Reading questions: what is browsing?

This post is part of a series of responses to various articles, books, and other materials. Our goal is to ask questions and spark conversation among ourselves and our readers.

 

Marcia Bates's article, "What is browsing-really? A model drawing from behavioural science research" is problematic in various ways, but it does one thing well: it summarizes the literature on browsing in the LIS field. Bates reflects on definitions of browsing and presents her own: "Browsing is the activity of engaging in a series of glimpses, each of which may or may not lead to closer examination of a (physical or represented) object, which examination may or may not lead to (physical and/or conceptual) acquisition of the object." Glimpsing suggests that the act of browsing is visual, which it undeniably is, but what role do other senses play, especially touch? She does discuss this later in the article, but far away from the definitions that she herself puts forward. The organization of this article has something in common with many of the interfaces we rant about here at ebrowsing: it is somewhat arbitrary and occasionally incomprehensible. 

But to return to Bates's content: there are so many definitions--glimpsing, looking, scanning--what does it all mean? I suppose these definitions fit into some of the (linear-seeming) steps in the browsing process as she envisions them, such as "examining the object" and "physically or conceptually acquiring the examined object."

Bates also spends a lot of time differentiating between browsing and scanning, which she describes as a smooth, uninterrupted process.Browsing, in contrast, is complex and iterative, and therefore not smooth. Scanning involves method, but "browsing is more open to surprise." These distinctions seem too small to be meaningful. I often think of browsing through search results, though Bates would call that process scanning. For her, browsing is very distinct from search or structure, but isn't the scanning of search results a kind of guided browsing? I'd argue that it's possible to be open to surprise and discovery when scanning (or browsing?) search results.

I'm also really curious about the difference between browsing and "berrypicking," which she likens to searching for berries in the forest--you get a few here; you get a few there. Berrypicking, as she defines it, describes an entire search episode. When engaging in this kind of search, she describes the searcher as having no expectation that one search or result set will be complete. But how many student searchers actually have this expectation? Perhaps this has changed since 2007, when she wrote the article. Browsing, as she defines it, is one aspect of a "berrypicking search."

But isn't searching for berries in the forest a kind of browsing? What would Aldo Leopold say? While I wonder about the effectiveness and value of resituating definitions of browsing and searching over and over again, Bates does acknowledge a truth: our current interfaces are not equipped to facilitate browsing with ease.

 

Call for Proposals

We are seeking scholars and specialists inside and outside the traditional boundaries of library scholarship to join our proposed panel discussion on the challenges and failures of browsing in today's electronic environment at The Association of College & Research Libraries Conference is in Portland, OR, March 25-28, 2015

Procedure -  Please email Kate Joranson, k.joranson@gmail.com, briefly describing your interest in the topic as well as your professional background. Upon acceptance, we will work with you to develop questions to shape the panel's discussion.

Deadline - Monday May 5

Summary of Proposed Panel

Over the past two decades, the terms “discovery” and “search” have become conflated both in our collective lexicon and in the functionality of our discovery systems. An effect of this is that the other major component of discovery, browse, has been cast aside as outdated and irrelevant. We know, however, that browsing is a valued component of discovery for scholars and students in our libraries, and that these users express, explicitly and implicitly, a sense of loss in the face of search-focused discovery systems.

The momentum generated by the Semantic Web movement and the Library Linked Data movement suggest a great deal of potential for improved browse capability in discovery systems, yet browsing has been largely ignored by the creators of discovery tools. Innovations in discovery and access to information outside libraries (e.g. e-commerce) have far surpassed innovation for library discovery tools. Incorporating such technologies and concepts as linked data, user-focused design, and lessons learned from e-commerce can help us realize the potential of electronic browsing as a function of discovery. We must learn from the successes of information systems outside of libraries but not fall for the trap of parodying these technologies. Rather, we need to ask more of these technologies, shaping them to embody our values and the values of our patrons, such as historic reach, cultural significance, and intellectual integrity.

This panel will bring together practitioners, designers, and administrators of library information systems to discuss why electronic browsing is broken and how, or if, it can be fixed. The panelists will briefly present their perspective on the problems of electronic browsing and then will participate in a conversation facilitated by the moderators. Questions to be addressed by all panelists include:

 

  •  Why and how are our discovery systems (databases, discovery layers) failing our users?
  • On whom do we place the burden for facilitating discovery and who else might share that burden?
  • How can libraries incentivize creativity and risk in the development of discovery tools?
  • What do you wish were possible in an electronic browsing and discovery environment? Why is this not currently possible?

Through these questions and discussions we hope to drive at the heart of the problems of electronic browsing in our current digital library environment, how we might reset the balance between search and browse in the discovery experience, and what lessons we might learn from those outside of libraries.

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Nina Clements, Steve VanTuyl, and Kate Joranson are project collaborators at ebrowsing.org

Browsing for Serendipity, Creativity, & Boundary-Crossing

What's the interplay between serendipity and creativity? What can artists and various stripes of creative professionals teach us about encouraging serendipitous discoveries? Based upon interviews with creative professionals, a recent study (Makri et al., 2014) describes some of the strategies these artists use to habitually invite serendipitous events into their creative work. Two of these strategies in particular offer up insights for ebrowsing environment design that speak to my own experiences as a former student and newly minted librarian: varying routines and relaxing boundaries.

"Girls. Your job is to meet three new people tonight— have a real conversation with them— and report back." This was my grandfather's inevitable charge to my sisters and me on the eve of any large-scale event (reunions, anniversary parties, community fundraisers, and the like). As unflagging and irritating as this behavior was, that persistent curiosity as a way of being in the world and in relation to the world has stuck with me. I'm still no social butterfly by any stretch of the imagination, but why not get around, so to speak? I've had some of my most formative moments intellectually, politically, and spiritually as a result of finding myself where I don't "belong"— by overhearing conversations, wondering down the wrong aisle or street, reading over friends’ shoulders, and by haphazardly veering into new fields of study— in other words, by varying routines (i.e. frequently getting lost) and relaxing boundaries (i.e. antagonizing every advisor or mentor I've had).
 
I have the erratic path of studies to prove it. My undergraduate studies in classics taught me on the one hand to be cultural critical, sensitive to and less inclined to take for granted the conventional wisdom of this or any historical moment, and on the other hand to entertain connections between disparate times, circumstances, and things. As a graduate student, before I found my way to librarianship, I focused on biblical studies in an intellectual tradition that incorporates literary criticism, history, cultural criticism, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, theology, and other disciplines in pursuit of deeper and ever more multifaceted acquaintanceship with the texts. This study stretched me to develop a keen awareness of both minutiae (think debates over a single letter in an ancient manuscript) and the larger theoretical and institutional frameworks in play. I've struggled to communicate these lessons to the undergraduates I work with as I've transitioned into academic business librarianship: the fruits of critical thinking, of healthy disciplinary cross-pollination, of being where you don't "belong," of wondering, and of serendipitous discoveries.
 
So many of my own discoveries have been in analog— thumbing through encyclopedias or browsing nearby shelves; I'm not so young and complacent as to be unconcerned about my various digital filter bubbles. My Netflix account has started to worry me. After my younger sister got her own taste profile, my recommendations have become markedly more uniform, and I've actually started to miss the chaotic element— that stream of B horror films and Will Farrell comedies— that diversified my browsing experience. Netflix's implementation of a stream of random picks is a nice gesture, but it doesn't satisfy me. After hearing a story on NPR about the 1,000s of subgenres the company uses, like action films starring Bruce Willis or coming-of-age road trip stories, I tried using the consecutively numbered URLs to browse some of those subcategories. But that's unwieldy. And a bit nerdy.
 
Although further customization is undoubtedly one way to build a better ebrowsing environment for libraries, I don't think it's a sufficient solution in and of itself. As a user, I still want the option (not the constraint) to "get lost" in some new territory, and I want the business students I work with to have that option at their disposal as well. I want to remind them to stay accountable to the wider world, to challenge and be challenged by other circles of thinkers and doers.

I think the most popular ebooks or most cited articles lists that I've seen on public library and journal publisher sites speak in part to the need for some awareness beyond our own algorithmically and self-imposed filter bubbles, but I also think we can do better. Makri et al. put forth several suggestions for ebrowsing design that I'd love to see implemented more widely:

  • Suggesting new resources that are related to the user's interests but that s/he has not previously accessed.
  • Suggesting similar but importantly distinct resources when a user frequently accesses the same resource.
  • Presenting related documents or websites alongside search results (integrating search and browse functions more closely).
  • Reminding users of previously accessed resources that relate to what is currently being viewed.

True— I don't want to be forced to wade through a slew of tangentially related articles every time I access a particular database, but for those moments when my mind needs to wonder where it doesn't "belong," I'd like that option and the interface to match.

 

Makri, S. et al. (2014). 'Making my own luck:' Serendipity strategies and how to support them in digital information environments [pre-print]. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. doi: 10.1002/asi.23200

 

Is Browsing Too Slow for Today's Users?

Last week, I had the nerve-wracking pleasure and privilege of presenting some of our imaginings on ebrowsing at the Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) conference in Austin, Texas. I was so impressed with the variety of presentations, and I was glad that our talk was featured as part of UX Day, a conference within a conference all devoted to user experience.

I learned a tremendous amount about open access and especially enjoyed a session from the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN). I had no idea, and perhaps I should have, that open access publishers and indexers are so interested in discoverability and, what’s more, the relationship between certain sources and ideas.  

I also really enjoyed Barbara Fister’s opening keynote, which took a “critical look at the cultural and social forces shaping our work.” She reminded us that when we serve students, we serve every aspect of them. Students are more than library users--they’re critical thinkers in the making. She raised several interesting questions, such as why we spend so much time teaching students information literacy skills, which often point to library databases and peer-reviewed articles, only to cut them off the day we graduate. Basically, we’re telling students that it’s important to evaluate information according to our (academic) criteria, but then they can’t have that kind of information once they graduate. She urged us, as librarians, to be activists and to challenge the consumer model that plagues our culture.

But in addition to the content that people presented, I had some great opportunities to think about the style with which they delivered it. Some of the presenters I saw, especially the leaders of the UX for Good workshop, spoke in quick rapid fire and didn’t give workshop participants a lot of context or direction, though the full story of that workshop is probably an entirely different blog post for another time. Sarah Durrant, who gave the second plenary session on the importance of resilience in libraries, spoke slowly and gently, encouraging reflection. Did a talk about resilience require this kind of reflection? Not necessarily, though it certainly impacted how I received it. Perhaps there’s something to that Marshall McLuhan cliche after all.

So, what does this have to do with browsing? In the informal conversations that I had with people at the conference, some were interested in browsing as a concept but not necessarily convinced that it was possible in today’s hussle-and-bustle insta-world. One of the ideas that I raised in my talk, for instance, was that physical browsing takes time and works best when students are open to new ideas and possibilities, when they are engaged in some way or other with a problem. But do people have time and leisure for this kind of openness and engagement?

Judging by the  variety of voices and presentation styles, I believe they are. Some of us are still open to reflection, still able to speak slowly. And some of our students are, too. Several of the students I helped this week still crave a tactile approach. Even though there aren’t enough books to browse, several of them still print out their articles in order to flip the pages and take notes on the article itself. Some of them prefer writing rather than typing; sometimes I do, too.

What we’re seeking is a rich, ebrowsing environment that will allow us both speed and stillness, both quick responses and the ability to take our time as we wander.

 

Kate Spade is Better at Discovery than ProQuest

One key difficulty of online discovery environments is the assumption that the user needs to see all of the information the system has to present - that there might be something in the entire haystack, the entire universe of information we are providing access to, that the user wants. A simple search, or even a complex one, will return tens if not hundreds of thousands of results in most discovery systems, be it a database or a “discovery layer.” While these results are rankable, facetable, and “browseable” we are intimately familiar with concerns that anything on the second page of results or even below-the-fold are essentially invisible to users. We see this approach everywhere, not just in libraries - searches returning results from all categories of things, resulting in a low precision result set due, at least in part, to the sheer enormity of the catalog being queried. Think searching for products at Amazon, or Target, or Home Depot, or Google Shopping.

One alternative to this approach is something we’re seeing in some innovative commercial browsing environments - don’t give the user everything, just give them what you think they might want. While this approach may seem counter-intuitive or counterproductive (wouldn’t this restrict the discovery potential?) I think this is a direction worth considering. Can we provide discovery systems/tools that engage the researcher from the outset on topics and items we know they are interested in? Rather than starting the discovery process with a search bar and nothing else (a la Google), we can present both a search option and a browse option directed at the researcher’s interests.

Browse for what you want, but only the stuff they show you! Kate Spade Saturday storefront. The partially obscured (sorry!) touchscreen is to the right, just behind the parking kiosk.

Browse for what you want, but only the stuff they show you! Kate Spade Saturday storefront. The partially obscured (sorry!) touchscreen is to the right, just behind the parking kiosk.

Last summer I was wandering around in New York and came across a curious sight. Kate Spade had put up a virtual storefront for their Saturday line. In the storefront - a smattering of actual things you could buy and a touchscreen catalog that allowed you to buy that stuff. But only the stuff in the window. This wasn’t everything offered by Kate Spade’s Saturday line, but the display wasn’t meant to show everything. It was meant to draw the user into the catalog and to engage with the content. Sometimes engagement is worth more than exposure.

So what could this actually look like in libraries? There are certainly many options for personalizing search results and experiences based on previous searches, information from the current search session, or profiles built by the users themselves. As a researcher in the ecological sciences, maybe I don’t want to see all of the databases my library has to offer related to the dramatic arts. If I’m almost always looking for conference proceedings, why must I sift through newspaper articles and trade publications in my result sets?

Maybe it is time to consider providing users with less stuff to look at. Rather than giving our users tools to dig through an enormous pile of information, maybe we should give them a smaller pile.

ebrowsing with naturalists

In thinking about how people move through a process of discovery, we turn to naturalists, as they offer an awareness of how their attention is directed by their environment. Early 20th century scientist and naturalist Aldo Leopold reflects on his approach to hunting partridge.

“One way to hunt partridge is to make a plan, based on logic and probabilities, of the terrain to be hunted. This will take you over the ground where the birds ought to be.  Another way is to wander, quite aimlessly, from one red lantern to another. This will take you to where the birds actually are. The lanterns are blackberry leaves, red in October sun.”
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Leopold uses the phrase “wander aimlessly” though he’s clearly moving deliberately from one blackberry bush to another. Let’s imagine a tool that would allow, or even encourage you to move among nodes that might only be visible to you, making use of your own highly cultivated lens.

As Leopold made his way through the brush, "red lanterns” catching his eye form time to time, he may have felt a bit aimless, as we all do when we are first noticing a pattern or relationship among seemingly unrelated things. Once we pause and reflect on our path, we are better able to articulate the relationships we see. While the word “wander” doesn’t seem quite right in retrospect, it does describe the initial impulse. It’s that initial impulse that we want to cultivate in the electronic environment.