How readers make sense of active e-book indexes

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The electronic book (e-book) is the latest iteration of book technology and can be in a scroll-like reflowable format without pages. The loss of the page presents particular challenges for creating and using indexes, which have traditionally used page numbers as locators. However, e-books can include active indexes with locators hyperlinked more specifically to a paragraph, line or word.

A review of the literature revealed that there has been little investigation of how e-book indexes are used, particularly active e-book indexes with different levels of locator specificity, and that research on book indexes generally has been system-oriented and not focused on user behaviour. Therefore, the aim of this study was to explore how readers make sense of active e-book indexes. The objective was to describe the phenomenon of how readers use an active e-book index and to provide suggestions for creating e-book indexes that align with user behaviour.

In order to approach index use from the user’s perspective, a qualitative study using an interpretivist, constructivist framework based on Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology was used to answer the main research question, which was “how do readers make sense of active e-book indexes?”. Finding out how people bridge the gap that they face when trying to find information, using what they know, learn, feel, and do along the way, is the essence of this approach.

Data collection occurred in the Digital Library Usability Lab at Charles Sturt University using e-books that were created for the study in EPUB format with active indexes containing locators at various levels of specificity. Participants were presented with various tasks designed to engage them in looking for information in the e-books, which they performed in front of eye tracking equipment that recorded their eye movements and screen actions. The recordings were played back to them as prompts to engage them in discussing their experiences with the researcher.

Dervin’s gap-bridging model was used as a framework for examining the data collected. The adapted model that emerged shows the multiple small gaps that participants experienced when making sense of active e-book indexes. They used what they already knew and what they learned while working with the e-books during the study to construct bridges across these gaps (which included decisions about whether to use the index or another finding aid, how to use the index, and how to find what they wanted in the text). Their reflections on how or whether they crossed the gaps informed the recommendations that they made for improving active e-book indexes. Significantly, the adapted model reinforces the finding that participants make sense of active e-book indexes not in isolation but in the overall context of finding information in an e-book.

This study indicates the importance of context when developing models of information seeking behaviour that can contribute to theory and enable transfer of knowledge to practice. Practical suggestions arising from this study reflect the changing and sometimes conflicting nature of readers’ mental models, which will continue to develop as readers shift between book formats with and without pages.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Hider, Philip, Principal Supervisor
  • Kennan, Mary Anne, Principal Supervisor
Place of PublicationWagga Wagga, NSW
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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