Implications of hypertext theory for the reading, organization, and retrieval of information.

Author:Fitzgibbon, Megan


The study of reading originated with printed materials, but electronic transmission of the written word has long been ubiquitous. From a literary point of view, electronic formats have called into question previous conceptions of textuality. From a more practical standpoint, too, questions have arisen regarding the effect of digital formats on the retrieval and use of information. Theoretical and philosophical understandings of "text" have become intertwined with the technologies that are used to present pieces of writing.

Amongst scholars, hypertext is difficult-or even controversial-to define. Theorists Landow and Delany (1991), for example, offer a rather loaded definition of hypertext, describing it as "the use of the computer to transcend the linear, bounded and fixed qualities of the traditional written text" (p. 3). In keeping with this definition, many discussions of hypertext emphasize its nonlinear qualities, but these descriptions have been viewed as problematic and continue to be widely debated amongst scholars. For the purposes of this paper, the more neutral working definition offered by Crane and Mylonas (1991) is appropriate: "'hypertext' refers to the electronic linking of blocks of text" (p. 219). This definition highlights the key property of hypertext, namely its capacity to create conceptual and literal links among disparate sections of a given text or among completely separate texts.

Hypertext is highly significant for all disciplines that are concerned with the creation, dissemination, storage, and philosophy of information. Providing access to information is a core mission of all libraries, and therefore, an important line of inquiry is the effect of hypertext and its nodal organization of information on users' abilities to find and understand texts. At the most basic level, users need general reading skills along with particular equipment and the knowledge of how to use it in order to read hypertext documents. More than that, it is essential for information professionals to understand the reasons that lead clients to seek, consume, and use information in particular ways. This paper explores hypertext's affects on information seekers' understandings of reading, information seeking, resource discovery, and the bibliographic universe, particularly in relation to information professionals' abilities to provide high-quality information services.

Information Seeking and Use

Reading hypertext

Scholars are divided as to whether or not the act of reading differs across hypertext and print environments. Surveys of general reading behaviors make it clear that the types of associative thinking often ascribed to reading hypertext are not at all unique to that format (McHoul & Roe, 1996). Some hypertext documents are better read in a linear manner, just as some print works, such as reference books, are designed to be read in any sequence. Genre certainly plays a role in how texts are read, regardless of whether the work is print or digital (Miall, 1999).

Scholarly articles, for example, at least in the English-speaking world, are most often presented hierarchically. A typical structure may include an abstract, statement of objectives, literature review, description of methodology, findings, analysis, and conclusions. Within each defined section, the content progresses from a general statement to more specific details to a concluding statement. Other characteristics of the scholarly formula may include a direct correspondence between sentences in the abstract or conclusion and more fully developed sections of the document (Blustein, 2000).

Of course, not all writing follows this model, and the content of a given piece is often much more complex than the formula with which it was crafted. Ideas, terms, and scholarly apparatus are connected throughout the document on a conceptual rather structural level. Hypertext, via the capabilities of markup languages, is therefore suited to literary and scholarly communication insofar as it can organize a document on many levels.

Reading tasks

Protopsaltis and Bouki (2005) developed a model for describing the process of reading articles in a hypertext format. The model consists of eleven components in which readers set a goal, scan and read the sections or categories, select a strategy, build and incorporate knowledge, evaluate the results, and repeat the cycle when necessary. The pattern is not particularly surprising; it is similar to other established models of information seeking behavior and reading cognition. An important point, though, is that readers interact with...

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