D-Lib Magazine
October 1995

From the Editor

Where Are We in Space?

"Space," intones William Shatner at the opening of each episode of the original StarTrek series, "the final frontier." It is a powerful metaphor, embodying both the universe of limitless horizon and the immediacy of a place we can explore. Both images work in electronic environments. Surely it is a platitude to observe that electronic information, like the universe, is expanding. And we routinely talk about "sites", "locations", and "navigation" as well as about "architecture", "building", and "platforms", all terms redolent with three-dimensional overtones.

The architected world in which we live offers us a number of useful examples and metaphors for organizing, understanding, and finding information in the otherwise expanding and inchoate space of home pages, computers, and T3 lines. Metaphors (among other things) provide a bridge between the world of daily experience and the world of abstract and unfamiliar concepts and ideas. Indeed, as John Browning reports in the October issue of Scientific American, some of the leading research in the US is devoted precisely to the graphical representation of highly abstract concepts (pp. 44-46).

I am thinking very specifically about the range of issues posed by designing museum exhibits and their utility for designing D-Lib Magazine. When asked, I have told people that D-Lib is a conceptual space, where each month we offer users packages of information in the form of editorials, stories, and pointers to other information resources. Like a museum exhibit, we want to communicate quickly the core concepts, use overall structure -- the internal circulation, in architectural terms -- to move readers through the material, and afford them opportunities to explore some areas more closely depending on their personal interest, or to go quickly on to something else. Museum exhibits are also made up of disparate artifacts as the magazine most surely is.

From an editorial perspective, we select objects that add up to something, provide a map for the readers, and offer enough consistency and coherence that readers always know when they are in D-Lib space and when they have left it. Some of the cues we use are well-established. We use the same banner, graphical structure of the contents page, buttons, and header bars on the stories. We ask that stories be relatively short, appeal to a broad readership, and contain pointers to other material. We also copyedit to a consistent set of grammatical rules, but beyond that, we enter the dicey boundary between editing and writing where we have generally ceded the decisions to the writers. When one of them asked me what I wanted, I answered, ASCII text in English with HTML mark-up; after that, anything goes so long as you don't scare the horses.

There is no small risk to design coherence in this minimalist approach, as both the August and September issues amply illustrate. You will see that the stories have varied in their treatment of images, for example, in the background color, and even in the organization of the text itself. But I do not believe that these individual treatments posed a problem for our readers, partly because the stories are unified by subject, partly because the medium is itself experimental and preconceptions are fairly few, and partly because in each case, the structure of the story reinforces and extends its informational content. Thus, the highly visual story that the Informedia team wrote on indexing video subtly embodies the notion of frames in its file structure. It offers readers multiple paths through the material and cues through buttons not unlike the signage found in museums and airports, and through menus that other writers for the magazine have also employed. In the same issue, the Netlib authors used a classic, straightforward narrative approach with an internal menu to explain the complex structure of a library of mathematical software.

Users of information organize the world for themselves, manifested in the organization of their files, directories, and bookmarks as well as in the words of their messages. D-Lib enjoys the luxury of experimentation and the virtue of pushing back the boundaries, whether through the communication of research findings or through the form in which they are presented. We constitute our own beachhead in the information universe, where knowledge and experience, like Captain Kirk, will eventually save us all.

Amy Friedlander

Copyright © 1995 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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