Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity       January 2001 • Volume XXIII, Number 3

Lost (and Found) in Cyberspace

by Ceci Jones

Andrew Dillon doesn’t deny the power that digital libraries possess.

“(Digital libraries) are a revolution potentially as important as the emergence of the printing press,” says Dillon, IU Bloomington associate professor of information science in the School of Library and Information Science and associate professor of informatics in the new School of Informatics.

But how beneficial is all that information if users can’t navigate their way around a digital library (DL) and log off in a frustrated huff?


Once people start interacting with a digital library, . . . in just six or seven links, they may be, in effect, on the other side of the world. Getting back proves very difficult for many people.

Illustration by Joe Lee

“The world of digital libraries is in a state of chaos at the moment,” says Dillon. “Lots of people are building DLs, but they’re driven mainly by technological concerns. Many developers think they can scan all this information in, link it up, and call it a digital library.”

In Dillon’s opinion, “what really matters is what a user can do with the information. Creators of digital libraries need to be concerned with how information is organized and presented,” he says, “so that meaning and inherent structure are made apparent to the users.”

Dillon will be examining all this and more as co-investigator of a new four-year, $3 million grant (funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for Humanities) to improve upon the IU School of Music’s digital library, VARIATIONS.

“We’re hoping to build a state-of-the art music DL for instruction and research, which will extend VARIATIONS way beyond its current capabilities,” Dillon says.

He imagines the future library this way: “A student could access and listen to a piece of music by Bach, then suddenly decide to look at images of Bach because she wants to put a face to this great composer,” he says. “She then decides to listen to what other contemporary musicologists say about Bach and his music. So she starts reading some critical essays, and within those essays are links to lectures. When she calls up one of those links, she’s taken to footage of a 1958 lecture given by a famous composer.

Indiana University students currently have access to more than 6,000 digital recordings through VARIATIONS, IU's digital music library. With a recent $3 million grant from the federal Digital Libraries Initiative, IU researchers will be developing a much expanded and enhanced version of VARIATIONS over the next four years.

“In short,” Dillon continues, “this (digital music library) would be the realization of hypermedia’s historical promise: seamless integration of the world of information, driven by user interest and need.”
While Dillon is excited about the potential of a new and improved VARIATIONS, he commends IU’s existing Digital Library Program.

“We have a tremendous technological infrastructure and a superb digital library program,” Dillon says of IU. “Bringing all that together and actually building something that’s not just technologically interesting but actually humanly usable is what it’s all about.”

Dillon is particularly interested in the human response to information technology. “I want to know why some people learn to use systems easily while others seem to struggle,” he says. “What forces shape human behavior at the interface? How we can best study humans in order to envision technologies that enhance our lives, and how we can improve the evaluation of technology designs to attain more usable and acceptable tools?”

Generally, Dillon says, people are excited by the concept of a digital library. After all, what’s not to like about a technology that allows, for example, English professors to search the complete works ofShakespeare within minutes for all references to flowers as a metaphor for love?

The downside of digital libraries, says Dillon, is that the user interface frequently lacks basic principles of good design.

“People experience tremendous disorientation and navigation problems in a digital environment where the cues and structures—the rules of engagement for information—are divorced from any sort of physical reality,” he says.

In other words, they get lost in cyberspace.

“Once people start interacting with a large digital library—opening the links, following trails, looking at images, reading texts, and scrolling down the screen—they start exploring a space that places few boundaries on what they see and is subject to little authority or quality control,” Dillon says. “They might find themselves having to go ‘outside’ to another site, linked to a document in another digital library. In just six or seven links, these users are, in effect, on the other side of the world. Getting back, relocating previously seen information, making sense of it all, proves very difficult for many people.”

Dillon’s research asserts that even if these users find the information they initially sought, it often takes them longer to do so, resulting in increased frustration and annoyance—both of which may considerably lower comprehension levels.

Dillon hopes his usability research will influence not only today’s digital library architects, but tomorrow’s as well.

“The majority of the world doesn’t have a Web page or access to a computer—so they have all this ahead of them,” he says. “What gets developed and standardized now will have tremendous impact on the rest of the world’s information systems. We want to make human factors a driver of these technologies.”

For more information:
• Andrew Dillon’s Home Page
• Digital Music Library: Indiana University

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