Documentation & Books

Judy Perry jperryl at
Wed Jul 7 14:29:42 CDT 2004

On Wed, 7 Jul 2004, Richard Gaskin wrote:

> As happens more often than not, we agree far more than described:
> Everything you wrote is spot-on, but the "bonus information" is an
> inherent byproduct of any index that shows more than one related item,
> and should not necessarily be limited to paper.

--Possibly, maybe even probably; but most studies contrast the two.

> Given the ways humans handle paper it wouldn't be surprising if
> paper-based indices scored slightly higher if only because people are
> accustomed to slowing down when working with paper.  But the principle
> should appy well for indices in general regardless of the media used for
> display.

--I hear you that it "should"... One problem may be that people have had
a good hundred years or more usage of printed indices (go back much more
than that and having an index is an iffy proposition, which turns out to
be a real drag in historical research) and that this collective usage has
codified the purpose and arrangement of a printed index (as well as our
expectation that printed materials aught to have them).  Hence, we don't
have to learn how to use them each time we encounter them.  But this isn't
the case yet with online search capabilities (do I use "+" or "AND"?  "-",
"OR", or "NOT"? quotation marks or no quotation marks?).

> Again, this is not to suggest that printed manuals have no unique value.
>   They do, and even though most major software companies are migrating
> to electronic documentation I agree that it's important to offer print
> as an option.

--And, again, a funny anecdote:  when we discuss this in my class (paper
versus online viewing/retrieval of information), all the CS majors will
argue vehemently that online is preferable/superior.  But when I ask them
how many of them actually use the online documentations versus printed
documentations, almost to a person they don't use online docs and they do
use printed docs.  Go figure.  Again, usage habits may come into play:
With printed material, we can paperclip/dog-ear pages for future
reference; we can scribble in the margins, highlight text, etc. etc.  Alot
of online docs also have inherent spatial disorientation problems (how
many of use "know" that a certain piece of info we're looking for is on
the right page as opposed to the left page?  At the top versus the middle
or bottom of the page?  Towards the beginning/middle/end of the book?).

For online docs to approach the usability of printed docs, there's also
the issue of machine logic versus human "logic" ;-)  Our fuzzy gray matter
can deal with misspellings (machine's mostly cannot without alot of extra
programming involved) and with card = page = screen types of
understandings (although the "see also" helps alot in this case I rather

With standardization and continued usage of online information search and
retrieval, perhaps some of these problems will be ameliorated.


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