Ambient Findability: Libraries at the Crossroads of Ubiquitous
Computing and the Internet
By Peter Morville
Have you heard of Delicious Library? If not, it’s worth checking it
out. Delicious Library is a social software solution that transforms an iMac
and FireWire digital video camera into a multimedia cataloging system. You
can simply scan the barcode on any book, movie, music, or video game, and the
item’s cover magically appears on your digital shelves along with tons
of metadata from the Web. Even better, this sexy, location-aware, peer-to-peer,
multimedia personal lending library lets you share your collection with friends
and neighbors. It’s billed as an industrial strength library system,
But is this really a library? That’s a tricky question. We’re
a long way, semantically speaking, from the archetypal Library of Alexandria,
but have we left the category? The trouble, of course, is that we keep pushing
the envelope. Not so long ago, a library was a room or building with a physical
collection. Then came the Internet, and we started talking about digital libraries.
Now, having accepted the rather odd concept of an Internet Public Library,
we’re looking down the barrel of a few billion Delicious Personal Libraries.
Keep in mind I’m not just talking about books and DVDs.
I envision a future of ambient findability in which we can find anyone or
anything from anywhere at anytime. At the heart of this brave new world is
a library, or rather a multitude of libraries, that help us find what we need,
whether the objects sought (and the libraries themselves) are physical, digital,
or in between.
From Information Architecture to Findability
As some readers may know, I’ve been pounding on the boundaries of librarianship
for quite some time. After graduating from the University of Michigan’s
School of Information and Library Studies in 1993, I embarked on a mission
(with Louis Rosenfeld and Joseph Janes) to prove the value of librarianship
in the Internet age. In the ensuing years, we helped create the field of information
architecture, and spread the principles and practices of librarianship throughout
the realms of user experience and Web design.
Our belief that librarianship can be practiced successfully in the nontraditional
environments of Web sites and intranets has been validated in countless businesses,
universities, and government agencies around the world, where information architects
are now employed. Consequently, many library schools have developed information
architecture courses and curricula. We are also blessed with a growing international
IA community, which holds an annual summit meeting [http://iasummit.org/],
and a dedicated professional association [http://iainstitute.org/]. During
the past decade, information architecture has become a well-established discipline—which
is probably why I’ve been feeling trapped in a box that I helped create.
Seriously, in recent years, while information architecture has been my profession,
findability has become my passion. In the context of today’s Web design
and user experience teams, the concept of findability has real power to bridge
disciplines, break down boundaries, and help people think outside the box.
Crossing Borders at the National Cancer Institute
Consider this example from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), where I recently
had the good fortune to collaborate with a great team of people on redesigning
the cancer.gov Web site. NCI brought me in to lead the information architecture
strategy. My stated goals were to improve navigation and usability, and reduce
the number of clicks required to access key content. The in-house team at NCI
had already done a great job analyzing patterns of use. They understood who
visits, why they visit, and where they spend their time. They knew the majority
of site visitors are people recently diagnosed with cancer (and their friends
and family members). Their data showed the home pages for specific types of
cancer were among the most visited. So, among other goals, they wanted to reduce
the time and number of clicks it took to navigate from the NCI home page to
cancer type home pages.
Now, being a findability fanatic, I couldn’t help inquiring about how
people find the Web site in the first place. My clients didn’t have much
data on this topic, but they told me not to worry about this type of findability.
Our site comes up as the first or second hit for searches on cancer on
Google they told me, so we’re all set.
But I did worry, so I conducted a bit of research. I used Overture’s
Search Term Suggestion Tool to get a sense of the types of cancer-related searches
being performed on public search engines. Sure enough, the generic query on cancer was
the single most popular search (to the tune of 180,000 queries per month).
However, queries on specific types of cancer were also very common (132,000
on breast cancer per month). In fact, when you totaled the searches
on specific types of cancer, these outnumbered the generic searches by a 5:1
ratio. This makes sense. If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re
very likely to search on breast cancer rather than explore the more
general category of cancer.
Yet when I tried Google and Yahoo! searches on breast cancer, prostate
cancer, and mesothelioma, cancer.gov didn’t come up in the
first screen of results. It was drowned out by a multitude of more-specialized,
more-commercial, less-detailed, less-trustworthy Web sites. For users with
these specific queries, the NCI site was essentially unfindable. In
my opinion, this was a major problem. In fact, I told my clients that if
they had to choose between having me redesign the information architecture
and having a search engine optimization firm improve cancer type home page
visibility for the most important and common cancer-related keyword searches,
I’d recommend the latter.
Fortunately, my clients weren’t forced to choose. Instead, we collaborated
on a strategy to make it easier for users to find the site, to find the site’s
content, and to find their way around the site. In the year since this redesign,
the National Cancer Institute has won a Webby Award and a Freddie
Award and has climbed to the very top of the American Customer Satisfaction
Index for E-Government. This goes to show that good things happen when you
focus on findability.
Why hadn’t my clients identified and solved their findability problems
sooner? Because, like so many other design teams, they viewed their responsibility
from a top-down perspective. Can users find what they need from the home page?
It’s an important question, but it ignores the fact that many users don’t
start from the home page. Powerful search tools, directories, blogs, social
bookmarks, and syndication services are moving deep linking and content sampling
from the exception to the rule.
Optimizing for Findability
When optimizing for findability, you need to ask yourself these three important
• Can users find the Web site?
• Can users navigate the Web site?
• Can users find the content despite the Web site?
It’s the third question, in particular, where findability goes beyond
the box of information architecture into search engine optimization, a new
domain that’s inescapably interdisciplinary. Just consider the following
search engine optimization (SEO) guidelines:
• Determine the most common keywords and phrases (with optimal
conversion rates) that users from your target audience are entering into
• Include those keywords and phrases in your visible body text,
navigation links, page headers and titles, metadata tags, and alternative
text for graphic images.
• Proceed cautiously (or not at all) when considering the use
Flash, and other coding approaches that may prevent a search engine spider
from crawling your pages.
• Create direct links from your home page, site map, and navigation
system to important destination pages in order to increase their page popularity
• Use RSS feeds with ample backlinks to your site’s target
destinations to encourage subscriptions and visits and to boost organic search
• Reduce HTML code bloat and overall file size by embracing Web
standards to ensure accessibility and improve keyword density.
Optimizing for findability involves design, coding, and writing, as well as
information architecture. It has major implications for marketing and for librarianship.
In the Internet age, it’s no longer good enough for libraries to design
effective retrieval and wayfinding systems. As Google has taught us the hard
way, people may never make it to the library if it’s easier to find “good
enough” answers from the desktop. We cannot assume our patrons will enter
the library or search our online databases. In today’s information environment,
we must invert the query. Can our users find what they need from wherever they
are? That’s the multichannel communication question we should be asking.
It’s a question that will lead us into much stranger realms than Web
sites, intranets, and Delicious Libraries.
The Road to Ambient Findability
We’re standing at an inflection point in the evolution of findability.
At the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, we’re creating
all sorts of new interfaces and devices to access information. Simultaneously,
we’re importing into our global digital networks tremendous volumes of
information about people, places, products, and possessions. Consider the following
• A company called Ambient Devices embeds information representation
into everyday objects: lights, pens, watches, walls, and wearables. You can
buy a wireless Ambient Orb that shifts colors to show changes in the weather,
stock market, and traffic patterns based on user preferences set on a Web
• From the highways of Seattle and Los Angeles to the city streets
of Tokyo and Berlin, embedded wireless sensors and real-time data services
for mobile devices are enabling motorists to learn about and route around
traffic jams and accidents.
• Pioneers in “convergent architecture” have built
the Swisshouse, a new type of consulate in Cambridge, Mass., that connects
a geographically dispersed scientific community. It may not be long before
persistent audio-video linkages and “Web on the wall” come to
a building near you.
• You can buy a watch from Wherify Wireless with an integrated
global positioning system (GPS) that locks onto your kid’s wrists, so
you can pinpoint their location at any time. A nifty “breadcrumb” feature
shows where your child has wandered over the course of several hours. Similar
devices are available in amusement parks such as Denmark’s Legoland,
so parents can quickly find their lost children.
• Manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble have already begun
inserting radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs) into products in order
to reduce theft and restock shelves more efficiently. These tags continue
to function long after products leave the store and enter the home or business.
• At the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, patrons can buy drinks
and open doors with a wave of their hand, compliments of a syringe-injected,
RFID microchip implant. The system knows who you are, where you are, and your
exact credit balance. Getting “chipped” is considered a luxury
service, available for VIP members only.
These are just a few of the signposts along the road to ambient findability,
a world in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. We’re
not there yet, but we’re headed in the right direction.
Of course, the path to ambient findability will not be straight or smooth.
We should expect a bumpy ride with many twists and turns as we negotiate serious
challenges to privacy and struggle to improve information literacy in a mediascape
in which citizens have an unprecedented ability to select their sources and
choose their news.
But when it comes to findability, I’m an optimist. I believe we will
ultimately make good decisions, and I’m convinced that libraries and
librarianship together can play an important role in guiding us through the
maze. For evidence, we have only to look at the myriad sources of inspiration
that surround us on today’s Internet.
Sources of Inspiration
For instance, consider the ambition of Larry Page and Sergey Brin to organize
the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
As they have already shown, these are not just words, but ideas linked to actions
with profound social impact, and these visionary entrepreneurs have only just
Google’s plans promise a future more exciting than its past. For example,
I can’t imagine how anyone who cares about learning and literacy could
not be excited by the goals of Google’s Library Project, which are summed
up as follows:
This project’s aim is simple: help maintain the preeminence of books
and libraries in our increasingly Internet-centric culture by making these
information resources an integral part of the online experience. We hope to
guide more users to their local libraries; to digital archives of some of the
world’s greatest research institutions; and to out-of-print books they
might not be able to find anywhere else—all while carefully respecting
authors’ and publishers’ copyrights [http://print.google.com/googleprint/library.html].
The collections of the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford
University, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University will be accessible
to anyone, anytime, anywhere. This is amazing. The world’s greatest works
of art, history, science, engineering, law, and literature are about to join
the public Web. This is a watershed moment in the history of information access
Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, serves as another brilliant
source of inspiration. In the 1980s, he studied artificial intelligence with
Marvin Minsky and helped grow the supercomputer firm, Thinking Machines. Then,
in 1992, with the open source releases of WAIS, Kahle included an article on
the “Ethics of Digital Librarianship,” in which he wrote:
As digital librarian, you should serve and protect each patron as if she were
your only employer. As more of us become involved in serving information electronically … [we]
must become conscious of our ethical responsibilities … being a good
digital librarian is a concrete way to create a future we all want to live
His belief that values must accompany value is evident in the mission of the
Internet Archive, which is to build a digital library that provides universal
access to human knowledge:
Libraries exist to preserve society’s cultural artifacts and to provide
access to them … without cultural artifacts, civilization has no memory
and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures … [we are]
working to prevent the Internet … and other born-digital materials from
disappearing into the past [www4.archive.org/about/about.php].
Libraries and the Internet serve similar functions. More importantly, they
represent shared values. Privacy, intellectual freedom, free expression, free
and equal access to ideas and information, resistance to censorship—these
principles, these unalienable rights and self-evident truths, are held in common
by librarians and hackers, from the most revered universities to the most irreverent
activists of social software and open source. It’s my sincere hope that
we will carry these shared values into the emerging realm of mobile, wireless,
invisible, ubiquitous computing.
To return to the question posed at the beginning of this article, is a Delicious
Library really a library? Before answering this tricky question, remember that
the free public library was once only a twinkle in the eye of a rebel named
Benjamin Franklin. Fifty years before co-authoring and signing the Declaration
of Independence, young Benjamin created “social libraries” to promote
the free sharing of books and the pursuit of knowledge through study and vigorous
debate, according to Michael H. Harris (History of Libraries in the Western
World, Scarecrow Press, 1995, pp. 183–184). Today’s Internet
and tomorrow’s Delicious Libraries represent novel opportunities to advance
that vision. While it remains vital to preserve and promote those cathedrals
of knowledge we call libraries, it’s equally important to spread the
values of librarianship to the four corners of cyberspace. In this way, librarians
can play a key role in shaping the delicious future of ambient findability.
Definitions of information architecture
The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an
The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion
and intuitive access to content.
The art and science of structuring and classifying Web sites and intranets
to help people find and manage information.
An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles
of design and architecture to the digital landscape.
–Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (O’Reilly
Media, 2002), by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville
When I tried Google and Yahoo! searches on breast cancer, prostate
cancer, and mesothelioma, cancer.gov didn’t come up in the
first screen of results. It was drowned out by a multitude of more-specialized,
more-commercial, less-detailed, less-trustworthy Web sites.
Definitions of findability
The quality of being locatable or navigable.
The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate.
The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.
–Ambient Findability (O’Reilly Media, 2005),
by Peter Morville
Today’s Internet and tomorrow’s Delicious Libraries represent
novel opportunities to advance that vision. While it remains vital to preserve
and promote those cathedrals of knowledge we call libraries, it’s equally
important to spread the values of librarianship to the four corners of cyberspace.
In this way, librarians can play a key role in shaping the delicious future
of ambient findability.
Peter Morville [firstname.lastname@example.org] is president
of Semantic Studios and author of Ambient Findability (O’Reilly
Media, 2005). He delivers keynotes and workshops at conferences around the
world, and he blogs at findability.org.
Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to email@example.com.