The Iceberg Problem

For every complex problem,
there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong

H. L. Mencken

A collection is a potential, a discovery waiting to happen. Since digital collections are only accessible through their user interfaces, the role of the user interface as a facilitator of discovery cannot be underestimated.

It appears, however, that while academic electronic collections have grown exponentially—and often as a result of significant institutional investment, the utilization rates for many of these collections remain lower than expected. Computers and broadband networks are ubiquitous, patrons are computer savvy, and researchers are excited about the potential of electronic resources--what then stands in the way of greater utilization of electronic scholarly collections?

Driven by substantial industry investment, significant advances in e-commerce over the last few years dramatically changed users’ expectations for usability and quick gratification during online sessions. Many institutional libraries, on the other hand, are facing shrinking budgets and diminishing resources just as the raising popularity of commercial research tools makes the success of academic collections increasingly contingent on enabling quick and easy access to the wealth of resources they offer. For collection developers, this situation suggests the need to take a closer look at the user interfaces that provide access to their collections.

Icebergs and Penguins

Icebergs are a good metaphor for the relationship between collections and the user interface. Like icebergs, most collections are largely invisible. The user interface, or the tip of the iceberg, does not reflect the actual scope or depth of the submerged mass. Some collection portals attempt to attract patrons by using gimmicky interface designs intended to create a contemporary look—these are the penguins of our metaphor.

Still, server log analyses, used like the underwater equipment necessary to explore the submerged mass, often reveal that only a small chunk of the collection is ever used. Analyses of inter-library loan requests support the frustrating realization that patrons remain unaware of much of the content available in the collection.

The iceberg problem can be framed as follows: What can be done to facilitate interaction patterns that help patrons realize the discovery potential of the available electronic resources and, by extension, justify current and future investment in the collection? I believe that the answer is in the user interface.

In what follows, I would like further to explore the conceptual and strategic relationship between the user interface and collection utilization. Utilization, along with usability and accessibility, are no longer the obscure jargon of narrowly technical discussions. Increasingly these terms permeate the electronic resources discourse. Yet the topics they represent often remain only loosely connected to the efforts of many collection developers.

This is understandable given the traditional separation between content and containers, or the collection and the technology that makes it available. Organizational structures often reflect and reinforce the boundaries between content and technology, making it difficult to establish effective communication between decision makers on both sides.

The resulting disconnect between the visible and submerged parts of the collection “iceberg” can lead, not only to decreased utilization, but also and more problematically, to an inversion in the relationship between collection development and improved usability and accessibility. Connecting Tip to BaseCollection developers often conceptualize the value of their collection for patrons in terms of quality and scope.

From this perspective, the collection development process tends to focus on uniqueness and growth. To achieve uniqueness, collection developers use their domain expertise to guide the direction of further investment in subscriptions and other electronic resources with the intention of creating collections that are unique in quality and strength. Growth is related to richness and wealth of content concentration—two central factors in making any collection authoritative and influential in its particular domain.

The centrality of growth (whether highly focused, widely inclusive, or both) as a means to increase the appeal of the collection is further highlighted by the unprecedented availability of new content and an apparently matching increase in demand. Uniqueness and growth are inherent in the mission of collections and constitute key motivators for collection developers. Yet despite being key attributes of collection development, uniqueness and growth become problematic when considered from the perspective of the delivery and consumption medium for electronic collections—the Web.

To explain this point, I will first examine the role of growth using the concept of “zero sum gains”, which I borrow from economics. Zero sum gains means that in some circumstances, the value of continued investment can diminish to the point of becoming meaningless. With billions of pages indexed on various search engines, the Web is a medium to which the concept of zero sum gains clearly applies—especially from the perspective of the end-user.

Growth is meaningful only if the end-user realizes that an increasingly large number of resources is available in the collection. Consequently, it is quite possible to invest in the growth of a collection without attaining a comparable expansion of its utilization.Uniqueness too is a complicated construct given the pace at which competing alternatives emerge on the Web. The co-modification of information on the web inevitably implies susceptibility to high substitution rates.

In other words, the cost of switching from one website to another is minimal to the end-user. To understand how the low cost of switching affects the relationship between uniqueness, investment and utilization, let us contrast electronic collections with brick and mortar ones. In traditional museums or special libraries, we can see uniqueness in action.

For example, the availability of a Vermeer masterpiece in a certain museum makes that institution a unique destination for Vermeer fans and scholars. Yet the availability of a digital impression of the same Vermeer masterpiece in numerous digital collections does not make any of them a unique destination.

On the contrary, each of these collections runs the risk of becoming interchangeable with all the others. I am not suggesting that considerations of utilization, accessibility, and usability displace uniqueness and growth as guiding concepts and motivating principles in the process of collection development.

Rather I would like to integrate the two perspectives represented by these concepts. Much like the two differently positioned but nonetheless inseparable parts of the iceberg, a scholarly electronic collection and its user interface constitute a single entity. In the remainder of this article I will consider how we can implement an integrative framework—one that can facilitate a dynamic interaction between the development of content and user interface—in the discourse on electronic collections.

I propose that we begin with a closer look at the patron, or the user in the user interface construct. ConclusionIcebergs dissolve overtime--their size diminishes until they finally melt away--and so will the iceberg problem discussed here. Collections will become highly visible through the implementation of user interfaces that would be developed with industry standards and metadata protocols.

These interfaces will support interaction models that fit the unique requirements of their patrons for knowledge synthesis through interactive and accessible direct manipulation.

Ezra SchwartzComment