Working Towards an Understanding of Digital Library Use

A Report on the User Research Efforts of the NSF/ARPA/NASA DLI Projects

Ann Peterson Bishop
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
218 LIS Building, 501 East Daniel Street
Champaign, IL 61820

D-Lib Magazine, October 1995


The Digital Library Initiative (DLI) projects, funded jointly by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began about a year ago. Their user study teams have already produced some valuable findings and described some provocative theoretical and methodological challenges. From my vantage point as coordinator of the University of Illinois DLI Social Science team, I will highlight the efforts of the six projects to communicate with each other about user research. Links to the DLI project home pages and to some of the papers published by project members have been included for more in-depth coverage of some of the issues summarized. In this article, I will also discuss the upcoming Allerton Institute at the University of Illinois, a methodological forum on digital library use that will provide another means for researchers in a variety of disciplines and settings to share their ideas and concerns about the conduct of social science research related to digital library use.

The Growth of Digital Libraries and the Challenge of Understanding Their Use

Improvements in information technologies and increased support directed towards our national information infrastructure have led to the development of a wide range of digital library collections and services. Academic, special, and public libraries are implementing on-line systems that provide their patrons with electronic access to library catalogs and a variety of other information resources. NASA is developing on-line collections of images and data for scientists and engineers. Museums are digitizing their collections and making them available on the Internet. Members of scientific communities are building collaboratories to support their work and communication. Publishers are experimenting with the creation of digital archives of their journals and books. And individuals and groups from all walks of life are using community-based networks to provide local and global access to information resources they have created. In addition to this array of existing networked information tools and resources--all of which can be thought of as variations on theme of the digital library or as pieces and layers of the digital information infrastructure--research and development projects related to building the next generation of digital library systems are also flourishing.

Digital libraries pose fascinating socio-technical challenges for understanding their use. Those supporting the construction of digital libraries are naturally concerned that their investments pay off in terms of attracting users and making information services more effective and efficient. The design and evaluation of digital libraries, however, are complicated by the newness of the systems, their ability to integrate a range of functions that were previously designed and evaluated separately, the heterogeneity of their user population, the physically distributed nature of usage, the ability to fragment and rearrange previously integrated documents and images, and the rapid versioning of digital objects. Appropriate user-centered research objectives, measures, and methods for the digital library are just beginning to emerge.

Results from user studies can help digital library designers and policymakers formulate appropriate goals, arrive at a more complete understanding of costs and benefits, design and allocate resources to both technologies and programs that offer the best means of achieving goals, and assess the degree to which network policies and programs have achieved their stated goals. Granted, determining (let alone predicting) impacts from information technology at the individual, organizational, and societal levels is notoriously difficult. But without such investigations, the views, needs, and experiences of individual information creators and consumers will be lost in the push and pull of constituencies with more powerful and direct voices in the process of building digital libraries, a process in which users themselves are all too apt to be considered mere passive consumers in the technology-implementation chain.

How can we learn more about the use and users of digital libraries? How can people involved in user-centered studies associated with the vastly different kinds of digital library initiatives described above share their ideas, concerns, methodological approaches, and findings? I would like to turn now to describing digital library user research, and mechanisms for sharing that research, that I have become involved with as a participant in the NSF/ARPA/NASA Digital Library Initiative.

Synchronizing Work Across the Six DLI Projects: The Role of the User Research Working Group

With encouragement from project sponsors, we have established an informal DLI-wide User Research Working Group. The motivation for the working group stems from our sense that the six DLI projects are similar enough that we can learn from each others' experiences. In addition, we have found that each user research group has different strengths. While our group at University of Illinois, for example, is especially strong in ethnographic approaches to studying system use, other groups have had more experience with conducting usability tests and designing system instrumentation. Common problems include the need to develop new methods for tracking distributed "virtual" users, difficulties in integrating and making sense of data vrom various quantitative and qualitative sources, and dealing with a large and heterogeneous user population.

For this first year, our interactions have been somewhat limited in scope and informal in nature. We get together twice a year at the DLI synchronization meetings and have set up a mailing list for working group members. At the Spring 1995 meeting, we discussed our basic approaches to user evaluation and the recognition that evaluation can proceed at different levels, to reach different goals. Summarizing our discussion, Karen Drabenstott of the University of Michigan suggested the following schema for evaluation levels:

  • Adequacy of the collection, functionality, interface, usability.
  • Search and retrieval performance and behavior.
  • Effect on work of users, fundamental changes in processes
  • Public policy implications
  • It was clear that the six projects are devoting varying amounts of attention to each of these evaluation levels.

    We also realized that there were a number of unresolved issues confronting virtually all the user research groups. We discussed the way, for example, in which the new phenomena engendered by digital library technology lead to exploring unfamiliar methods and conceptual realms. Another major dilemma we all faced was figuring out how best to produce useful results for our system designers. Problems arose in juggling conflicting schedules, maintaining effective communication, and knowing how to make our findings operational. We concluded that there were new pulls on both system designers (new ways of thinking about use and users) and social scientists (new approaches to studying systems), so that it was important to try to keep dialogue open among users, sponsors, social scientists, and computer scientists.

    We agreed that members of our cross-project working group would present a status report on goals, methods, results, and problems for each synchronization meeting. We also agreed that we would try to facilitate cross-team sharing through posting our working papers, including instruments, on our project home pages, and that members from each project would complete brief user research "templates" (see Figure 1) to describe their work.

    Figure 1: DLI User Research Template

    Based on information provided by members of each DLI project, I have prepared capsule descriptions of each project's user research efforts (

    Building Understanding Beyond the DLI Projects: The Allerton Institute

    One recommendation that arose from the User Research Working Group at the Fall 1994 DLI synchronization meeting was to find a way that we could get together with other interested researchers to explore methodological approaches associated with the use of digital libraries. This recommendation has been realized in the 1995 Allerton Institute conducted by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, titled "How We Do User-Centered Design and Evaluation of Digital Libraries: A Methodological Forum." The Institute, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will be held on October 29-31.

    As chairperson, my goal is to bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers and practitioners involved in the design and study of information systems, in user-centered research in traditional libraries, and in a wide range of digital library projects. The purpose of the forum is to present both the range of user-centered methods available for studying digital libraries and rationales for choosing amongst them; we also want to look ahead to new methods and developments and map out the challenges that lie ahead. This methodological forum will give the 60 invited participants an opportunity to share their expertise, experiences, and ideas with their peers in a relaxed environment. Forum activities will be devoted to issues such as:

  • What are appropriate measures for gauging digital library outcomes at the individual, group, institutional, and global levels?
  • How can we best incorporate knowledge of user needs and behavior in designing digital library interactions and interfaces?
  • What do we need to know about how people use electronic texts and how can we gain this knowledge and apply it to the development of digital libraries?
  • What can we learn from studies of traditional library use?
  • How can we develop an understanding of the computerization of library work that will help as digital systems are incorporated into current institutional practices?
  • How can we deal with the ethical, practical, and conceptual issues that arise in the remote observation of on-line (and off-line) behavior on a very large scale?
  • How do we foster effective communication among digital library designers, users, and social science researchers?
  • Each participant submitted a brief discussion document outlining their work and the issues they were most eager to explore. These papers were used to develop the five major Institute sessions, which will focus on co-design approaches, work practice and institutional change, migrating foundational approaches to virtual library environment, electronic information seeking behavior, and understanding diversity and change. Participants include researchers from the fields of Computer Science, Sociology, Library and Information Science, Education, and Psychology who are involved in digital library projects in a wide range of settings. Presentations will be given by a number of participants, including Michael Twidale, Annelise Mark Pejtersen, William L. Anderson and Susan L. Anderson, F. W. Lancaster, Andrew Dillon, John M. Carroll, Brenda Dervin, Rob Kling, Chip Bruce, and Gary Marchionini. Discussion documents from participants, plus perhaps other related material from the Institute, will be made publicly available at some point after the Institute.

    I hope that the user research efforts of the DLI projects, along with the ideas arising from the Allerton Institute, will help in building a framework for understanding the use and implications of digital information infrastructure, as our research methods, systems, and expectations of systems continually evolve. By situating the study of DLI testbed use within the broader context of professional work and social practices, I believe we will gain more robust insights into the functions and features that will make digital libraries more effective. In addition, we will get a sense of large-scale changes in work and cognition that occur as the nation's entire information infrastructure begins to change.


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