Main menu:

Site search



August 2016
« Sep    


Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery

Note: This post is adapted from a talk I gave at Access 2012 in Montreal. Slides available here:

When Amy asked me to speak at the Access conference this year I said no at first, because at the time I was off work on disability leave, recovering from a head injury. Usually I give conference talks about whatever software I’ve been working on that year. But 2012 for me has been mostly about trying to understand how brains work. My own, as I recovered from this head injury, but also in the bigger picture, understanding what neuroscience is telling us about how people process information, answer questions, and make choices, and how we might apply that in libraries.

Serotonin and dopamine: Technically, the only two things you enjoy.

Serotonin and dopamine: Technically, the only two things you enjoy.

There’s an exercise that I’ve encountered a few times, first in library school and later in management retreats and similar situations, where you try to get at the root of what motivates someone. You keep asking “why?” until you get to a primary motivation. When I was in library school, we were all encouraged to try this in order to figure out why we wanted to be librarians, and it usually came down to something like “I feel good when I help people.” Generally, we are all doing the things we do because they feel good to us on some level. We’re getting some reward for the activity, and that reward, at its most basic level, happens in the form of neurotransmitters.

When you engage in an activity that is intrinsically motivated, you’re not looking for some outside reward. Those of us who are very lucky are able to find paying jobs that sometimes involve flow activities for us. When I’m really in the zone, writing software can be a flow activity for me, but other days, when I’m slogging through something, it’s that paycheck that keeps me going. And I believe that most library users are the same way. Of course we’ll always need to serve folks who are slogging through a paper they don’t really want to write, but I’d like to spend some time thinking about how we might enable as much flow in the library as possible. I want to figure out how to make our collections genuinely pleasurable to use.

This shouldn’t be hard. Academics are the most autotelic people I know. This shines through when you really engage someone in conversation about their research topic. I’ve worked with a lot of faculty members and PhD students over the years and not a single one of them was in it for the money. The people we serve care about their research, and they care about library collections, and archival collections, and museum collections. I find my work as rewarding as I do because I care about those collections too. We are all otaku, as Aaron Cope reminded us on Friday. But I’ve got this nagging feeling that something important is missing from the online access we provide to those collections, and this talk is my current thinking about what that might be.

I first got suspicious that something important was missing when I conducted interviews for a research study about how graduate students in the humanities and social sciences were using the library. One thing that really stuck out to me as I conducted the interviews, and later as I coded the transcripts, was first, how important browsing was to them, and second, the language that these students would use to describe physical browsing versus online access to the same content.

When describing physical browsing, people used emotional words. They felt joy when they encountered that serendipitous find in the stacks. They felt tranquility when they browsed the new books shelf in the reading room. One sociology PhD student described to me in loving detail her favorite place to study in the library. She described the lighting, the smell, the quiet, the beauty of her surroundings, the pleasure she felt at running her fingers over shelves of books on her favorite subject. Another student told me, with clear distress and frustration, that he used to spend every lunch hour in the new journals room, happily browsing, but now felt at a loss because the library had cancelled their print subscriptions and he had to rely on online access. If he knew what he was looking for already, he said, online access was very fast and efficient for getting it, and there were times he really appreciated that. But he also felt he had been robbed of a great pleasure, and one of the ways he felt most comfortable staying current with research in his field.

Around the time I was conducting that study, Stanford University was asking similar questions of its faculty members. For various reasons, Stanford had decided to close certain on-campus physical libraries and move those collections off campus, and a group of faculty members were asked to respond to this.

Here’s what they said, verbatim from the report. First, browsing is very important to them too:

“…the single most repeated comment we received from faculty across the University was the importance of browsing to their research, and their concern for its survival…”

And further, they let us know exactly what they mean by browsing:

“Browsing is a spatial practice within a physical domain described by an immediate research question. It is a process of discovery intimately shaped by the structures of a vertically-integrated library: at once human in scale (a reader’s body moves physically through a library), and psychologically satisfying for its moments of insight. Libraries of the future, whatever technologies they embody, should be mindful of this tradition and be designed to enhance the benefits of browsing, not render it obsolete.”

I would really like to figure out how to do that.

So… why IS browsing so important? I think it helps to understand a bit about how our brains process information.

Jill Taylor

Jill Taylor

When part of the brain is suppressed, like it is when damaged, it allows different parts of the brain to become dominant. Jill Taylor is a neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke in the left side of her brain, and she has written a fascinating and illuminating description of her stroke and her recovery in the book “My Stroke of Insight.” If you don’t read the book, at least watch her TED talk, it’s great.

Because the left side of her brain was damaged, she has a lot to tell us about what the right side of our brains do when left to their own devices. Here’s what she says:

“As the dominating fibers of my left hemisphere shut down, they no longer inhibited the right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind [...] in the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgement, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.”

Okay, I know she’s having a stroke, but doesn’t that sound kind of great? When you hear that, don’t you want to learn how to tap into your right brain more? Preferably without brain damage?

She explains that our right brain sees how things are intuitively related, while the left brain sees how things are categorically different. When her usually dominant left brain was injured, she became much more able to see relatedness between things. Here’s another direct quote: She says her “consciousness soared, into an all-knowningness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe.” That sense of “tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience?” That’s inside all of us all the time. But most of us are left brain dominant, so we don’t get to experience our right brain consciousness very often. Which is a shame, because it’s very powerful. And here’s something interesting: Your right brain not only makes you happy, it makes you smarter.

Thinking, Fast and Slow book cover

Thinking, Fast and Slow book cover

Daniel Kahneman, who is an economist, not a neuroanatomist, describes the brain in terms of how people make decisions. He shies away from right brain / left brain terminology, and instead uses the terms System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast, instinctive, emotional, and subconscious. System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is slow, logical, and under our conscious control. It’s more predictable, but it takes a lot of effort.

Parking Meter face photo by pennstatelive

Parking Meter face

Have you ever noticed that we tend to see faces everywhere we look? We have a powerful System 1 algorithm for facial recognition, and it kicks in without our conscious minds deciding to recognize a face, it just happens.

So when you see a parking meter, and it looks like a face, that’s because your System 1 facial recognition system is so fast, it’s already happened before your conscious brain has a chance to catch up. It can trick us, and much of this book is about irrational decisions people make because their System 1 is being fooled. But System 1 is also an immensely powerful part of our ability to think. Another way of saying that someone is “expert” in an area would be to say that their System 1 runs that particular bit of brain software. Another way of describing why we practice a musical instrument, or a tennis serve, would be to say it needs to transfer from our System 2, where it is slow, effortful, and conscious, to our system 1, where it is fast, effortless, and unconscious.

I also think of System 1 as “the big guns.” A lot of our long-term problem solving, the really difficult stuff that takes a long time to sort through, the kind of problem that we gnaw at for weeks or months or years, is constantly running as a background process in our brains. Have you ever been stuck on a problem, and then you sleep on it, or take a walk, and when you come back to it the answer seems obvious? You just did some background processing! I suspect, but now I’m on shakier ground in terms of what I have evidence for, that this is what we’re observing in the phenomenon of serendipity. Something in you that is not conscious feels drawn to a certain book or article, and lo and behold it turns out to be exactly what you needed, but what you didn’t consciously know you were looking for.

System 1 is also where our emotions come from, and we are just starting to realize how vital they are in our ability to make decisions and solve problems.

Emotional Design book cover

Emotional Design book cover

If you want to learn more about how our emotions affect our cognition, I highly recommend the book “Emotional Design” by Donald Norman. The crux of the book is that emotions change the way the human mind solves problems. Emotions influence how we think and how we choose, even for decisions that don’t seem particularly emotional.

“Emotions, we now know, change the way the human mind solves problems–the emotional system changes how the cognitive system operates.” When we are experiencing positive emotions, it’s easy for us to engage our associative memory and to see the interconnectedness between things. On the other hand, when we are experiencing negative emotions, such as stress or frustration, we shut down our peripheral vision so to speak. We focus on the task in front of us, and on our pre-conceived ideas of what the answer is. This narrow view of what answers might be possible is not a path toward creative problem solving. Kim Martin told us in her Access talk that “A prepared mind is a pre-requisite for serendipity.” I think part of that preparedness must be emotional state. If you’re in a frustrated, goal-driven state, you won’t be able to recognize the opportunity that on another day might have been flash of insight.

Indeed, without our emotions, we become completely unable to solve even very simple problems. Most people, if asked to imagine someone totally cut off from their emotional system, might picture someone like Spock. Coolly logical, untroubled by any inner conflict. But in fact, people cut off from their emotions, say, through brain damage, become cognitively impaired, unable to function, paralyzed over minor, trivial choices. Not only does emotion make you smart, as Donald Norman puts it so succinctly, we cannot function without it.

So what does all of this mean for library discovery?

What would library discovery look like if we adopted some practices from emotional design? I would like us to consider the idea that “…the emotional side of design may be more critical to a product’s success than its practical elements.”

I would like us to consider the idea that we perform a significant portion of our thinking and problem solving with our bodies and with our senses. We choose where to go next by following our gut instinct. We remember where we found information by using our spatial senses. And at this point, I think it’s worth repeating what those Stanford professors are telling us about what they want from a browsing experience:

“Browsing is a spatial practice within a physical domain… It is a process of discovery … at once human in scale (a reader’s body moves physically through a library), and psychologically satisfying for its moments of insight. Libraries of the future, whatever technologies they embody, should be mindful of this tradition and be designed to enhance the benefits of browsing, not render it obsolete.”

So what might these libraries of the future look like?

Let me start with a few things I think we’re doing right, in the present moment, and then I’ll move on to where I think this might take us in the future.

We are making great progress on the problem of replicating and even improving shelf browsing in the virtual environment. Many library discovery systems have shelf browsing now, to some degree. This is what some of my colleagues at Stanford have implemented for our Blacklight instance, and it’s been very popular and well received.

This is the detailed view of a book in SearchWorks, our main discovery interface. You can see over on the left that you get a quick glance at what would be on either side of this book on the shelf. And if you click the “show full page” link you get an expanded view, a virtual shelf list with your current item in the center.

Browse by call number in SearchWorks

Browse by call number in SearchWorks

Browse by call number in SearchWorks

You can immediately see some ways we have enhanced the benefits of browsing. We’re seeing a virtual shelf list that spans physical collections. So even though the book we started with was in Green Library, we can also see, as if they were nearby on the shelf, books in other libraries on campus, books in remote storage and books that only exist digitally.

Collections from the Stanford Digital Library in SearchWorks

Another thing we’re doing right is surfacing more and more of our collection in our main discovery interface. So here are some Ancient Greek papyrus fragments that are part of our collection. Physically, you can’t browse these without getting special permission, so I think this is a clear example of enhancing the benefits of browsing by extending it to new areas of our collection.

Below the papyri fragments you see a collection of digitized medieval manuscripts from the Walters Art Museum. These are physically housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, so they would not otherwise be easily browsed by researchers in California. And you can not only see the metadata about the manuscripts, you can actually read them…

Detail page view for medieval manuscript in SearchWorks

Here’s a detailed view of one of the books. Again, this is a huge step in the right direction. Digitized collections give us more flexibility than ever in acquiring or pointing to digital versions of items our researchers want.

Screen shot from SALT project

And we’re starting to bring some of these advances into archival collections, too. This is SALT, the Self-Archiving Legacy Toolkit. This is an archival collection that we’re using Blacklight to browse, and we’ve also used entity extraction to identify the names, places, and organizations mentioned in the collection. I think this kind of semi-automated metadata creation is going to get better and better as machine learning develops and becomes easier to use as a technique. I think historians and archival researchers in particular are going to benefit from better browsing access, especially since more and more archives are in digital form from the beginning.

Screen shot from Stephen J. Gould papers

Screen shot from Stephen J. Gould papers

For example, here’s an item from the Stephen Jay Gould papers, but it isn’t paper, it’s a floppy disk. The notion of physical browse access for this collection breaks down entirely, so getting it online and providing any kind of browse access to the files on those floppy disks is another clear example of enhancing the benefits of browsing by extending it to new kinds of content.

And finally, something I think we’re doing very well is positioning ourselves to allow for future innovation. We are building robust infrastructure for our collections, we are building local expertise in our staff, and we are building our core software collaboratively. Our core software, by the way, is available at and, if you’d like to check it out, including many many other examples of great library, museum, and archives collection interfaces.

BUT… in spite of everything we’re doing right, I still feel like something is missing. Partly it’s that I really identify with those grad students I interviewed, who felt joy when browsing stacks and sorrow when they lost the reading room full of paper journals. I think we’re still falling short of a full replacement for physical browsing. I think we’re still falling short of providing the kind of emotional, physical, and spatial sensory experience that shelf browsing, at its best, can provide.

This is where my talk might get a little wacky. If it’s too far out there for you, just remember, I had a head injury recently and I live much more in my right brain than I used to. I think the solution will come to us if we keep watching the developments in humanities computing, 3D video games, and science fiction.

Book cover for Rainbow's End

Book cover for Rainbow's End

Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge is one of the best books I’ve read about libraries. It won the Hugo award in 2007. I think anyone who builds digital libraries should read this book. In one of the many sub-plots, UC-San Diego has decided to digitize all of its books and remove access to the physical volumes. The way they go about doing this has some sci-fi elements, but it’s ultimately not too different from our current situation, where many libraries are replacing physical access with digital access.

This move to the digital realm is seen as a catastrophe by some of the university professors in the book, and hijinks ensue, but it’s seen as an opportunity by the students, who mostly engage with the world via augmented reality, and are excited to include the library in their augmented reality belief circles.

Unseen University Library, rendered in video game

Unseen University Library, rendered in video game

So these students who use augmented reality are really excited about the library becoming digital, because it means they can use the library collections as if they are using the library in Hogwarts, or Discworld, or any of the other fantasy worlds that they choose to inhabit. And I adore this idea. I mean, first of all, these students are really excited about their university’s digital library interface. This is my kind of escapist fantasy. But also because, this seems kind of do-able. We have an API that can give us a virtual shelf list now, we’d just need to render it in a 3D game engine. Actually, someone already made a video game that includes the Unseen University Library from the Discworld books.

I would happily spend many hours exploring library collections in a beautiful virtual setting and I don’t think I’m alone in that. By tapping into video games we could tap into spatial reasoning and memory, aesthetic pleasure, and all of the visceral reactions that the video game industry has put so much work into.

Video games that focus on providing beautiful scenery and a feeling of tranquility are out there. Flow and Flower are two that come to mind.

And I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we could take something like RoSE or the Orlando Project, these fascinating projects that are creating huge webs of linked data representing authors and works in the humanities, and plug that data into an immersive 3D experience.

I’d like for us to go through a design process together. How might a digital library catalog make the user feel embodied? How might it allow emotional responses? How might we browse for information with the powerful System 1 we evolved for exploring a landscape?

Science Fiction is full of compelling ideas about how libraries of the future might work. Humanities computing research is full of fascinating explorations of information landscapes. And the worlds of 3D gaming, virtual reality, and augmented reality are becoming more sophisticated and powerful all the time. I don’t know yet where we’re going next. But I believe that if we keep having the conversation, if we keep having hackfests and Access conferences and ideas that seem crazy at first, it’s going to be somewhere very interesting.


Pingback from Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Enviornment – Library Hat
Time: October 25, 2012, 12:07 pm

[...] the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at [...]

Comment from Jodi Schneider
Time: October 30, 2012, 3:53 pm

I’d like a holodeck. Video games would be great and would serve the meantime, but I do want a full physical interface. Or maybe I’m just not playing the right video games.

This rocks, Bess! :)

Pingback from conference report: Access Conference 2012 | green librarian
Time: November 7, 2012, 4:01 pm

[...] conference wrapped up with a very thoughtful keynote presentation from Bess Sadler of Stanford ( an adapted version of her talk available on her blog). I won’t even attempt to summarize a talk with a title like Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, [...]

Comment from Naomi Dushay
Time: December 2, 2012, 1:55 pm

Wow – Great post. It must’ve been a great talk. Personally, I believe the current physical layouts could be greatly improved in a virtual reality (all text horizontal! filtering! multiple concurrent locations of titles!) and may morph quite a bit for the adventurous. But the familiar will also be vital so the Unseen Library approach will likely have legs as well.

Comment from Bess
Time: December 8, 2012, 5:10 pm

Naomi: Totally! That’s a good example of the kind of thing you could make look amazing in a 3D game engine. And also the kind of thing the might make a good prototype, now that you mention it.

Comment from Bess
Time: December 8, 2012, 5:13 pm

By the way, it was Naomi’s brilliant work on call number sorting that was the breakthrough we needed to start doing proper browsing by call number. Naomi, what’s the best place for people to read your write-up about that?

Comment from Mark Bussey
Time: January 29, 2013, 12:42 am

Wow – ditto Naomi – bummed I missed the talk, happy I found the post. When you start digging into the neuroscience, it’s amazing how the brain can connect sensory cues with abstract information. I love the ideas about using VR to help replace some of the cues that are lost when transitioning browsing and access to the digital real. Sign me up for prototype!

Comment from Renee Gimelli
Time: January 31, 2013, 12:33 pm

It is so good to hear that browsing is a positive action driven by our need to solve problems intuitively. I love being “in the stacks” and handling the physical volumes because I can check indexes, chapter headings, peruse paragraphs, and generally make a decision as to whether I want to read on (take in home). The library space is an important “place” while virtual worlds are not easily simulated to give us that same feeling. Maybe I am also not playing the right video games, (very few actually), but I still want the sense of walking through the doors to a library and confronting all that knowledge and potential.

Pingback from Feminism, queer theory, and the future of library discovery « Feral Librarian
Time: February 4, 2013, 4:46 pm

[...] week, I riffed a bit on Bess Sadler’s talk Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery. Bess and I continued our conversation (on and off-line), and we rode the wave of great feedback [...]

Write a comment