Playful Discovery: Exploring an Artist Project by Lenka Clayton

I'd like to share an artist project by Lenka Clayton. Take your time to scroll through to the bottom, and we'll chat.

50 Library Books 2014 / sculpture / loaned library books / photo: Tom Little, library assistance: Tina Mastroianni The maximum allowed number of library books are checked out of a local library in numerical order according to their titles.

50 Library Books

2014 / sculpture / loaned library books / photo: Tom Little, library assistance: Tina Mastroianni

The maximum allowed number of library books are checked out of a local library in numerical order according to their titles.

Lenka Clayton's work provides us the opportunity to talk about ways people explore collections. This stack of books became a collection when Clayton extracted them from the library catalog and from their places in the stacks.

32 Cadillacs, 31 Dates in 31 Days, and Thirty-three Teeth. Where else, other than this artist project, are these books linked? What can be gained from linking them, or from recording that Clayton's searching built conceptual connections among these books? Perhaps the materiality, texture, and cultural significance of popular reading, however, in relation to ebrowsing, it is useful as a way to imagine the value of providing pathways among seemingly unrelated items.

Reading and scrolling through her tower of books, we see her lens applied to a collection, and we notice how she makes use of an established boundary, the maximum number of books that one may check out from the local library. She pushes up against this boundary, making it visible and giving it weight and heft. What if we were able to build tools that encouraged this kind of expansive, playful way of exploring across disciplinary boundaries?

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Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.

Performing Discovery

A few months ago, one of my saved searches brought back a story about a so-called digital library in a subway station in Bucharest. It turned out the library was actually a large-scale advertisement for a mobile phone company and a publisher. The walls of a subway concourse were covered floor to ceiling, in trompe l'oeil style, with printed posters of books on shelves. It was called a "digital library" because some of the books had QR codes added to their spines; smartphone users could scan the codes and be linked to previews of the books.

After reading these details, I reflexively dismissed the whole thing as insufferably corny. The QR codes, books as decoration, the play for attention-grabbing dissonance... What's this? Shelves of books? In a metro station!?! It sounded like something we'd have snickered over in a college cultural studies course: books and libraries as simulacra for urban commuters.

At the same time, I couldn't shake the thought that if I were there in person I would enjoy the experience of standing before the fake shelves, looking at the spines of the fake books, and exploring the collection, such that it is. After all, there are actual books represented in this library; it's not purely decorative wallpaper styled as shelves of indeterminately "old" volumes (which, it turns out, is very much a thing). And, as fake libraries go, it's pretty big: you'd have to move your feet, wander around, and probably crane your neck in order to take it all in. As much as the premise made me cringe, I started to wonder if this might actually be a pleasant way to casually discover an ebook -- more pleasant than browsing the web site of an online bookseller or a library catalog.

Part of what is at work here, of course, is the comfort of the familiar. Bookshelves, printed covers, and labeled spines are themselves technologies that have won out, over time, as a means of balancing the form of certain media (books), physical space, and human scale. They are part of our cultural vernacular; we understand the way they work and know how to navigate them with an ease that makes the technology of it all seem invisible.

But there's something else happening, something other than the (fake) books and shelves. There is something about informationally-dense spaces, spaces of a certain scale, spaces you have to move your body through to discover, spaces where we can physically model and then perform the act of discovery. Even when the objects to be discovered have been flattened into wallpaper, these spaces engender ways of browsing that personal-scale electronic devices do not.

Consider the scale and metaphors of our most common ebrowsing devices: the personal computer (a single desktop); the tablet (a single book); smartphone (which, best I can tell, is the scale of a candy bar). Then consider the relative amount of content that we can view through these small screens. The effect is like wandering the stacks of your local research library while looking through a director's viewfinder.

There is a lot of work being done to create a new vernacular for browsing digitally, but we should remember -- with concern -- that so much of this work is bound inside of personal screens. These screens are spaces, certainly, but they are smaller than us. They are fixed frames; we move and manipulate an impossibly large amount of information inside of them. Even when this work is moved to larger touch screens, users most often stand before a scaled-up version of some personal screen metaphor instead of performing discovery in spaces to be moved through.

We're nowhere near achieving the balance that our older information technologies worked out to address browsing. Open library stacks remain an amazing discovery tool for the things we can place on them. But replicating bookshelves virtually is not the solution for ebrowsing. It doesn't account for the fascinating ways that digital objects can be ordered, re-ordered, mapped, networked, scaled, layered, annotated, and otherwise visualized. In library buildings we construct quiet study spaces, coffee shops, group meeting rooms, media labs, maker spaces -- why not dedicated, purpose-built electronic browsing spaces where you can discover resources in ways that would be impossible on the screen of your laptop, tablet, or phone?

Where can we look for pointers? Artists have been working on immersive, interactive, digitally-based spaces for a long time. Childrens museums, science museums, and theme parks are especially good at creating exploratory, playful spaces for discovery. Cultural heritage museums are working on tools so that interactive discovery might include taking what you find away with you.

We've been quick to be convinced that new media are immaterial (though this has been convincingly repudiated); in doing so we've also been far too quick to toss out physical space as a means to discover them. Libraries and archives should be doing more important work to make ebrowsing a place.

Thoughts on the new JSTOR project, Understanding Shakespeare

Take a look at this new tool that JSTOR and the Folger Shakespeare Library just released: Understanding Shakespeare. You can discover, for example, that 8 articles have cited the first line of Macbeth, then click into each one of them. What do you think? Does this provide an electronic browsing experience?

My thoughts: I very much appreciate this project and I think it helps us to visualize the possibilities of electronic browsing, as do many digital humanities projects.

Access to meandering citation trails is valuable to visualizing the landscape of scholarship. I'm trying to learn more about open linked data, as it seems to have the potential to build a more challenging context for a work such as Macbeth, going beyond citation trails and providing access to (and even prompts to explore) underlying patterns of use, subject matter, etc. 

Let's view this image alongside our discussion of Shakespeare and ebrowsing. This is 'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644) This was a widely accepted model of the universe in the 17th Century.

Let's view this image alongside our discussion of Shakespeare and ebrowsing. This is 'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644) This was a widely accepted model of the universe in the 17th Century.

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Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.

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

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Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.

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.

Comment

Kate Joranson

Business Reference Librarian, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh Kate Joranson studied art at the University of Wisconsin, earned her MFA at Ohio State University, and an MLIS at the University of Pittsburgh. As both a librarian and an artist, she enjoys the accidental nature of looking for one thing, and finding something else. As a blogger, she cultivates collisions and connections among seemingly disparate interests. Snow drifts, messy kitchens, market research, and pink scaffolding are all topics you may encounter on her blog, where she explores search engines as a medium. Also: small business owner, gardener, knitter.