Book Review: Ambient Findability

By Adena Schutzberg

_Ambient Findability
By Peter Morville
O'Reilly, Sept 2005

Peter Morville (blog) and his book have been getting a lot of play lately. He was a guest on NPR's On Point; he did an interview on Very Spatial's last podcast; and he'll deliver the keynote at the GeoTec Event in Ottawa this June. Morville is not a geographer; he's an information architect and refers to himself in the book as a "librarian who lives on the Web." That description should help you realize that the book is not so much about knowing the location of people or items in the real world and its implications, but rather about the challenge of finding information. I feel confident in saying that, because Morville, in the preface, chooses not to define what the book is about, or at whom it is aimed. At first that annoyed me, but as I dug into the small book, just 179 pages, I realized that he was pulling together a number of perspectives on a topic that perhaps information architects ponder but that we, on the "finder side" of things, rarely do.

It's a fascinating ramble, one that will tickle the interests of those with or without a geography background. I loved the chapter on the history of wayfinding (complete with the mention of Kevin Lynch's Image of the City) which, when you get down to it, is about "finding." But Morville is quick to point out that the physical navigation metaphor, while helpful in the search for information, has its limitations. Morville "poo-poos" search sites (, Kartoo, Grokker) that try to map information, describing them as less than useful. (I had the same response some years ago.)

A full chapter titled “Intertwingled” covers geospatial technologies including GPS, radio-frequency identification tags (RFID), and wearable computers. It offers up an up-to-date litany of uses, from Wherify's kid tracking bracelet, to SmartMobs, to live webcams, to chipped folks paying bar tabs. I've tracked those stories from a variety of sources. It's valuable, while a bit overwhelming, to have them all in one place.

Librarians and other information people will eat up this book. My mother was a librarian so I sympathized with Morville's memories of studying at the library before inputting a query into Dialog, an early dial-up search service. Publishers of print and online content will find insight as well. Despite the offerings of tools to "pull" selected information from Web sources, we still depend on personal links, often the grapevine of unofficial sources (blogs, etc. in today's world), over official ones. And, of course, we need to build "serendipity" into search, since, as we all know, sometimes it’s the book next to the one you are looking for, or the article next to the one of interest that changes your world. Marketers (and everyone else with a website) will benefit from a short chapter on mixing the "push" of marketing with the "pull" of valuable information. No surprise, the best at it, both in balance and design: Google.

The book includes many big, important topics to ponder (or not). What is information? Morville suggests that we not worry about it too much. How do people deal with too much information? They don't bother to go looking, per Calvin Mooers. What is the Semantic Web? Is it useful? What of taxonomies, ontologies, and folksonomies? These last few topics will take some time to ponder, but Morville does a fine job making sense of what can seem like overwhelming and distant ideas. I only found myself having to think hard in the chapter on the Sociosemantic Web. I've promised myself to read that chapter again, very soon.

I do have one quibble with the book. The graphics need improvement. When a friend noted the color cover (most of O’Reilly’s early, geeky programming books have black and white line drawings of animals), I had to show him my disgust at the graphic on page 9, a hard to read, "jaggy"-filled pie chart which appeared to be straight out of Excel. (You can see it, and read the entire first chapter in PDF.) Some graphics are simply computer screen shots of home pages squeezed to such a size that text is not readable. I believe I also saw a PowerPoint slide with the same issue. I expect better from O'Reilly.

The book, Ambient Findability, is two things. It's an introduction to the ideas of finding and using information for those who have not pondered it before. It is also a tidy update and exploration into the future for those who've dipped their toes in the past. The broad range of topics (I suspect one chapter or another will be review for nearly anyone interested in the topic), the readable style, and connections to real life make the book a surprisingly amusing jaunt into a topic that few outside the information architect community ponder.

Published Monday, January 23rd, 2006

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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