Unread Books

Made by Kim Lister

A system of representation that encourages people to browse unnoticed books.

Created: September 16th, 2014


I've spent a lot of time in libraries, and I like wandering through the stacks just browsing books by their spines. Last semester for a research project I decided to try to find some books on a fairly obscure, specific topic, so I looked some up with the CMU library catalog and found the spot in Hunt where they were kept. Most were over a decade old, yet looked practically untouched (the spines weren't bent; the pages were pristine). It made me wonder how often people actually read them. How long had they been sitting useless on the shelf before I came along?

Personally, I get kind of amazed when I think about how libraries gather thousands upon thousands of people's stories and thoughts in one place where we can wander between them and dip into them simply by reaching out and opening a book. However, we tend to take libraries for granted because they've been provided by the government for so long they've become mundane. I want my "improvement" to evoke that same sense of wonder I feel when wandering through the stacks.

Since libraries already keep detailed records of what books get checked out and when, I would easily be able to get numbers for how long it had been since each book was checked out.

To represent this data, I first came up with an embodied solution, inspired by the "Pulse Room" example. My idea is to install lines of very small, basic speakers along each shelf in a library, and have an audio track that sounds like voices murmuring that plays louder near books that have gone untouched for the longest. (See link below for an example.) There could even be a few different tracks, with some sounding more subdued (like the example) and others more insistent or demanding, so in addition to increasing volume we could change the tone as well. 


Then as people wander the library, the less-used books will literally cry out for their attention, like the voices are afraid of being lost forever. Obviously it would have to be a temporary installation, but I think audio is the best choice for this because libraries are already very quiet because people are supposed to be reading, "listening" to the voices of the books. The interruption to that silence will be jarring, so better for grabbing people's attention, but not out of place because it's still the books "speaking"--we're just allowing them to do it in a different way than usual.

To simulate that experience of wandering through the library in a more graphical form, I would likely use a process similar to the sentence trees in the Viegas video, where selecting a word would magnify the possible words that could follow it. There would be a display of the library floor map--a simple black outline on white--and shelves would have many tiny, random words in simple black text floating off of them at different angles, fading as they got further away. Rather than increasing in volume and urgency, the words could become larger and darker, and "flow" more quickly out from their source. Clicking on a certain area of the library would zoom in on it, and the word flows would be recalculated with higher accuracy for that particular area. Then clicking on an area within that could cause the camera to "zoom in" from an overhead view to looking at a particular shelf as if standing in front of it (still black outlines on white background). The word flows would again be recalculated to come from each specific book on the shelf, and clicking a book would give you its catalog number so you could find it in the actual library if you wanted to.

In this example, the choice of simple black lines on white is to avoid distracting from the main activity of the image. It's just enough to give context, but doesn't interfere with the data being presented. Being able to "zoom in" on different areas lets you explore the library in response to the "voices" being displayed.

I believe these representations display "graphical excellence" because they put the focus on the substance of the data rather than particular numbers, and the way the data is presented, it's completely intuitive to judge which areas are "louder" than others even without knowing the particular numbers associated with each. It's a "forceful point of view" because the way the data is presented (hopefully) provokes reflection and emotion rather than just being an abstract concept.

My initial idea was just the audio one, but my group suggested having a graphical representation as well. Originally I also thought the most recently checked out books should be loudest, so their literal voices would match their figurative ones, but they suggested instead trying to draw attention to the books that had been ignored, which I actually like better.

I've already explained the connections to Dourish, Lozano-Hemmer, and Viegas. Additionally, I think the idea is similar to the LA air pollution graphics in Tufte because there's one dimension that varies across a map--I'm just using sound or motion rather than a static bar to represent it. Finally, since I have both an installment and graphic version, I think it relates to the part of the Viegas video where they were trying to find the best way to show wind currents on the map--there were many options for the same data, but all had slightly different connotations.

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A system of representation that encourages people to browse unnoticed books.