prominent on the right side: ncsu catalog reccord



If you click on Browse Shelf, the view looks like this: NCSU Shelf Browse





Anecdotally I have heard recently of a professor who was quite worried about not being able to browse the books (once the library converted to electronic only) and, after seeing the NCSU browse shelf feature, thought this was something he could work with.


Stack ViewFinally, another interesting idea is Stack View, from Harvard Library Innovation Lab.  There is a video on the page.  Basically Stack View shows you a shelf of books, rotates it so you see them stacked on top of each other, and the “spine” of the book is proportional to its size (page length and length and width).  Plus the books that are circulated the most are the darkest blue in color, giving a sense of the book’s popularity.


So there are a lot of ideas out there.  One of the blog posts on this topic, Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendity in Today’s Digital Library Environment, discussed some the author’s ideas of what a digital library needs to offer:

If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content).

My library has just taken a great step forward in improving the usability of reading scholarly articles by subscribing to Browzine.  It is an app for smartphones and tablets (iOS and Android, so far) that graphically displays journals on a bookshelf.  Users select their school, then sign in with their school’s authentication and see the scholarly journals the campus library subscribes to.  They can add journals to their shelf, see what issues are available, and get notifications when new issues are available.  One can view PDFs in Browzine and store them for later use:

YouTube Preview Image


So usabililty is getting better all the time, but let’s not kid ourselves – there is still a long way to go.  Ideally there could be something like Browzine that works with all of a library’s resources, and has a standard set of rich metadata so that users can quickly decide on an item’s utility.  A lot of attention has been to the discovery of library resources, but less has been paid to their usability once discovered.