Posted by: Steven Harris | July 6, 2008

Visual Browsing

There’s been some discussion recently on “next generation catalog for libraries” (ngc4lib) discussion list about Zoomii, a visual interface for Amazon. The site is constructed to imitate the shelves in a bookstore, allowing users to go to the section they are interested in and then browse the book covers, which are presented front forward.

I like the general function of the site. You can select a section and then zoom in to view the covers. When you click a particular cover, you get a more detailed entry for the book, along with a link to the Amazon record.

The question on the ngc4lib discussion is whether such a visual browse would make an effective library catalog. I have some doubts that such a catalog would be effective for a 2-million-volume (or larger) collection. Tim Spaulding over at LibraryThing maintains that Amazon is larger than most libraries and it uses a visual display. Amazon, I maintain, is a hybrid system, presenting both textual and visual information. It is the combination that is useful.

In the Zoomii “classics” category, for example, there are about 230 covers presented. It is really impossible to see the covers well until you zoom in quite a ways. You can click and drag to move around, but it would be nice if you could just use your directional keys, one-handed. The point is, however, that most large libraries would contain 100 or probably 1000 times as many works that could be categorized at “classic.” How would you be able to browse that many covers? There needs to be a way to refine the browse, much like a faceted catalog would do.

A combination of keyword and controlled vocabulary searching and browsing, coupled with the book covers, presented shelf-list fashion, might be really useful. I enter a search term; the system gives me a couple of piles of search results–keywords, authors, subject headings; I pick the category I want; the system shows me book covers in that category; I get to narrow and refine as I go. Always the book covers are there, along with some parts of the textual metadata. I don’t think Zoomii is quite there yet. But a good step, nonetheless.



  1. I enjoyed exploring the Zoomi web site! This kind of site is an excellent resource for those who prefer visual data. It also places much importance on the “shelf appeal” of books. Personally, if I am in a book store, I am more likely to initially choose a book by its cover illustration than by the title. After picking up a book, I read the summary on the book jacket.

    I think Zoomi is easy and fun to navigate. I like that I can view several titles at once. It is necessary to zoom in to get a good view of the covers. The search features are decent and easy to use. I think that it could be effective as an online library catalog, and that libraries that use this type of visual site would see an increase in the quantity of borrowed books.

  2. Very interesting. Two ideas strike me when reading this. First, it would work well for a small, specialized library, so long as the metadata in the library’s catalog is robust. I work in such a library and think our clients would love this interface. The second idea is that this could be a tool for presenting new materials, in any library. I wonder if, used in a library setting, where of course not all resources are books, how this could be used to present online research tools (subscrip databases such as ABI Inform, IEEE) and freely-available sites selected by librarians.

  3. I like the concept. Personally, I almost missed the sidebar on the left and would have liked to have scroll bars at top and bottom for scrolling rather than dragging the mouse. As is, it would work for younger folks who are mouse adept, but I see older adults or folks who don’t have strong mouse skills having trouble with it.

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