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Why can't you find books by colour?

Image from Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 2.0

One paradox of being involved in digital search is that it is easy to forget the look and feel of actual books and how they are discovered. When you have a free moment, you realise the way books are found in bookshops is fundamentally different to searching via digital means.

I was in Topping & Co, a marvellous independent bookshop in Ely, and I realised that much of my distance navigation, looking at books from a distance of ten or fifteen feet, is done by colour. As you walk past rows of books, you notice how some series of books stand out very clearly – the For Dummies series, World’s Classics, and Penguin Classics, for example.

Now turn to academic search discovery systems. At the University Press Redux conference earlier this month, librarians stated their biggest single wish was for content to be more discoverable – and a recognizable series colour or design is a great help.  Although Amazon’s discoverability for books rates in my opinion quite low, it does, make some use of colour for retrieving titles, although the way that hits are displayed makes the colour and pattern on book jackets less noticeable than it should (often the colour and design of the jacket is barely visible in the search results).  

But academic discovery systems make little use of colour. Whatever means are provided to discover books, looking at jacket images is not one of them. Yet academic books often exist in series, many of them very successful – the Cambridge Companions series is an example, although in this case individual titles are recognizable from their title (such as the Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire). More challenging for discovery are individual volumes in a series such as Cambridge Topics in History, since individual titles may not have any immediately identifiable link to the series title. There is undeniably a link from one book in a series to other books in the same series. Are those links visible via colour or design in the academic digital search system?