Lost in the library? A research collaboration found out why and what to do about it

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - 11:51am

Research Feature image


  By Angela Rogers




misplaced signage

Signage placed ineffectively

Trying to find a book in the stacks of the University Park Libraries can be frustrating and make you feel like a mouse lost in a maze—but it’s not all your fault! In fact, it’s mostly due to the complex layout and insufficient or inconsistent signage, as discovered from a study conducted by geographers Rui Li and Alexander Klippel in collaboration with The Penn State University Park Libraries that was recently published in the Journal of Map & Geography Libraries.

Getting lost in the library—or any other indoor space—is the result of both personal and environmental factors, Li says.  Personal factors include one’s familiarity with the location and general sense of direction. Environmental factors include a building’s layout, or physical arrangement, and in this case specifically, the Central Pattee Stacks structure and book organizing scheme.


Seeking help

“Stephen Woods, Eric Novotny, and I formed a wayfinding subcommittee to investigate this problem as it related not only to the physical building but also to what the possibilities might be in terms of installing a new ‘catalog’ that is now our LionSearch discovery interface,” explains Librarian Paige Andrew. “The premise then was ‘how can we use the online catalog to help patrons get from the computer to the shelf?’ We did some background research on how other libraries were trying to solve this problem, viewed two or three kinds of map-based solutions, and then decided we needed to bring in our own expert.”


That’s when Andrew, whose educational background is in geography, contacted Klippel for suggestions to improve the experiences of library patrons. Klippel and Li also reached out to their network of researchers at Penn State, including Psychology Professor Lynn Liben, among others, to address the challenge in an interdisciplinary way. 


“One of the exciting aspects of interacting with geographers Rui Li and Alex Klippel is that their expertise lies in thinking about and measuring characteristics of the spatial environment while my expertise lies in thinking about and measuring characteristics of individual people,” remarks Liben. “It's obviously fruitful to combine these two approaches to predict what wayfinding tasks will be challenging or to design aids for meeting those challenges.”


“I felt this project was a good match for Rui because of his previous work on wayfinding in complex buildings,” Klippel notes.


Questions and answers

“From a patron’s point of view, there are two major problems,” Li explains. “First, is the difficulty locating the correct library area. In particular, the central stacks [in the Central Pattee portion of the building] are notoriously hard to find. Second, is the lack of information in the environment which would confirm a patron’s location.”


These problems were documented over a period of time. The Libraries have a logging system for the questions patrons have asked at any front or help desk. The “direction” category showed that wayfinding-related questions are among the top-asked. During the fall semester 2009 (prior to the experiments), the average number of directional questions per week was 622.


Li had to translate patrons’ problems into research questions and then design a series of experiments, which were conducted in 2009 and 2010, using two groups: experts (experienced library staff) and novices (students who had never visited the library).


“As a geographer, I always look at space as a special component. Wayfinding is the interaction between a human and the physical environment. Exploring this interaction will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of why we get lost in buildings,” Li explains. “We identified two important research questions: (1) are the current wayfinding systems such as signs and you-are-here maps informative and adequate; and (2) are the places where library patrons have the most wayfinding problems identifiable through a quantitative assessment of environmental characteristics.”


Answer to question number 1: No.


Answer to question number 2: Yes.


The experiments

The experiments were done with one participant at a time. Each participant met the experimenter at the Lending Services desk on the first floor of Pattee Library. First, the participant was asked to locate two books in the Paterno Library, starting from the Lending Services desk. The two books were shelved on two different floors. When a participant had found these two books, he or she was asked to estimate which direction to choose to return to the Lending Services desk.


Once the tasks in the Paterno Library were finished, the participant was given a second task of locating two books in the central stacks, again on two different floors. Upon finishing this task, the participant was again asked to estimate the direction back to the same Lending Services desk, and then given a final task of locating two more books in West Pattee Library. Each participant was told to use whatever information he or she could find in the library to help locate the books. The experimenter followed each participant and used a videocamera to record the process.


What they found


The results showed that the central stacks were the most difficult area to find books for all groups. “It was not a surprise to find that both groups had difficulty finding books in the stacks,” says Li. “The quantitative measures show many areas with low visibility (people cannot see very far) and high overall connection density (multiple intersections and possible pathways); this makes the layout very complex.”


Signs are also important. “Signs should help patrons confirm their location or a book’s location, but inconsistencies can lead to wayfinding mistakes,” Li explains. “In the experiments, once in the correct library area, most participants went to the wrong bookshelf due to inconsistency between the signs provided in the library, and the information provided in the online catalog.”


“The most surprising finding is that most new students had trouble finding the entrance to the central stacks even though they looked at maps or signs,” Li says. “Due to the unique structure of the Libraries, the three main areas (West Pattee, Central Pattee, and Paterno) are connected only on the first floor.  Many students thought that they could go to the correct floor first and then look for the location. Well, that strategy did not work in this environment.”



library elevation

  A complex building connected only on the first floor


Another surprising finding, Li says, is that familiarity did not contribute to a better sense of spatial awareness. “That is to say, the environment has a dominant role in our development of spatial awareness.”


Promising signs ahead


“The library has already taken our suggestions of creating more schematic maps for patrons at major intersections in the stacks and has placed more signs at major entrances to the central stacks on each floor,” Li notes, adding that The Libraries had been planning for a while on renovating much of the first floor of the Pattee and Paterno Library into what would become the new Tombros and McWhirter Knowledge Commons complex.


The additional signs are helping already, according to Gary White, head of the Department of Reference, Collections and Research. “After the signage was installed, our average directional questions per week for Spring 2010 went down to 441. That’s an improvement by about 30 percent.”


Li also suggested a hierarchy of information for locating a book: (1) finding the correct library area, (2) finding the correct floor, (3) finding the correct collection, and then (4) locating the book. “The design of wayfinding systems should be associated with this hierarchy and also confirm the location of a patron during the process to create spatial awareness,” he says. 


White notes, “We were frankly not surprised by the difficulty in finding books and navigating through the stacks. We have heard these kinds of comments for a long time.  However, Rui's study helped to pinpoint ways to address these problems. His research gave us specific points on where to place signs and other suggestions to improve navigation in our admittedly overly complex building. His study shows the importance of incorporating user studies into our planning.”


“It was a very fruitful collaboration in several ways, not the least of which is the article in the Journal of Map & Geography Libraries,” Andrew reflects, adding, “Most importantly it provided us (Libraries faculty and administration) the kind of detailed information we need to understand the problems and to choose solutions beyond the online catalog. That said, we did, over time, implement a working wayfinding mechanism within The CAT that is based on ‘floor maps’ in all levels of the building. It begins with a patron finding a bibliographic record in The CAT, then clicking on a compass image from the record that opens the needed floor map to show the item's location based on its call number.”


More generally, Li adds, this kind of research is useful because “nowadays humans spend 87 percent of their time indoors, so creating this holistic framework of indoor wayfinding behaviors contributes to not only scientific theories but also empirically motivated designs.”


Wayfinding, Li explains, is not only getting to a location successfully but also developing an awareness of the environment that contributes to more efficient planning and execution. This has the potential of improving a person’s spatial skills (or spatial literacy as some researchers call it). 


In an emergency, greater spatial awareness saves lives. “For example, in a fire or natural disaster like an earthquake,” Li observes, “the most efficient wayfinding guides would help more people escape and survive.”


Li presented this paper at the 2012 Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, held in New York City, and won the 2012 Best Student Paper Award of the Saarinen Student Paper Competition hosted by the Environmental Perception and Behavioral Geography specialty group.

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presentation PDF




Li continues to investigate wayfinding to approach a more comprehensive understanding of spatial awareness within buildings. His ongoing work in collaboration with Klippel, the University Park Libraries, Liben, and Adam Christensen (then a doctoral student in developmental psychology) yielded another paper: Li, R., A. Klippel, L. S. Liben and A. E. Christensen. 2011. The impacts of environmental and individual differences on spatial orientation in a mobile context. In Proceedings of the Workshop on Cognitive Engineering for Mobile GIS, in conjunction with COSIT 2011. 780:9-16. Belfast, ME: CEUR-WS.org. ISSN: 1613-0073. COSIT is the International Conference on Spatial Information Theory.


Li will join the Spatial Intelligence Lab in the Institute for Geoinformatics at the University of Muenster, Germany as a post-doctoral researcher in August 2012 to continue his enthusiasm in research of human wayfinding behaviors.


 Questions or comments? geography@psu.edu