Make Mine Visual

I’ve been thinking about the presentation of information in visual formats for a long time. I’ve been thinking about how visual representations of information helps people to understand content. Word clouds are a perfect example of this. Being able to see a selection of content in a “cloud” so that words used a lot, or not much at all, stand out visually helps the viewer to understand the ideas of the content. Similarly, seemingly simple presentations of content in formats like Apple’s iTunes cover flow, not only makes the content “pretty” to look at, but also provides a simple opportunity to interact with the content by clicking through the covers to see what’s available.

Presenting information visually is not something new, but it is something that, because of advances in technology, is becoming more and more the way to do things. For example:

screen from Pulse iPad appPulse is an iPad and iPhone app that adds a visual component to RSS aggregation. As the image on the right shows, in Pulse, feeds are displayed in strands horizontally across the page. Users move the feeds left to right by swiping fingers across the screen. If there’s a story of interest, a click on it (with a finger) opens it up in either a text or web view. From this fuller view it’s possible to email, Tweet, save, or open the story in a browser.

screen from Flipboard iPad appFlipboard is an iPad app that just launched last night and has already generated quite a lot of buzz. Similar to Pulse in some ways, Flipboard allows iPad readers to aggregate visually their social networks. For example, the image on the left shows a Flipboard page of my Twitter stream. I can see Twitter posts in this visual format and swipe my finger across the screen to see earlier or later posts. As with Pulse, once a user clicks on a post it can be read in its entirety. Posts can also be tweeted, replied to, emailed, and so on. One very nice feature of Flipboard is that in this format it’s possible to see several paragraphs of the content in articles and blog posts that are tweeted by others on the main screen. In traditional tweets it’s only possible to see the tweet and a link to the article or post. Flipboard extends the information available in the “front” view thus expanding possibilities for information access.

screen from McKillop Glogster websiteGlogster is a tool that I’ve known about for quite awhile and have used in a variety of ways. Last evening I read a Twitter post from Carolyn Foote (@technollibrary on Twitter) that said, “This library’s website on Glogster is beyond amazing.” Of course I had to take a look. (By the way the image on the right is only a small portion of what the site on Glogster looks like, make sure to check out the actual Glogster hosted site to see the full set of features and content.) The site is amazing, and it demonstrates how it’s possible to take what one expects from a visual information presentation tool and take it to an entirely new level.

That taking to a new level is really why it is imperative that librarians working with teens think about all of the opportunities available for teens to interact with information visually, and consider how to support the visual approach. Presenting information visually is only going to grow as a way to serve user’s needs. With the launch of more and more devices that support the visual, for example smartphones and tablets like the iPad, more and more teens are going to become used to and require access to visual presentations of information. As this is the case, it’s important to look at what’s out there for teens to use, connect them with it whenever possible, and also think about how to present a library’s own information visually. For example:

  • What’s the percentage of text to images on the library’s teen web presence? Or, on a library’s teen Facebook page? Is the library integrating screencasts wherever they have a web presence in order to help teens understand how to use resources successfully? Are booklists simply that, lists of books, or are teens creating videos and other visual presentations in order to provide information about great books to read? How visual is the library’s web presence?
  • How is information in the library catalog presented? Is there a cover flow option available? And, if so, is it implemented so that teens can use it? What about tag clouds and visual maps that show connections between different terms and phrases that teens might use to find information? Frequently I learn about a library that doesn’t implement these tools in their library catalog. Lack of implementation could be because the cost of adding the module(s) related to visual presentation of information is difficult for the library to live with. It could be that there is still a limited understanding among library staff of the need to use visuals in order to help users, of all ages, access and understand content. No matter the reasoning, what do librarians and teens lose by not providing the tools that help teens become successful searchers, information gatherers, and information users?

These are just two examples of how librarians working with teens should start to consider the way they provide visual presentations of information to the teens with whom they work. Along with these, it’s important to also consider how to bring tools like Pulse and Flipbook to teens. There’s no doubt that a majority of teens in the community don’t have iPads. But, some most likely have iphones, other smartphones, or other devices that can serve up visual information apps. How are you going to make use of those visual information interfaces so that library content is accessible and used within them?

Don’t wait to get involved in the visual presentation of information to teens. Start thinking about it today. If you do you’ll undoubtedly better serve the teens with whom you are already familiar, and teens who will be drawn in as brand-new library users because they discover they can access information of all types visually.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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