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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Summer 1998

Book Reviews

Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel

Bill T. Johnson
Science Librarian
Texas Tech University Library
wtjohnson@ttu.edu

Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. Edited by John M. Carroll. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.  416 p. $45.00 (ISBN 0-262-03249-X)
Carroll's initial report on Minimalism appeared eight years ago as the "Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill."  It served to document the state of the art in desktop computer instruction and documentation in 1990.  The present text is a most valuable progress  report on Minimalism and outlines the research agenda for the future.  Due to the interdisciplinary nature of computer training, a variety of reviews were published on his earlier book (Social Science Computer Review 9(4):701-704; Performance and Instruction 31(4): 25-41; Educational Technology, Research, and Development 38(3):87-90; IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 34(1): 58; Contemporary Psychology 36(10): 834; etc.).  While the 1990 Nurnberg Funnel stirred up a few professional writers, its overall impact appears less than impressive. This is difficult to explain, for who has not "given up on" or even "refused to try" reading computer training manuals to learn a new or revised software program?  It is hoped that "Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel" does more than turn a few heads then steps aside as things return to "normal" because normal is pretty dismal.

The title of the book (Nurnberg Funnel) and the name of the theory (Minimalism) offer little clarity or appeal as to what Minimalism is all about.  The Funnel of Nurnberg may be legendary but it is also obscure.  It was supposed to be an actual funnel which was used to "pour" information into the learner's brain.  The connection between this legend and computer training is no less obscure.  Minimalism too, is a term that connotes deficiency rather than efficiency.  Wording aside, Minimalism claims to be superior to the systems approach to computer training which dominated the market into the 1980's.  Minimalism focuses on getting students started quickly on realistic tasks and using the student's prior experience and occasional errors to enhance the training process.  Training documentation is shorter and modular, offering the students limited  opportunities to explore on their own during training.  This is an experiential learning model where each participant is urged to read less and do more.

Applications of minimalist principles in academic and special libraries today are broad, powerful, and exciting.  Librarianship will continue to experience rapid technological advancements in the coming years, offering fertile soil in which to take advantage of Carroll's methodology of computer instruction among colleagues as well as patrons with user instruction modules in print and online.  For example, college students today are faced with a mind boggling array of choices when it comes to completing assignments using library resources.  It may take more time to decide which resource to use than to complete the assignment, especially when system upgrades add new features and formats to an already long list of available resource options.  In light of the information overload challenge faced by our patrons, how many user instruction sessions continue to utilize excessively long introductions and irrelevant search examples? Minimalism advocates getting the student to experience real work on the system immediately in a session that lasts no more than thirty minutes to one hour.

The book's organization is quite easy to follow.  The first three chapters serve as a foundation for understanding what Minimalism is and how it can be applied in a variety of situations.  The third chapter is certainly one of the most important.  It attempts to "clear the air" so to speak, discussing ten misconceptions about Minimalism.  A good deal of confusion over the essential elements of Minimalism is apparent in the literature, therefore this chapter should be thoroughly examined.

While it would be difficult to prioritize the remaining chapters, due to individual differences among readers, chapter seven was one of the more exciting for me.  It discussed a new frontier of computer training, that of complex tasks and the suitability of Minimalism to assist users with these advanced needs.  Most computer applications address routing activities. Minimalism stands as an alternative to such elementary programming.  For example, Minimalism helps users recognize and recover from their own errors, fostering their ability to use reason and prior experience to explore corrective actions. 

The book concludes with a chapter on future research possibilities for minimalist documentation, a detailed index, a list of contributors, and an appendix of references to minimalist research since 1990.  Each chapter concludes with its own extensive list of references.  Carroll and his colleagues have done an outstanding job of presenting a well rounded picture and progress report of Minimalism.  It is quite objective in its presentation, carefully examining its strengths and weaknesses as a theory. There has never been a time when this material has been more urgently needed.  True to the minimalist creed, each chapter could stand alone, though the early chapters offer those unfamiliar with minimalist concepts a well-grounded basis for understanding the rest of the book.  The writing style in some chapters however, grows wearisome and certain points appear over done.

Professional educators, teachers, trainers, librarians, etc. should read this book and have a sound understanding of the principles of Minimalism. Software engineers and computer scientists need to review this title in light of their efforts to make computer programs and the documentation supporting those programs more user friendly.  This text is a sound investment which belongs in every academic library and in every technical communicator's collection.

John M. Carroll is Professor of Computer Science and Psychology and the Head of the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech.

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