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Floppy disks and clipboards
Scott Hanselman’s great blog post ‘The Floppy Disk means Save, and 14 other old people icons that don’t make sense anymore’ (via @Andy_Tattersall) amused me today, and pointed out the absurdity of some of the common icons that we see on websites and in software in everyday use. The floppy disk icon being used as a generic symbol to represent saving a file, an icon of an envelope being used to represent email, the clipboard for cutting and pasting as examples. If you look around your browser (and I’m using IE9 to write this blog post), then there are generally a set of icons on the browser. In IE9 there’s an old-fashioned galvanised steel dustbin icon, generally seen to relate to a recycle bin (but oddly in IE9 it is Remove personal browsing history). But thinking about it using an old metal dustbin is pretty odd in itself, recycle bins didn’t really ever become common until after dustbins had been replaced by plastic bins. But there’s a process of association that takes place that goes step by step. So, the dustbin originally is a wastepaper basket to denote a place to use to discard stuff, then as fashions change and recycling becomes the fashion, then the wastepaper bin becomes the recycle bin, then a generic representation of a place where you put things you no longer want.
Thinking about icons brings to mind the struggles that we’ve had in finding suitable icons for the library website. What has been reasonably straightforward has been to find some icons to represent helpsheets and mobile friendly sites. (shown on the right), accessibility guides hasn’t been quite so straightforward and we’ve ended up with a fairly generic question symbol. For the mobile website we’ve used a mix of different symbols and that’s been where you start to struggle. A newspaper for the news section, and that suffers from the same problem of using the representation of an earlier form of media (a newspaper) to represent the content contained within that format (something I tend to think of being like describing the packaging rather than what is inside the box).
As an aside it has always intrigued me why there’s such a common belief that libraries are fundamentally (and often seemingly only) about books. That has always seemed to be to confuse the content (the information/knowledge contained with the book) with the packaging/display technology. And it’s always seemed to me that libraries are about content/knowledge and books happen to be the most common form of packaging over the last few hundred years. No one would consider Tesco’s to be a retailer of boxes and tins, they sell the content of those boxes and tins.
When libraries start to move to material that is in forms other than in a book then finding icons to represent that on a website starts to become really difficult. Sound and video end up being represented by old formats of that material or by musical notation, but when it comes to textual material then how do you start to represent the difference between an ebook, an ejournal or a database? On our mobile site we have a pile of books to represent ‘mobile friendly library resources’ and that isn’t ideal. Although it suggests that this is content that you might have found in a book, it simply doesn’t get across the essential aspects, that these are digital material accessed online, via the web. They might be an ebook, or a journal article but are essentially and fundamentally actually just a webpage or a file that you download.
After quite a lot of thinking and looking at alternatives we came to the conclusion that there simply isn’t a suitable range of icons to represent the material that we offer digitally. (and I’ve often wondered anyway whether users actually understand – or need to understand – the terminology that libraries use to split up our content into different types of things – databases, journals, ebook etc etc). So we’ve ended up on our main library resources section on the website with a standard book icon with text saying ejournal or database. And it just uses the same icon used in our institutional VLE for library resources to hopefully introduce some consistency of experience. But the fundamental problem remains, there just doesn’t seem to be a set of generally recognisable symbols to represent library stuff for the digital age.