Information Services and Digital Literacy: In Search of the Boundaries of Knowing

Lynn Allardyce Irvine (Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 6 September 2013




Allardyce Irvine, L. (2013), "Information Services and Digital Literacy: In Search of the Boundaries of Knowing", Library Review, Vol. 62 No. 6/7, pp. 447-449.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

I will borrow the phrase “complex easiness” (Huvila, 2012, p. 131) albeit with a slightly different meaning from his own use, to describe the arguments and ideas in Isto Huvila's excellent, stimulating and challenging work Information Services and Digital Literacy: In Search of the Boundaries of Knowing.

As the title suggests Huvila considers digital literacy and information services as the two predominant societal strategies to aid people in their pursuit of knowledge and finding information. However, much of Huvila's book concerns the subtitle of his work “the boundaries of knowing”. As Huvila observes “There is a lot of literature on the two notions, but considerably less on the contexts of their functioning” (p. 130). It is on the context of their functioning that Huvila gives greatest weight in this work; the what, why, when and how of information‐seeking behaviour or “knowing” in contemporary society.

To explore this, he builds upon Hardin's (2009) economic theory of knowing and the notions of boundary objects and crossings first proposed by Star and Greisemer in their influential 1989 paper. In doing this, Huvila, places some commonly observed behaviour in information‐seeking (Rowlands et al., 2008) in the context of these two theories to challenge the well‐documented assumptions on why this is the case and what it means. By extension he questions the premises underpinning information services and digital literacy as strategies to help people find information. Huvila offers a novel perspective on what shapes the way people find and use information (know) in the context of the social web, and in so doing challenges the reader to consider some quite complex philosophical ideas and to question their current understanding of the role of information services and digital literacy in this landscape.

The use of landscape as a metaphor for information and information seeking is not new. What may be new to readers of the library literature is Huvila's conceptualisation of information seeking and use as “crossing and expanding boundaries between our earlier experiences and the multitude of existing fields of knowledge, systems of representations and contexts of knowing” (Huvila, 2012, p. 4) and his use of the notion of boundary objects posited by Star and Greisemer (1989). Critically he does not view boundaries in a negative sense. Boundaries are not barriers per se but rather spaces or crossing points between states of knowing and these may be “technical, social and even physical” (Huvila, 2012, p. 7). Boundary objects act as bridges or anchors between these states.

Information services and digital literacy are potential boundary objects in the digital information landscape but crucially and central to Huvila's argument is that this landscape or context of knowing is radically different to what went before. Technology has changed. The social web has created a culture of participation (and non‐participation). Information has changed. How it is created, by whom and how it is distributed are radically different in the digital environment. How people perceive and locate information has also changed.

Huvila's second key concept which frames his argument is Russell Hardin's theory of the economy of knowing (2009) or “street‐level epistemology” (Hardin, 2003, p. 8). Most knowledge is based on testimony (Hardin, 2003, p. 10) and put simply, in terms of ordinary knowing, i.e. how most of us in our daily lives understand various facts, people are pragmatic and economic in the amount of time they spend corroborating these facts. That users may rely on a single search engine as the quickest route to an(y) answer and that they may eschew help from established information sources and services is a well‐observed fact for information professionals and others interested in information‐seeking behaviour. Huvila's starting point is his “belief in a certain contextual rationality of action” (p. 4) so rather than this betraying a lack of skills or effort, in the context of contemporary society and the digital landscape this may be perfectly rational action.

The central Chapters (4‐7) of Huvila's text give an in‐depth analysis of the digital information landscape, as the social context (the boundaries of knowing) in which people find and use information. He assesses new technologies, especially the social web and the culture of participation in the context of information seeking. Networks and the abundance of connectivity limit the “perceived significance of earlier physical boundaries and dominating boundary objects such as libraries and local knowledge” (p. 39). Contemporary information culture promotes the idea that everyone can participate in new technologies and that finding information is easy. In addition there is a cultural expectation of “solvability” (p. 133) and that search engines give us answers. If all this is true, then why would anyone ask for help especially in our self‐service culture (also true in academic libraries)?

I had a sense as I read through this book the chapters could be read independently of one another as separate essays rather than as a single coherent argument. This is partly explained by the excellent referencing and depth of research which means that these central chapters could sit as literature reviews in their own right. However, this would be an unfair view and Huvila does draw his argument together in the final chapter when he places the ideas of information services and digital literacy in the context of the boundaries of knowing analysed and described previously.

If as he claims his “modest aim” in the book is to “discuss a possible alternative viewpoint and to encourage those who read it to think about things” (p. 141), then the author successfully does this. Huvila's book is a stimulating, thought‐provoking analysis of contemporary information culture which challenges many accepted ideas about “new users”, technologies, participation and how we find and know things. What the role of information services and digital (or other) literacies might have in future who knows. There is no easy answer here, but lots of interesting questions.


Hardin, R. (2003), “If it rained knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 33 No. 1, pp. 324.

Hardin, R. (2009), How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledges, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Huvila, I. (2012), Information Services and Digital Literacy: In Search of the Boundaries of Knowing, Chandos Publishing, Oxford.

Rowlands, I., Nicolas, D., Williams, P., Huntington, P. and Fieldhouse, M. (2008), “The Google generation: the information behaviour of the researcher of the future”, Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 60 No. 4, pp. 290310.

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