YOU ARE HERE, But Where is That?:
Architectural Design Metaphors
in the Electronic Library

by John Kupersmith
in Cheryl LaGuardia, ed., Finding Common Ground: Creating a Library
of the Future Without Diminishing the Library of the Past

(New York: Neal-Schuman, 1998), pp. 58-67.
© 1996 John Kupersmith -- All rights reserved

Presented at the "Finding Common Ground" conference,
sponsored by the Harvard College Library
Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 30-31, 1996.



One of the key issues in planning an electronic library system is the choice and presentation of an overall design metaphor that will enable the user to form a useful mental model of the system. Librarians creating World Wide Web sites, Gopher menus, Z39.50 clients, and other front-end tools have the opportunity to make such decisions rather than having them made by vendors.

Architectural design metaphors are appealing because they address a set of basic human needs and behaviors known as "sensemaking" and "wayfinding". A system of this kind presents itself explicitly as an "information space" in which the user navigates by analogies to the known physical world. Examples of such metaphors in current end-user systems include a virtual desktop, room, house, town, campus, archipelago, and planet. Several "virtual library" systems use analogies to traditional library buildings.

This paper discusses the sensemaking and wayfinding processes, reviews some architectural metaphors now in use, evaluates the strengths and limitations of such devices, and considers the implications for system design.

(reproduced with permission)

The concepts of space and place are basic to human life, and permeate the way we think about computers. Serena Lin describes how "In interacting with our environment, we are enveloped by a desire to make what is abstract into something discrete, what is imagined into something palpable."[1] Thus, files on a disk are said to be "moved" when in fact what is done is to change their directory path names. Although the Internet has annihilated traditional constraints of distance, we still perceive it in spatial terms, as an information highway. It is common to speak of navigating, jumping, tunneling, or surfing through cyberspace, gopherspace, or webspace to distant sites which are often under construction.

Although cyberspace is not real space, it is nonetheless a "built environment" in which some of the same phenomena occur and some of the same principles apply. An architectís analysis of spatial orientation and wayfinding involves the way people perceive themselves and other elements in a given space, read and interpret cues in the environment, develop a "cognitive map" of the space, identify and locate potential destinations, and form and execute plans to reach a chosen destination.[2] A building or town in which these processes are easily performed is said to have "environmental legibility," with clearly defined paths, landmarks, nodes, edges, and districts.[3] Similarly, a computer system can be laid out and presented so as to facilitate orientation and wayfinding. Cyberspace architect Michael Benedikt thus refers to the need to provide users with both navigation data and destination data. [4]


What are the implications for those designing catalogs, web sites, and similar systems for libraries? Here are some suggestions:

  • If you do use a virtual-building metaphor, design and implement it appropriately for your user community. As architect Eliel Saarinen advised, "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context." Just as with physical features, what works well in a public library may not fit a large research institution, and vice versa.
  • Pay special attention to the what the user experiences in the first few seconds of contact. Kristina Hooper points out that the initial screen of a system, often compared to a facade, actually serves the more important function of an entranceway, where users receive their initial cues about what the structure contains and how to proceed. "In the architectural domain, entrances have been traditionally finely crafted to control the presentation of a place to a visitor. ... The viewpoint of a visitor is carefully planned to reveal the whole of a place in a very systematic way."[5]
  • Take into account the dynamic nature of computer usage. People moving through your system will continue to learn about it as they exchange information with it, inputting commands and viewing displays. Architect Richard Saul Wurman stated his design goal for urban architecture in terms that apply very well to computer systems: "The goal of all the ways of displaying and communicating information is an informative and attractive environment interacting with informed, self-informing citizens."[6]
  • Heed the famous dictum of another architect, Mies Van der Rohe: "God is in the details." For example, just as you would in a building, label web pages with clear titles, the name of the institution, and verbal or graphic navigation aids.[7] In cyberspace, the signs are the structure.


[1] Serena Lin, "metaphors, architectures, and cyberspaces - an introduction," course paper, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, 1995.

[2] Roger M. Downs, "Mazes, Minds, and Maps", in Dorothy Pollet and Peter C. Haskell, ed., Sign Systems for Libraries: Solving the Wayfinding Problem (New York: Bowker, 1979), 17-32; Romedi Passini, Wayfinding in Architecture (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984). See also Ben Shneiderman, Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992), pp. 403-418.

[3] Passini, pp. 109-115; cf. Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960).

[4] Michael Benedikt, "Cyberspace: Some Proposals," in Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. Michael Benedikt (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1991), pp. 173-177.

[5] Kristina Hooper, "Architectural Design: An Analogy," in User Centered System Design, ed. Donald A Norman and Stephen W. Draper (Hillsdale, NJ and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986), p. 15.

[6] Richard Saul Wurman and Joel Katz, "Beyond Graphics: The Architecture of Information," AIA Journal 63 (October 1975), 40,56

[7] An excellent introduction is the Web Style Guide produced by Patrick J. Lynch at the Yale Center for Advanced Instructional Media.


These links were compiled to show various explicit implementations of architectural metaphors.  As the web has matured, some of these sites have disappeared and many others have been redesigned along other lines (although I would argue that the basic wayfinding and usability principles still apply).  If a link no longer works, you may want to try its URL in the Wayback Machine, looking for instances from the mid-1990s.

Virtual Libraries (verbal imagery)

Virtual Libraries (2-dimensional maps/floorplans)

Virtual Libraries (3-dimensional representations of physical objects/places)

Other "virtual spaces"