Lost and Found

Geographer’s study should lead to smoother sailing through library stacks.

Geographer Rui Li in the stacks of Pattee Library. Credit: Patrick MansellAll Rights Reserved.

Trying to find a book in the stacks of the Pattee-Paterno Libraries in University Park can make you feel like a mouse lost in a maze—but it’s not all your fault! In fact, your confusion is mostly due to the complex layout of the environment combined with insufficient or inconsistent signage, says Rui Li, Ph.D. candidate in geography at Penn State.

smiling colleagues in front of a window showing city skyline

Li and Klippel with colleagues at a 2011 meeting of the American Association of Geographers

Working with Alexander Klippel, assistant professor of geography and director of the Human Factors in GIScience Lab, Li recently completed a study that should benefit library patrons, and may have implications beyond Penn State.

Getting lost in the library—or any other large indoor space such as an airport, museum, or conference center—is the result of both personal and environmental factors, Li explains. Personal factors include one’s familiarity with the location and general sense of direction. Environmental factors include a building’s line-of-sight visibility, differences in architectural style, and spatial complexity, or the number of possible paths to or from any one location.

Finding a Way

Geographers call this confluence of factors wayfinding. “[It’s] the interaction between a human and the physical environment,” Li says.

Wayfinding, as he explains it, involves not only getting to a location successfully but also developing an awareness of the environment that contributes to more efficient planning and execution of future routes. With awareness comes an improvement of spatial literacy.

People develop spatial awareness in two steps, Li says. First they develop a mental representation of the space by acquiring an object-to-object relationship. (Maps are perfect aids for this purpose.) Second, they acquire a person-to-object relationship, orienting themselves by determining their current location and the direction they’re heading. For designers, understanding these two steps is the key to creating wayfinding guides, such as signs and you-are-here maps, that actually work.

Spatial awareness, Li notes, can save lives. “In a fire or natural disaster, the most efficient wayfinding guides would help more people escape and survive.”

The Libraries Study

Like many established research libraries, the Pattee-Paterno complex has grown in stages, presenting special challenges in terms of its indoor space. The original Pattee Library, completed in 1940, had three major additions by 1973 and a further major renovation in 2000, the same time the Paterno Library was added. With close to 6 million volumes, Pattee-Paterno is the ninth largest research library in North America.

diagram of Pattee-Paterno libraryCourtesy Rui Li

A diagram shows the complex structure of the Pattee-Paterno Libraries.

In late 2009, the University Libraries formed a committee to address wayfinding issues in the building. At the time, Li notes, librarians were logging over 600 wayfinding-related questions per week from patrons. After researching how other libraries were trying to solve this problem, Librarian Paige Andrew called in Klippel and Li for help. The geographers, in turn, sought input from professor of psychology Lynn Liben and others.

“From a patron’s point of view, there are two major problems,” Li explains. “First is the difficulty locating the correct library area. In particular, the central stacks [in the Pattee portion of the building] are notoriously hard to find. Second is the lack of information in the environment which would confirm a patron’s location.” Li translated these problems into research questions and designed a series of experiments, which were conducted in 2009 and 2010.

Users were divided into two groups: experienced library staff, and students who had never visited the library. Each participant met Li at the Lending Services desk on the first floor of Pattee Library, and was asked to locate two books on different floors in each of the libraries’ three main wings, using any information available. When the books were located, participants were asked to estimate which direction led back to Lending Services. Li followed along with a camcorder.

diagram depicting spatial analysis of Pattee-Paterno library from high to low visibilityCourtesy Rui Li

Illustrated results of Rui's spatial analysis of visibility in three library areas. The colors orange/red indicate locations with good visibility, while the colors blue/purple indicate poor visibility. The Central Stacks clearly has worse visibility than West Pattee and Paterno.

Not surprisingly, he reports, the central stacks proved the most difficult area to negotiate for both groups. “[Our] quantitative measures showed many areas with low visibility—people cannot see very far—and high overall connection density, that is, multiple intersections and possible pathways; this makes the layout very complex.”

Signs are also important. “Signs should help patrons confirm their location or a book’s location, but inconsistencies can lead to wayfinding mistakes,” Li explains. “In the experiments, once in the correct library area, most participants went to the wrong bookshelf due to inconsistency between the signs provided in the library and the information provided in the online catalog.”

“The most surprising finding was that most new students had trouble finding the entrance to the central stacks even though they looked at maps or signs,” Li says. “Due to the unique structure of the Libraries, the three main wings are connected only on the first floor. Many students thought they could go to the correct floor first and then look for the [specific] location. That strategy did not work in this environment.”

Also surprising was that familiarity with the central stacks did not seem to help much. “That is to say, the environment has a dominant role in our development of spatial awareness,” Li concludes.

Getting There

His results were well-received by library staff, and translated into immediate improvements. “The library has already taken our suggestions of creating more schematic maps for patrons at major intersections in the stacks and has placed more signs at major entrances to the central stacks on each floor,” Li notes. In addition, a previously planned renovation of much of the first floor of the Pattee and Paterno Libraries into the new Tombros and McWhirter Knowledge Commons complex has improved sightlines and visibility.

The Libraries have also implemented an interactive wayfinding mechanism within the main online catalog based on floor maps in all levels of the building. Once a patron calls up a bibliographic record, a click on a compass image opens the needed floor map to show the item's shelf location.

The additional signs are helping already, according to Gary White, head of the Department of Reference, Collections and Research: “After the signage was installed, our average number of wayfinding-related questions per week went down by about 30 percent.”

Li is confident that the other measures will help, too, and convinced that similar helps are warranted in any complex environment. Since humans spend 87 percent of their time indoors, he argues, improving wayfinding systems is of more than theoretical interest.

—Angela Rogers

Rui Li received his Ph.D. in geography in June 2012. He can be reached at Li’s adviser, Alexander Klippel, Ph.D., is assistant professor of geography and director of the Human Factors Lab at the GeoVISTA Center. Li’s paper, "The dominant factor: Impacts of environmental quality and familiarity on wayfinding behaviors in buildings," received The Saarinen Best Student Paper Award of the Environmental Perception and Behavioral Geography Special Group at the 2012 Annual Meeting of American Association of Geographers. In August, Li will join the Spatial Intelligence Lab in the Institute for Geoinformatics at the University of Muenster, Germany, as a postdoctoral researcher.

Last Updated July 10, 2012