Digital Library Use: Social Practice in Design and Evaluation

Alastair G. Smith (Victoria University of Wellington)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 1 December 2004




Smith, A.G. (2004), "Digital Library Use: Social Practice in Design and Evaluation", Online Information Review, Vol. 28 No. 6, pp. 461-462.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Digital Library Use: Social Practice in Design and Evaluation addresses the question “How do digital libraries make a difference in people's lives?”

In his contribution to the book, Clifford Lynch points out that digital libraries are moving beyond research prototypes, and many of the assumptions behind these projects are no longer valid in real‐world systems. Many digital library projects had a BITWC philosophy – “build it and they will come”. This could be justified, since anticipating user needs for innovative services is difficult. However these top‐down approaches are not necessarily effective, and input from user studies is necessary. There is a need for “socially‐grounded engineering” in the design of digital library systems. This book views digital libraries as “sociotechnical systems” aiming to provide an environment where systems adapt to users' needs rather than vice versa.

The book is aimed at three groups involved with digital libraries: those concerned with IT, those concerned with information infrastructure and those concerned with the creation and transmission of knowledge. The book is intended to challenge understanding, rather than provide recipes. It also hopes to illuminate “information and knowledge and about processes of cognitive and social order” by studying how people interact with digital libraries.

The writers identify several themes of socially grounded digital library research:

  • content, and its relationship with users;

  • transparency, which is suggested as a better objective than usability: users should not need to know about the underlying systems;

  • understanding of work practices and communities of practice for the groups that use digital libraries;

  • access, which involves both equity of access and protection of resources so that they cannot be misused: systems must allow for access by a multiplicity of user communities;

  • scale – initial digital library projects were relatively small, and now we have to deal with scaling up of the size of the repository, the numbers of users and of the rate of growth;

  • boundaries – Marshall challenges the idea of digital libraries as “libraries without walls” and points out that most real digital libraries have had to grapple with the intransigence of the corporate firewall: boundaries exist between collections, between users, and between users and the technology – the “digital divide”;

  • place – digital libraries have the potential to create new “public spaces” for society;

  • relations between digital libraries and traditional libraries; and

  • stability and change of documents, of evolving technology and social change. For example, Bishop et al. in their chapter describe their use of participatory design in a health service study; Levy points out the very terminology of digital libraries is changing, that the term “document” has become ambiguous, being used for both a hard copy artefact and an electronic file.

The book is divided into three parts, with chapters by a number of authors prominent in the digital library initiatives, with backgrounds in librarianship, computer science and social research, and representing a number of points of view. The first part of the book takes a broad view of digital libraries and society, considering the future of digital libraries, with the aim of challenging current assumptions. For example, O'Day and Nardi consider the role of digital libraries in an “information ecology”. This raises questions about the use of digital collections that might otherwise be ignored, such as whether librarians, as a “keystone species”, are endangered, what will happen to the reference interview, etc.

The second part looks at design and evaluation, particularly considering the impact on users. Chapters make frequent reference to studies of digital library use in different settings, e.g. highway transport engineers at CALTRANS, elementary school students and a health service for African American women. Considering the role of librarians, Borgman identifies the “missing safety net of human assistance” as an issue in some digital library projects.

The third part looks at the role of digital libraries in knowledge creation and use, for example Spasser in describing the Flora of North America project looks at a digital library and its impact on botany. Lynch, in his chapter on the economic and marketing realities that affect both digital and physical libraries, points out that in the real world intellectual property issues are a defining factor in the audience and use of digital libraries. This is a slight divergence from the social research themes of most of the rest of the book.

As one would expect, the book is indexed and well‐referenced with citations to material published up to 2002 (interestingly, very few in digital format) and provides many leads for further reading. Digital Library Use: Social Practice in Design and Evaluation is a valuable contribution to the burgeoning digital library literature, challenging the views of both librarians and computer scientists.

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