Tula Giannini, Associate Professor, Pratt Institute, SILS  *presentation, (C)) Tula Giannini

Today I would like to talk to you about a study that looks at users doing research in real and virtual  environments and then compares their search experience and results.

How does the information architecture (IA) of these two environments designed for information seeking effect research and user choice of search environment (SE)?

Today users have new options.  They can choose between the real (defined here as the library),
and the virtual (online, Internet and Web at home or work).  Clearly, we need to develop a new IA that integrates real and virtual SE based on user needs. What can we learn from user experience?

To this end, user studies are needed that quantify user experience more broadly. Most studies look at the user alone at a terminal searching one database of a single system.  As we begin to think more holistically about the research process, we see that this is a rather narrow perspective.  A user's search depends on and is influenced by a total search environment.  Information architecture (IA) determines its configuration, its structure and organization.

How can libraries design an IA that best serves users and importantly, ensures that users will continue to choose libraries as their best option for research?

Clearly, libraries are at a cross-roads and have critical choices to make being pressured by economic and political factors, distance learning and remote access to information, and commercialization of both real and virtual information space.

How will libraries today change traditional library IA to survive the challenges of a new information environment?  We see now that dot.coms mostly made the wrong choices and continue to fade into cyberspace; their success seems short lived  By contrast, libraries and the print world have flourished for centuries as the bedrock of learning and civilization.  Now, we are on the verge of replacing this system with a new one.  This juncture is often compared to the the one brought about by Gutenberg and the move from manuscript to print.  However, the print world has remained paper and ink-based, and importantly rooted in the real (the physical form of information and communication objectified).

In the online world - the world of the Internet and Web, IA presents immense challenges in serving end-users who themselves are faced with navigating in a virtual world where distinctions  are increasingly blurred between communication and information, published and unpublished, private and public, free and fee, author and reader, written and spoken, edition and update, original and copy, permanence and progress.

Yet, despite continual change in information technology, traditional library IA persists even though designed for a world without online information and communication  This incongruity often leads to chaos and confusion for both users and librarians.

In a time of information revolution, the way in which we reconfigure our real information environment will no doubt determine the future of libraries and their ability to serve the needs of researchers.


Information Architecture (IA) Structures, organization, systems, design and orderly arrangement, that connect people to information in ways that facilitate the research process and experience, and the acquisition of knowledge, accounting for place and space on social, experiential and psychological planes.

Virtual Environment (VE)  An environment measured and understood online via the Internet and Web and where access to information and communication is limited to those venues.

Real Environment (RE) The Library as a sum of its reality, physicality and virtuality.

Search Environment (SE)  All factors associated with users seeking information.

Figure 1. The Library, A Research Environment that Supports the Real and the Virtual.


THE STUDY - User Perspectives Doing Research in Real and Virtual Environments.

Users evaluate real and virtual environments for how well research is supported

Users make choices about where to carry out research.

Users' choices will determine the future of libraries.

How can libraries transform their IA to be more attractive and productive for users?

Users consider the effect of IA on their choice of search venue -
        Online research at home
        Research in the library

Comparing RE and VE research, what are the differences in search outcomes

and search experience?

What are the relationships between IA for real and virtual research environments?

Perspectives and context

The notion of IA is extended to real libraries. The interaction between the real and virtual in library settings is examined including the impact of IA on physical library space.

The tension that exists between real and virtual library environments creates dynamic connections for users, who redefine their sense of place as they move through time and space from one to the other.

While real libraries try to make users feel connected to cyberspace, virtual libraries try to simulate real library architecture.


The search experience of 22 Pratt-SILS students is used to compare RE library research with VE Internet/Web-based research.

Students developed two topics each, and were instructed to research them first in VE using databases from FirstSearch, WilsonWeb and Dialog, followed by a Web search employing a search engine of choice.

Once research was completed, students researched the same topics in RE, which was defined by the two libraries that they had selected based on the nature of their topics.

Students were then asked to write about their search experience and results, and to compare the effectiveness of RE and VE as search environments (SE).

In addition, students responded to a questionnaire.

The results of the study are presented here.


Student Questionnaire Shows That Information Architecture Really Matters

A 17-question survey focused on students using the same research questions in real and virtual environments.

Students compared RE and VE from a number of perspectives and environmental factors.

They noted that the impact of IA in the virtual focused on user interface and web site design, whereas in the real, focus shifted to reference services, librarian’s role, configuration of physical space, and general ambiance and its effect on the user.

Students discussed their experience in terms of how differences in environment affected search process in terms of the quality, quantity, coverage, depth, variety of formats, relevance and usability of information retrieved.

Although they experienced the environments sequentially, their perceptions and awareness of environmental interrelationships were strongly heightened.

Results of Student Questionnaire
Question RE






1. At the pre-search stage, which environment did you anticipate would be most useful? 9 7 6 – topic dependent.
2. Which environment did you find more conducive to research? 9 8 5 – topic dependent
3. In RE, did you consult with library staff? 12 10  
4. Was this helpful to your research? 12    
5. After searching the library’s databases, could you locate selected items in the library’s collections? 15 2 5, some items not found
6. Were these items located useful? 21 1  
7. Which environment produced more relevant results? 13 9  
8. In which environment did you make the best use of your time? 14 8  
9. Which environment was most convenient? 3 19  
10. Did your research experience in RE and VE change your prior notions about them? 14 8  
11. How well did the libraries you used manage the integration of online and physical collections? Good




12. What Issues did you face?      
13. Which environment would you select for a future research project and why?  9 2 11 - Both
14. Were your topics more suited to RE or VE? (29 topic areas identified, 44 topics total.) 14 15  
15. Comparing RE and VE research, what do you consider the best aspects of each (Identify 1 or 2.)      see chart below.
16. Were your online searching techniques and strategies helpful for your research project? 20 2 Somewhat
17. Was your knowledge of online database content adequate to meet the demands of your research? 11 6 Improved with searching.



Student Observations

Students concluded that the most productive approach to VE and RE for research was the effective integration of the two – the best of both worlds notion.

However, there is still much to accomplish before this can be realized, in that both environments need to pay greater attention to IA in terms of usability and user research needs.

Clearly, libraries are only beginning to take seriously the necessary IA changes that will allow users to navigate seamlessly and segue from to the other.

Research issues identified by students cover a wide range of concerns.
RE (Library) VE (Home)
Fear of not finding relevant information.

Finishing work before library closed.

Time needed to travel to library.

Finding journals in physical collections cited in databases.

Materials not on shelf.

Finding work space.

Time management.


Outdated collections.

Fear of not finding relevant information.

Finding relevant information very difficult.

Need to select fulltext online, which was very limiting.

Web very time consuming with inadequate results.

Slow Internet connection.

Time management.

Lack of experience searching for medical information.

Too many distractions.

Lack of adequate fulltext resources.


Students categorized a topic according to which environment was most suitable to it.
RE VE Both 
Humanities (dance, popular culture, architecture and design)

Historical perspectives, all topics

Current issues (all topics) Technology Social Sciences



Student Observations from Questionnaire

Factors mentioned that made RE more conducive to research
RE: Greater depth of material
        a better place to concentrate
        Faster results with fewer interruptions
        Consultation with a librarian about research strategies and sources
        User instruction
        Indispensable for in depth research
        Browse open stacks
        Evoked a more disciplined approach
        Access to subscription databases and collections

VE: lack of time constraints and bureaucracy
        convenience of home
        access to fulltext online
        good place to begin research
        More productive for current topics
        Time savings - no wait for computers, no travel time


Summarizing the Best Aspects of RE and VE.
Reference services – librarians helping users. 

Collections of selected, high quality materials.

Depth and breadth of collections.

Integration of RE and VE.

Many formats and media available.

Better structured for information searching.

Better use of time.


Library staff.

Integration of environments.

Easier to read print documents.

Browse collections.

Total learning and research environment.

Real experience.

Reliable information.

Historical material.

Real documents – more than just e-text.



Good starting point.

Always available.

Internet communication facilities.

No time limits.

Finding obscure information.



A Sampling of Student Observations, Comparing Library RE with VE

Recurrent themes emerge from student responses to the questionnaire, which in a sense provide a road map to some of the key issues that libraries need to address. Most importantly, these issues can be resolved once they are viewed as essential to library development and success.

When doing online research at home there are any number of distractions to compete with your concentration and attention to the subject matter. In a library the entire atmosphere is hopefully devoted to the serious researcher in need of some peace and quiet. I am also aware of the library’s closing hours and am less likely to put off my research and take a break. Although I think that more and more people will rely solely on information that can be retrieved from the comfort of their home, I for one prefer the library and having the ability to access both online, print and the added help of a knowledgeable librarian.

The library is a place with free online databases, web access, and often free printing and personal service and librarians. Printed resources will remain valuable to research regardless of what can be found through a computer and web access.

Based on past experiences, I came to the library with uncomfortable emotions. Yet, as soon as Tony, the librarian, took it upon himself to show me around, I felt extremely positive about my research. One person can make that much of a difference when you go to the library. The environment was perfect for research. If I had a question, I felt comfortable asking the librarian.

Although searching the virtual environment is touted as a time saving method for gathering information, it can also be an enormous waste of time, especially on the Internet where information is vast but not indexed and where links often are misleading. Still many aspects of library searching can not be replaced, for example, browsing the stacks, exchanging ideas with librarians and users, and accessing primary documents. I am convinced that serious research cannot be conducted in any one environment.

Searches conducted in RE were performed under less anxiety and offered a tranquil setting to organize my thoughts and search focus. What was not found in the results of my online catalog search, I found serendipitously perusing the stacks. When reviewing art books, another patron asked what I was studying. An elaborate and intellectual conversation ensued. Unless I entered an online chat room and discussed a litany of subjects such as "how to flirt and not get hurt", I would never have had this valuable exchange of ideas.

Online services enhance the use of the physical collections. I think that a mixture of the two environments produce the best results. Ultimately, neither environment alone seems to be able to provide the best research results.

My experience researching my topics was more productive at the library than at home because I had assistance and guidance from librarians. People will always need help if they are going to benefit from the wealth of information that is provided on the Web. The interaction of the virtual and real environments is incredible.

Evaluating Search Outcomes

Students were more selective in the library as they had more resources with which to consult.

VE selection focused on fulltext databases, which were limited by specific collections of journals. Students noted that a drawback of VE was the need to compromise choices of the most relevant material due to lack of fulltext availability.

Results of Web research tended to represent the most popular and commercial information sources, as well as material of questionable authority.

Students agreed that a co-ordinated approach, in which the two were integrated, and use encompassed both, would produce the best search results and experience.

Similarly, dot.coms having only a virtual life are disappearing into cyberspace whence they came, while bricks and mortar businesses that have successfully integrated Internet and Web services have made important gains.

Because the experiential is paramount, libraries hold the advantage by offering both environments in an IA that is specialized and dedicated to the pursuit of information and knowledge.


Libraries need to rethink IA with fresh approaches in which technology serves communication
between users, librarians and information.

VE in which research is limited to a user and a computer appears to be locked in a two dimensional plane, whereas in the complex and rich library IA the user experiences information in ways that go beyond the three dimensionality of individual space, to an environment of shared purpose, place and time – an information theme park without an entrance fee and where valuable collections and services come with entry.

Clearly, students were very aware of the cost of information; they appreciated and benefited from the wealth of information the library had to offer.

As Users Have More Choices, Libraries Need to Pay More Attention to IA

Because libraries are competing with user access to virtual information at home and at work, they need to focus on those attributes of VE that users value. Students made a number of general observations:

Many libraries need to update their collections.

RE needs to be more conducive to research by providing quiet study areas and better
division of space based on function .

More computer terminals and workstations are needed.

More online searching instruction and online research help is needed.

This calls for more librarians to assist users with electronic services


A Library IA that Combines Real and Virtual Environments to Meet User Information Needs

The University of Connecticut's recently completed library construction reveals forward-looking IA concepts that exemplify a holistic approach to libraries and technology in a user-centered context.

Studying the floor plan shows attention to a notion of IA that connects users to physical and digital collections and incorporates a multi-faceted approach to communication, from interpersonal and computer-mediated to individual and group.

The design of facilities and space brings people and information together in an atmosphere conducive to learning, and offers the user choices of where and how to pursue knowledge.

For example, there is the popular Bookworm Café which serves coffee and food, a 24 hour study room where students enjoy no time constraints, learning classrooms with the latest technology for instruction and demonstration, a new book browsing area, a media library, lecture and meeting rooms and a video theatre.

UConn’s library architecture, illustrated by its floor plan, reveals complexity and innovation with a comprehensive sense of design.
Level 4 Collections: A, B,

Figure 4. UConn Floor Plan Blends Real and Virtual to Benefit Users

The floor plan of the UC Library illustrates the complexity of library IA and at the same time provides a wonderful example of how new concepts can be inspired by IA for online services.

Quality and Quantity of Databases and Electronic Resources – Advantage RE

Looking at the University of Connecticut's electronic resources brings attention to a large and impressive selection of databases and a wealth of high quality information. This virtual library of database services, accessed through an array of vendors, emphasizes the benefits its researchers enjoy.

Meeting the Challenges of a New Library IA

As seen here, the University of Connecticut has taken its library’s IA a giant step forward by the manner in which the newly designed library accommodates user needs and effectively integrates VE and RE.

Further, computer labs which are found throughout, support collection use. Reviewing student observations, demonstrates that user dissatisfaction with libraries is often due to traditional library IA that has remained in place while computers and the internet are merely pasted on to the old, leaving staff and workstations in short supply.


Take user needs into account at all levels.

Complex design of space is made comprehensible by IA design.

Differentiate space based on function and use.

Recognize the importance of through design to user comprehension of the library and its effective use.

Fulfil user needs for quiet study areas, computer instruction and cyber cafés.

Incorporate technology at many levels - assistive, microlab, video, instruction, research. etc.

Consider a 24 hour quiet study area.

Awareness of timesaving and convenience should be reflected in IA.

Information and research desk, is forward-looking in its expression, in lieu of reference desk,

as it implies research assistance rather than referral.

Delineate research and information services.

Feature new books and a comfortable place to read them.

On the other hand, applying some of these features to IA for VE is indeed a challenge and dream of the virtual library. Some services have been accommodated, but the sense of architectural space is for the most part lacking. Library Web pages generally resort to lists, and two-dimensional space lacking functional division.

Transforming Traditional Library IA from Storage and Preservation to Retrieval and Communication

Many new opportunities exist for libraries to use IA to transform a static library architecture focused on storage and preservation to a dynamic model based on service in which use and communication flow through all aspects of delineated library function (Ref. 5). Some of these services already exist and have been very successful:

Online ordering of books and other collection materials

User initiated online ILL

Online access in stack areas

Library Intranets that support in-library communication

IA that supports human communication such as a cyber café

Quiets areas with computers that support study.

Comfortable areas that support reading and access.

Web-based subject and collection guides that assist user information retrieval

More efficient process for digitization including digitizing on the fly.

Transferring Virtual IA Design to the Real

Many of the design principles that make for successful virtual IA are transferable to the real.

Especially important are those that connect information and users including communications and
search systems, networks, intranets, Internet/Web, digital media and interactive digital design.

Sometimes described as a holistic approach, overarching design principles allow users to navigate
complex environments.

Judging from student comments, a lack of this global organization in libraries is a considerable handicap for users. Today, a library’s community of users moves between the real and the virtual, even though most libraries offer on-site users a far richer array of electronic resources
This will likely change as libraries develop more sophisticated ways of dealing in the
information market place.

The inevitable growth of VE resources, especially fulltext journals that are accessible off-site will place increasing pressure on libraries to make clear the advantages of the real.

This will require significant investment to transform the library as we know it into one in which online information is but one facet of a total learning environment and the separation between
real and virtual becomes transparent in the pursuit of knowledge.


The need for a strategy to integrate RE and VE to facilitate user services.

The need for more computer workstations

The need for scholar workstations to support serious research

The need for electronic library tools to navigate the real and the virtual.

Searching at Home Alone - Libraries Mitigate Virtual Isolation

As libraries deliver more information and service to the home desktop, users find themselves increasingly doing research at home alone.

Student comments reveal that this can cause anxiety and lead to loss of concentration and motivation, and to wasting time wandering aimlessly in cyberspace.

By contrast, libraries provide instant learning communities and stimulating social environments which enhance and serve the research process.

Significantly, consultation with a reference librarian was identified by most students as a major asset of the library environment.

Similarly, online library instruction although helpful to users was not viewed as a substitute for on-site instruction and participation enabling users to make meaningful connections to library materials.

In Reality, Virtual Library Dreams Need Virtual Users

Comparing the latest trends with those of traditional companies illustrates new vitality for bricks and mortar firms that have successfully linked their businesses to the Web, while wholly virtual companies have seen their luster fade.

The reasons for this shift seem to be that users prefer real companies that offer virtual choices, the security of name and place recognition, and enhanced service through the tools of VE for communication and convenience.

Such IA features add to the richness of user options and services so that users can make choices according to their individual needs and thus create a personal configuration of service.

Just as traditional companies have gained customer advantage in this way, in a similar sense, libraries can define a new IA in which VE enhances and expands the boundaries of the library’s culture of service and social responsibility.