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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2006

Book Reviews

Ambient Findability

Phoebe Ayers
Physical Sciences and Engineering Library
University of California at Davis
Davis, California

Ambient Findability / Peter Morville. Sebastapol, CA: O'Reilly, 2005. 0-596-00765-5 $29.95

Peter Morville's book Ambient Findability is about technologies and behaviors that affect human interaction with information, but it is not a how-to guide or handbook on information architecture. Rather, it's an extended essay on the nature of "findability:" how we find information (and how that affects what we do with it); what it means to be findable; and what it means to live in a world where data are, or could be, ubiquitous and "ambient." "Ambient findability" then refers to exploring information findability in all situations, not simply traditional ones for information seeking. The book's tag line is "what we find changes who we become," and Morville explores this idea in depth, writing that "ambient findability is less about the computer than about the complex interactions between humans and information" (p. 13). The first part of the book deals with defining and exploring "findability;" next is a section exploring information seeking and retrieval, which provides a brief overview of some basic ideas behind information science and architecture; and third is a varied exploration of findability as applied in ubiquitous computing, marketing and the web, and social software. The book concludes with a section on human behavior and how people generally decide what information to use.

The topics and examples used are widely varied, ranging from wearable computing to the future of libraries to the online photosharing service Flickr, and the book is written in an entertaining, casual and sometimes highly personal style. Though short, at 179 pages, Ambient Findability packs in hundreds of ideas, sometimes so quickly that it feels rushed and breathless, and occasionally seems to gloss over nuances or alternative conclusions. Morville likes to draw connections between older technologies and ideas (traditional cartographic techniques, for instance) to the cutting edge of Internet technologies, particularly Web 2.0 applications, and the book reads in places like a laundry list of what sites and ideas were hot on the Internet in mid-2005.

Morville is a librarian, as well as a well-known information architect (he is the co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, a foundational text in the field), and he reflects on how the ideas represented by these new sites and applications may impact libraries and traditional information organization techniques and ideas, and what this means. Though he tends to focus on specific applications, Morville is making a larger point about what we might be able to do with technology and how technology might impact the quest to organize, disseminate, and find useful information. The book also stays focused on the users of technologies, looking at each application, product or idea in the context of how people might use and benefit from it.

Morville doesn't reach definite conclusions; his main message is to think critically about new technologies and our interactions with information, and to always bear findability in mind: "together with form and function, findability is a required element of good design and engineering" (p. 114). However, Ambient Findability is a useful and thought-provoking book for librarians, information architects, web designers, and anyone who uses and cares about information and how to find it.

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