I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s Metaphors we live by in the last few days. I’ve been meaning to thumb through this book ever since my last term in library school when I took a course in Information Visualization and my instructor recommended it to me. I picked it up then and leafed through it, but I had so many ideas in my head at the time that I could barely fit any more in there.
You know how you get those special goggles on whenever you’re reading something really good, something really ground-breaking, and suddenly everything you see relates to it? That’s where I am with metaphor right now, and it’s because of the Lakoff book.
The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we thinks what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.
Since starting seriously working with faculty and students at the library, either in explaining how a piece of software might be useful to them or helping them to use the stuff they’re required to, I find myself dropping the term “metaphor” into almost every other conversation I have. And yes, people do indeed look at me funny when I do it, but I persist. I find it helpful.
My current motto is this: if you know what a piece of software thinks it is, you have a better sense of what you can probably use it for, and how to go about using it. You know where to look and what to expect from it. If an application thinks it’s a book, you know you can open it and find chapters inside it. There’s probably an index at the end and a table of contents at the beginning. A good metaphor lets the user understand what affordances an application has; it gives them the rules and a sense of a starting place. Since lots of software has the beginnings of a metaphor, or one that isn’t well expressed, sometimes most of the battle in getting faculty and students to feel at home with a given application is to introduce them to that metaphor more directly. I swear by this one; comparing mediawiki to genesis (name it and it appears!) is an actually helpful way of describing the fact that you need to name and link to a new page before it will appear. People can mock me all they want; talking about metaphors lets me see that dawning realization on people’s faces faster than anything else, so I’m sticking to it.
Last night I read an article for a meeting this morning, and while it was full of lots of interesting things, what kept popping out at me over and over was the fact that the author was saddled with a complete absence of metaphor when it came to digital collections. He talked about mainframes and electronically encoded data and access points and networks, all of which was 100% correct. But it failed entirely to convey any affordances to the user. It hit me once again; librarianship has failed to come up with useful metaphors for these things. We haven’t found a way to put the idea of what these things think they are into the users’ heads, and so the affordances available to them are clear as mud.
Sometimes I think we’re so keen to be seen as tech savvy that we forget our backgrounds; so many librarians come from a humanities background that I feel certain we can solve this one. Metaphor isn’t just for poetry. Metaphor is the user interface for our services, the verbal interface that helps build a scaffold in the heads of our users. “Database” doesn’t help; that’s a meaningless term. My blog is a database. Google is a database. Mainframes and access points are real and true, but how can we get across to users what they really have access to? The library without walls needs some structure. We need those metaphorical stacks!