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Category Archives: visual literacy

I write a bit about information spaces, both physical and virtual, and the play between the two of them.  I’ve been sketching enough lately that I think I’m drawing the same things I’m writing.  I don’t paint to illustrate ideas, I paint to explore them and see what happens.  Its a discovery process, not a publishing tool.  Anyways, I’m excited to have established this kind of synchronicity between a couple of different creative outlets.  Here’s my latest drawing.

  A few days ago I was looking at my friend Jess’s blog and I ran into this:   


 That got me thinking.  What kind of color schemes do different public libraries use in their web designs, and what sort of “vibe” are they conveying by using the particular color palette they use?


There’s certainly a lot of literature out there about the psychology of colors in marketing and advertising.  I was reminded of a really fun old book on my shelf, one that I purchased mostly for the color palettes in the centerfold.  The book is “New Horizons in Color” from 1951.  They break down colors into two categories: “Decorative” and “Functional”.


 The scans below show those palettes, and I then sampled the colors used in the websites of a number of major public libraries.  I thought the results were pretty interesting, and they are perhaps somewhat telling of the way these libraries and library systems choose to articulate their mission and vision.


 Palettes that fell in the “decorative” category were Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Public Library, and Chicago Public Library.


 Palettes that fell in the “functional” category were New York Public Library, District of Columbia Public Library, Cuyahoga County Public Library, and the Ann Arbor District Library.


The images below are thumbnails, click on them for a better look.




Imagine that your library has a group of non-users that you’d like to reach out to. Take for example a population of individuals ages 20-35, a typically underserved group at public libraries. How would you identify this group’s needs and serve them? Below is a simplified diagram that visually explains that the results and recommendations produced by a well-designed survey of your non-users overlapping with the results and recommendations of a survey of the “exceptions” (who actually use the library) will offer you a worthwhile course of action. Perhaps this is obvious, but when it is proposed visually rather than verbally I think the premise is revealing and perhaps a little provocative.

Of course the key is designing a good survey.

Enjoy the diagram.


The definition of literacy has changed.  This afternoon while I was working in the Education and Job Information Center at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central building I was struck by a concrete example of the redefinition of literacy.  Consider the different skills a job-seeker would need for a successful employment hunt in 2008.

In 1975, a person interested in creating a resume for an administrative assistant position would have looked through books of sample resumes and then sat at a typewriter to build their resume in a directional, linear fashion, from beginning to end.  In 1995, that same person might have had the luxury of using a halfway decent word processor on a computer.  That word processor would give them the ability to track forward and backward as they create the document, enabling text editing in a two-directional linear fashion.  Now, with internet connectivity, resume writing tutorial software or layout programs like Quark, Adobe InDesign, writing a resume becomes a simulated spatial experience.  The writer can edit in any order and manipulate the “page” on the computer screen in much the way they would manipulate a piece of paper.

What about the way a person would actually look for employment listings?  In 1975, an individual looking for an administrative assistant position via their local public library would have picked up the classified section of the local newspaper, browsed, found some phone numbers and addresses and made contact with another human.  In 1995, that same person would have more opportunities if they looked for their job via a local paper on the internet, emailed their resume to a person and eventually made contact.  Now, in 2008 separate services offer job-seeking guides, and the public library does its best to conglomerate all of these resources by creating pathfinders and guides that link to the many individual services.

“Computer literacy” is no longer computer literacy, it is just plain LITERACY. 
This presents a challenge.  With computer literacy comes a whole new rhetoric, essentially a series of vocabularies, literacies and grammatical structures that nobody can be expected to just guess or intuit any more than they can be expected to just guess and intuit Moby Dick. It comes naturally to anyone reading this that the icon in your browser that is shaped like a little house is a metonym for “home”, but what is home, what does that mean?  It is part of the 21st century public library’s mission and responsibility to see to it that everyone in this country has access to the tools they need to answer these questions. The library mission is not just to provide access electronic texts on the computer, it is to provide an understanding and context for the access itself.  Not understanding the grammar of computing in 2008 is like not being able to read in 1975.

Our patrons know this!  This is why they come to us in droves to use our free, publicly available internet access.  Libraries will always be in the book business, but the masses have spoken. People come to the public library to use the computers: electronic content is the book of the future.  A teenager in 2008 indulging in an afternoon of goofballetry and knuckleheadedness on myspace is the same thing as a kid in 1975 reading a Marvel comic book. Each one is unconsciously honing his or her literacy skills; only literacy means something a little different.  So how can we, the librarians, maximize the number of people who benefit from all of the information and content that exists on the internet, all of the vetted content that we offer through our databases, and at the same time assist people in gaining the skills needed to understand the intricacies of access?

Offering mile-long tables of PCs is not the answer.  We need to go mobile, so that everyone can take their little piece of the library, customize it, and bring it with them.  I don’t believe that it is sustainable to simply make ourselves easily available through peoples’ portable devices (though I absolutely support efforts to create library Facebook apps, iPhone-ready catalog interfaces, and anything else that works on the device-a-la-mode this week).  Libraries need to create a wireless, loanable, library-content device.  Librarians have caught on to the fact that we need to design our own software tools.  I think we need to take the next step and design and build our own hardware, something specifically made for our mission and vision.  A lot of people read my last piece about the Library Outpost as a smaller service node within our larger network of physical spaces; a different means by which we can effectively deliver physical content without storing everything on-site.  Now I’m suggesting that a loanable mobile device is the content delivery model of the future.  Lets build a prototype.

I made this diagram for fun. It describes the way that I think a library’s web site fits into a typical library organizational structure vs. a larger public service driven user-experience analysis. “Rep.” stands for representatives from different departments, appointed by the director of that department. The size and shape of the diagram, as well as the names of the departments would be different depending on the structure of whatever library system, but the overlap of departmental interests should remain constant.


Found this great book at the Salvation Army upstate. 


I’m so excited to write about this particular project, one that has been in the works for a while.

I’ve been working with Situ Studio, a firm that utilizes emerging technologies at the intersection of architecture and a variety of other disciplines, to develop demographic mapping and data visualization solutions for public libraries. I cannot speak highly enough of the work these guys have done and are capable of doing.

Urban public libraries are not in the business of collecting demographic data; other agencies do the collecting. Our business is correctly interpreting the data in order to create a strategic plan and implement appropriate library service. Libraries need a clear, efficient means of displaying data for internal analysis. Further, they need a display format that serves as a simple means of communication with external parties, a visual tool within which they can frame arguments and demonstrate demographic shifts and trends. With training, a presenter using this tool can illustrate compelling, anecdotal, case-study style scenarios with facts, statistics and metrics.

Large sets of data are most easily interpreted when represented visually, rather than in a tabular or textual presentation. As a means of communication, information visualization has surpassed the archaic database and spreadsheet formats we are accustomed to. The screenshots below use a digitally rendered map of Brooklyn to display demographic data in a spatial context. The data fields represented are merely examples of what such a map can offer, and should be considered a foundation from which a more complex map can be built.

Below are a few teaser images that really only halfway describe the possibilities associated with the work we’ve accomplished so far.


The image above shows a bus map, library facilities in red with the diameter representing the size of the collection, and schools in green with the diameter representing the size of the student body.


Above is a map showing Red Hook, displaying census data by tract as well as physical boundaries to library service (for example the BQE, in yellow).


Another display of census data by tract.

Again, this is really just the beginning of something important, and I’m happy to share some sample images from the much more extensive animation sequences the crew at Situ put together. This represents a new way for libraries to communicate internally and externally. Stay tuned for further developments.

Alicia Gibb, an Urban Library Council Scholar spending a semester assisting me at Brooklyn Public Library, sent me this great article from Wired magazine about Luis von Ahn and his unique perspective on humans’ relationship with technology. At first it freaked me out because I thought I’d found an exception to one of McLuhan’s four laws of media (thanks to the Playful Librarian for pointing me to that page), then I realized it doesn’t illustrate an exception as much as a somewhat scary example of the law in action. Von Ahn, for the record, is a total badass. He is responsible for Captcha and more recently ReCaptcha, those squiggly weird little words that you have to type when you log into websites to verify that you are a person and not a spambot. Here is a paragraph from the article that explains, but you REALLY need to read the whole article:

Von Ahn talks about “’human computation,’ the art of using massive groups of networked human minds to solve problems that computers cannot. Ask a machine to point to a picture of a bird or pick out a particular voice in a crowd, and it usually fails. But even the most dim-witted human can do this easily. Von Ahn has realized that our normal view of the human-computer relationship can be inverted. Most of us assume computers make people smarter. He sees people as a way to make computers smarter.”

One of Marshall McLuhan’s four laws of media is the law of Extension and Enhancement. This law states that every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user. So, when Von Ahn is using the visual literacy skills or voice recognition capabilities of humans to teach machines to do the same, the technology he creates attempts to extend or amplify collective human minds themselves. Yikes! That is when it hit me: from a media ecology perspective, social computing is really a group extension of human minds, with the goal being the creation of one massive networked human brain! Its one thing when McLuhan’s law speaks of a tool like a hammer being an extension of the arm, or a telephone being an extension of your voice and hearing. A new technology that exists as a collective extension of human minds is a powerful tool, and I don’t think it is too far out there in sci-fi land to say that success in this arena would drive evolution.

This post only touches on one tiny little part of what made this article so intriguing. I strongly recommend reading it.

Neils Bohr, famed physicist for describing the atomic structure (electrons revolving around a nucleus of protons and neutrons), was resistant to visualizing and modeling the structure based on Complementarity and what one of his students would end up calling the Uncertainty Principle.  The Uncertainty Principle states that the greater your ability to measure the spatial location of a particle, the lesser your ability to measure its velocity.  The two measurements work against one another, thus creating a visual paradox.

This is cool because that paradox forces a renderer to use abstraction to represent atomic structure.  Obviously drawing an atom is something of an abstraction already, as is any static representation of speed.  Drawing two measurements that work against one another: that is a different kind of challenge.  That could keep you up at night.

My grandfather is a passionate amateur ornithologist who has traveled the world in search of birds large and small.  In classic Indiana Jones fashion, he has a map on the wall displaying the routes he has taken as he has circumnavigated the globe via boat, plain, train, auto and foot.  The trips are all displayed as lines and arcs.  This makes perfect sense as a communication device: the line literally traces his path.  My grandfather is the particle, the arc is a display of closely joined points that the particle intersected with.

What about the live-action mapping going on right in front of you when you ride JetBlue?  Doesn’t the Uncertainty Principle dictate what can and can’t be displayed on that map?  The plane’s speed is shown textually, refreshed every minute or so.  The plane’s location is shown visually, also refreshed every minute or so.  Because there is no way to picture your flights exact location and its velocity with equal accuracy, the communication becomes multimodal: location is represented visually, speed is represented textually.

The Uncertainty Principle forces multimodal communication.  There will be more about this as I wrap my head around it.  With any luck I’ll find a way to relate all of this to public libraries and the means by which they facilitate knowledge sharing as well…


Hey, this isn’t all stated correctly.  I realized this just a minute ago.  I shouldn’t say that the Uncertainty Principle forces multimodal communication, rather that it encourages it.  I’ll also add that the multimodal answer isn’t really a solution to the paradox, instead it is a clever way of disguising an unresolved situation.

From Peter Galison’s essay “Images scatter into data, data gather into images”:

“Pictures, sometimes alone, often in sequences, are stepping stones along the path towards the real knowledge that intuition supports”.

He goes on to back this up with a quote from Plato:

“First, we grasp the triangle in the sand, then draw the triangle more finely, then triangles in general, then the idea of triangles behind all particulars of individual triangles”.

The link between images and intuition and the implied link between textual or numeric information and knowledge seems like a really good place to begin to construct what I can call an acceptable definition for “visual literacy”.   Can images or pictures themselves be more than just stepping stones along the path to real knowledge?  Can pictures directly facilitate knowledge without an intermediary format between their transference and perception?

I say YES they can, but the correct interpretation of imagery is embedded within its cultural context.  This makes it easy to dismiss an image if you lack the cultural vocabulary to understand it. Imagery does initially appeal to one’s intuitive sense.  It has its own grammar and punctuation, and is equally apt to communicate both fact and opinion. This is also the case with textual media, but because imagery appeals first to one’s intuitive reaction, the need for cultural comprehension is magnified.

As a librarian, I’ve had many foreigners approach me with questions about idioms.  “Break a leg? What?”  Subtle linguistic devices and culturally specific lore can be the hardest things to grasp in another language.  The success of the initial communication lies in the fact that these questions were asked of me and I was able to assist the patron in gaining understanding.  The patron identified that something was up, that “break a leg” sounded weird, so they sought clarification.

Now, consider how a visual idiom or metaphor on a billboard or flyer would go completely unnoticed by a viewer lacking the cultural knowledge to interpret it.  Because a visual message appeals first to your intuition, it is exceptionally easy to ignore that which you do not understand.  Intuition is fleeting in this way; one tends to notice when they have intuited something but cannot even begin to consider all of the things they may not have had opportunity to intuit.  The patron who noticed that something was difficult to understand about “break a leg” textually might never even notice the clever “break a leg” reference in an image promoting a local play.

What does all this mean?  Sure, knowledge can be conveyed through an image.  Just look at a diagram in any 7th grade science textbook if you disagree.  Images convey fact and meaning as well as text, but because the cognitive process begins with intuition rather than reason, they are easier to dismiss if you lack the tools to interpret them.

Consider the impact of this easily ignorable, ambient visual information and our ability (or inability) to distinguish that which is important from that which isn’t….  in the meanwhile, we become accustomed to reading less and less…. hmmm….