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Peter Morville.
Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become.

O’Reilly Media, Inc., September 2005.
Paperback, 204 pages, ISBN 0-596-00765-5,
US$29.95.

Ambient Findability

There are, perhaps, as many reasons to read a book as there are books. Well – maybe not so much. We read to be entertained, or to learn how to do something we didn't know how to do before. In school and at work we read to educate ourselves in a particular area of knowledge, or maybe just to familiarize ourselves with some topic that caught our interest, or arose in a conversation, news report, or business function.

“A mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” –Plutarch

Then there’s that. While many books successfully quench a specific thirst for information, there are those special few that stimulate an appetite for knowledge and ideas. In my library, such books are known by their underlined and highlight text, by the notes penned in the margins. They tend to be dog-eared into a sorry state because there’s so much there worth coming back to. Which is pretty much how my copy of Peter Morville’s book, Ambient Findability, appears.

In one sense it’s a wide-ranging exploration of a truly dizzying array of topics. If you go to (one of) the author’s web sites, findability.org, you are presented with the following list of topics, all of which receive attention in the book:

Authority · Business · Culture · Design · Experience ·
Findability
· Libraries · Marketing · Miscellaneous ·
Psychology
· Search · Ubicomp · Wayfinding

What this book does when it’s at its best, is to present a key sampling of ideas associated with each of these topics in a concise way, and to provide references and links for deeper exploration. Moreover, Morville cuts his content in a way such that all facets are aligned with his core conceit of “findability.”

A search on Google for “findability” yields 681,000 hits as I write this. Even so, it may be unfamiliar to you – as it was to me. Morville obliges us with a definition early on in the proceedings (page 4):

findability

a. the quality of being locatable or navigable.

b. The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover.

c. The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.

The book takes on its subjects, one after another, moving from the tangible and comfortably familiar – lost and found, subway maps, GPS devices – to the intriguing and ethereal – the Baldwin effect, metadata and content tagging, taxonomies and folksonomies. Morville’s mission manifests itself throughout in his attempt to relate these seemingly disparate disciplines, marking off the boundaries of an emerging area of information science: the space enveloping the practices, psychology and technologies that define what it means to be findable.

This is, above all, a book of ideas. If you are looking for tips on how to make your web site more readily found by search engines, then this is not the practical how-to handbook you’re after. Nor is it a “go-to” guide for re-designing your web site so that users can more easily navigate it (although, Morville’s other book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites, co-authored with Louis Rosenfeld, will serve such needs nicely). Not that the tips aren’t there – on page 113, for instance, you’ll find at least half a dozen useful SEO (search engine optimization) guidelines. In fact, one of the blurbs on the back cover calls it “a practical guide for designers.” Frankly, I think that’s a stretch. And entirely beside the point.

Morville stresses that findability isn’t merely a recommended practice, but, essentially, a way forward. That in our increasingly information intensive and over-abundant societies, findability is a core requirement that touches nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives – not merely browsing on the Web.

Ambient Findability is a richly developed book that delivers more than its share of food for thought in its compact 204 pages. If you ever find yourself searching the Web just because you can, or if your job touches information sciences – or any of the topics listed above – you will more than likely find useful, thought-provoking material, links to fascinating and rewarding resources on the Web, and much to muse over in this highly recommended book.

Review by Steven Feldberg

 

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The book is well written, and I found it enjoyable to read. The text is amply accompanied by color plates, illustrations and diagrams. The style can be a tad punchy, tending toward evangelical in places. This may leave some readers cold. Others, though, may find it a tonic in a “technical” book. Here's a taste, from the close of Chapter 1, “Lost and Found:”

 

“Yesterday will not be lost, and we won’t find paradise in the morning. But tomorrow will be different. Findability is at the center of a quiet revolution in how we define authority, allocate trust, and make decisions. We won’t forget the past, but we will reinvent the future. And as we wander into the uncharted territory between the land of atoms and the sea of bits, we should bring a compass, or even better, a Treo, because the journey transforms the destination, and it's easy to become lost in reflection.”

 

 

 

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