Visual browsing in a virtual world

Searching books online cannot compare to the experience of getting lost in the stacks of your local library or bookstore. Browsing is one of the primary pleasures of all book-lovers. Finding that precise book you were looking for is great, but discovering something unexpected is often better. Whether for pleasure or research, browsing is one of the best methods by which to find new reading material. As books are moved out of sight in favor of computer stations and as users become more and more reliant upon online searching, it becomes increasingly necessary to recreate this real world experience of browsing in digital land. Libraries are moving progressively toward visual searches and virtual shelf browsing in the ongoing crusade of bringing readers and books together.

Virtual shelf browsing is by no means a new concept. Library Thing, launched in 2005, is an online service that helps users to catalog and browse their (and their friends’) books. The visual interface is intended to replicate the experience of browsing around for favorites or new finds. It presents items as a collection of book covers, much like the user would see if searching through her own personal library at home. Users can even upload different covers to enhance the experience of physicality.

Hobbit covers

In 2008 Amazon Web Services launched Zoomii, an online book browsing tool that allowed users to scroll through books by genre and zoom in or out on a particular section of the “bookshelf.” This recreated the process that many people go through when in a bookstore – zooming in on a favorite author, then zooming out to see what else might be of interest, then zooming in again when something catches their eye.

It might seem that with larger collections numbering in the millions, such a virtual browsing experience runs the risk of becoming taxing for those maintaining the system and overwhelming for those attempting to use it. In 2010 North Carolina State University (NCSU), boasting a collection of 4 million volumes, proved that theory wrong. It released Virtual Shelf Browse, open source software that allows library patrons to search the shelves around a selected book or call number. Try it out yourself in the NCSU library catalog.  Search for a book, select a record, then click on the “Browse Shelf” button on the right hand side of the record to scroll through their collection by call number.

NCSU book browse

Strict call number browsing is not the only way to give patrons that same experience of discovery. OneSearch@IU presents materials found in IUCAT in a more approachable way. Each record displays a book cover, when available, to draw the user in visually. At the bottom of the record are the “Similar Books” and “Other Books by this Author” options with user-friendly scroll bars that offer patrons another way to explore the collection and unearth new reads.

Browse IUCAT