The Emotional Life of Books

At the Remediating the Social conference a couple of weeks ago, Israeli artist Romy Achituv presented a data visualization project of the books in the Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers in South Tel-Aviv. A unique element of this library is the use of emotional judgments from the readers to organize the books. This project resulted from a collaboration between Romy and me, where the main goal was to create a working prototype of a Web-based visualization of the “emotional history” of the books.

I was interested in participating in this project for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the social relevance of the library itself. The Garden Library was founded in 2009 by ARTEAM, an interdisciplinary art collective whose members are Hadas Ophrat, Romy Achituv, Marit Benisrael, Tali Tamir, Nimrod Ram, and Yoav Meiri. It is an outdoor library with no guards, walls, or door, and it serves the refugees and migrant workers of Tel-Aviv. Designed by Yoav Meiri in collaboration with the other ARTEAM members, it is located in a park near the central bus station, where migrant workers congregate on weekends, and is comprised of two wall bookcases, one with books for adult readers and the other with children’s books. A permanent canopy between the bookshelves creates a shelter for browsing, reading, and socializing. The library currently contains approximately 3,500 books in Amharic, Arabic, Thai, Bengali, English, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Nepali, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Tigrinya, and Turkish. In a challenging time for the migrant communities in Israel, the Garden Library provides a space for expression and identity.

The second reason that made this project very interesting to me is the classification system used to index the books. As previously mentioned, the Garden Library has a unique emotion-based system where readers rate the books according to seven emotional categories: amusing, bizarre, boring, depressing, exciting, inspiring, and sentimental. Every time a book is returned to the shelves, the emotional judgment assigned by the last reader is added to the growing emotional history of the book. ARTEAM’s goal with this system is to give the readers the possibility to determine the organization of the library in a more open and playful way. As Marit Benisrael put it: “The idea is that the books will wander in the library like people do in the world, and that every person can change something.” 

With this background in mind, the visualization aims to function as a tool for exploring the contents of the library, as well as a documentation of its evolution, ultimately determined by the changes in the migrant community itself. The multiple roles that the visualization needed to play prompted us to create different representations of the same book data. The visualization currently includes three views that cover various degrees of abstraction and function: bookshelf view, wheel view, and history view.

The bookshelf view arranges the books horizontally, where they are grouped according to language. Each bar represents a single book and its entire emotional history. The vertical direction is time: the bars are subdivided in segments of constant color and variable length depending on how the emotional assignments change in time. Hovering over a book causes a contextual information box to appear, displaying basic information about the book, such as title, author, and language.
The wheel view arranges the books according to emotion. Each arc in the wheel represents one emotion, and the spikes on its outer side are the books that have that emotional judgment at the selected time point. Since the emotional assignments are variable, books move between different areas of the wheel as the user of the visualization navigates back and forth in time.
The history view represents the entire history of each book as a trajectory that moves across the different emotional categories. Each book is represented by a horizontal line, so this view depicts the total number of books as well as the number of books in each emotional category at a particular point in time.

The bookshelf and wheel views have different levels of zooming that allow the visitors to get a panoramic glimpse of the entire data, and then focus on specific subsets of it.

The bookshelf view, completely zoomed out, shows all the books in each language. The empty black areas represent books that haven’t been checked out yet.
Zooming into a selected language will show the individual books available in that language. The language bar can be scrolled horizontally in order to browse through all the books in the language.

As a way to make the link between the emotional history of the books and the current events affecting the migrant communities more explicit, the timeline displays a popup containing news that occurred near the selected time point:

A central element in all these views is the dynamic nature of the emotional judgments, and how they respond to local events and changes and shifts in the migrant communities that use the library. As Romy Achituv described it:

The history of the emotional judgments will permit dynamic illustration of “wandering maps,” displaying the relative placements of the books at any point in time and the dynamic changes over time. The visual mapping is intended to familiarize site visitors with the library’s reader communities, their opinions and preferences.

Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

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