Adam Worrall

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This dissertation presents a research study titled The Roles of Digital Libraries as Boundary Objects Within and Across Social and Information Worlds. As the name suggests, it examines the roles of two digital libraries, as social phenomena and boundary objects, in information behaviors and activities taking place within, between, and across multiple communities, social worlds, and information worlds. This introductory chapter begins with an overview of the research purpose, a statement of the problem being considered, and the significance of the research. It then presents the research questions explored and the theoretical framework and approach applied in this study. The chapter concludes by reviewing the research design used, the assumptions made in the study, and making an initial presentation of the benefits and implications of this research. Chapter 2 presents a thorough literature review of relevant research; Chapter 3 presents the details of the method and research procedures; Chapter 4 presents a detailed review of the study findings; and Chapter 5 discusses and synthesizes these findings, answers the research question, and considers in detail the implications of this research.

1.1. Purpose

The purpose of this research, taking a social perspective on digital libraries, is to improve understanding of the organizational, cultural, institutional, collaborative, and social contexts of digital libraries, contexts with important effects on users, communities, and information behavior. Drawing from Borgman (1999) and other literature (see Chapter 2), a social digital library can be defined as (a) having one or more collections of digital content collected on behalf of a user community; and (b) offering services, relating to the content, by or through the digital library to the user community. It is, or is part of, one or more formal or informal organizations that manage these content and services, focusing on facilitating information and knowledge creation and sharing (after Lankes, 2009, 2011) and excluding different primary motivations (e.g. selling products). These characteristics should be considered in light of the various contexts they inhabit, most of all the social contexts.

1.2. Problem Statement and Significance

Despite the expressed need—as far back as Bush (1945)—for social contexts of information to be considered under a social paradigm, many early information retrieval systems focused on the technology (see e.g. Raber, 2003; Smith, 1981, 1991). Echoes of paradigmatic unrest ( cf. Ellis, 1992; Raber, 2003) are seen in divisions on how digital libraries should be seen (Borgman, 1999) and Brown and Duguid’s (2002) rejection of technology-centric solutions to information and knowledge problems. Nevertheless, many have stated and repeated calls for consideration of digital libraries as information systems constructed in social context (Ackerman, 1994; Frumkin, 2004; Gazan, 2008; Levy & Marshall, 1995; Lynch, 2005; Marshall & Bly, 2004; Neuhold, Niederée, & Stewart, 2003; Van House, 2003), as is discussed in Chapter 2. Viewing digital libraries as social parallels the roles of physical libraries (Pomerantz & Marchionini, 2007, p. 506), which are not just physical collections and technical services but physical and conceptual spaces “link[ing] people to ideas and to each other.” It parallels the definition found in the DELOS Reference Model and associated Digital Library Manifesto (see Candela et al., 2007, sec. 2, para. 3), which included (a) an organization; (b) the collection and management of digital content; and (c) functionality and services associated with the content.

Non-social digital libraries do not offer strong support for the multiple communities that use them and for collaboration taking place within and across communities. Since a traditional role of physical library environments is to serve as inherently social spaces (Pomerantz & Marchionini, 2007), digital libraries should improve their support for social, collaborative information behaviors and activities, lest social opportunities to seek, use, and share information and knowledge become diminished or lost as libraries become increasingly digital and hybrid in nature.

The phenomena of communities and collaboration are key elements of this problem. A user community may consist of smaller communities or groups, adopting the subcultural view pioneered by Fischer (1975) and incorporating flexible use of conceptions of community used in calls for social digital libraries and in related research areas (see the review in Chapter 2). The content collected by the digital library is intended to be used by these communities; the services it offers are for the communities; and the organization(s) it is associated with are a form of community. A major objective of digital libraries is to support, construct, and build these differing kinds of “knowledge communities” that use their content and services (Bearman, 2007, p. 245). Digital libraries can and should improve and build these communities by supporting their “internal workings … and their links to the rest of the world” (Agre, 2003, p. 227), becoming bound to these communities (Star, Bowker, & Neumann, 2003). Supporting these workings and links requires supporting social contexts: collaboration within and across communities, the building and construction of new and existing communities, and individual and collaborative information behavior. Such collaboration centers around a common overall project, goal, interest, or practice (Gunawardena, Weber, & Agosto, 2010), although serendipitous opportunities for collaboration within and between communities should not be dismissed, given the commonality and value of serendipity as information seeking behavior (see Case, 2012, p. 101; Erdelez, 2005; Foster & Ford, 2003; Talja, 2002). The literature on communities and collaboration as it relates to information science and cognate areas is reviewed at greater length in Chapter 2.

The literature indicates a clear need for theoretical and practical research to see if and how digital libraries support and facilitate collaboration, communities, and other social contexts in light of the most appropriate conceptions of these contexts in theory and practice. The field of digital library research, and by extension the information science field, will benefit from the fuller understanding of the roles and uses of social digital libraries within and across worlds and communities that this study helps provide. Significant implications exist for digital library design, usability, and development; the provision of services by digital library practitioners; and use of digital libraries by users and user communities. The study further benefits related research in the areas of social informatics, information behavior, and online communities. These implications and benefits are discussed further in section 1.7 below and in Chapter 5.

1.3. Research Questions

This dissertation study focuses on two cases, LibraryThing and Goodreads, which are digital libraries and web sites for readers and lovers of books. LibraryThing and Goodreads feature digital content—from outside organizations and users—collected for their users and user communities, services relating to the content and for their user communities, and formal and informal organizations managing the content and services; while they are business endeavors, their primary purpose is to encourage information and knowledge sharing among book lovers, and as such they are social digital libraries. Their nature as large, public, multi-faceted digital libraries and web sites makes them appropriate cases for the purpose of this study. Details of the setting are given in Chapter 3. The following two research questions were chosen to satisfy the purpose of this study within this setting:

  • RQ1: What roles do LibraryThing and Goodreads play, as boundary objects, in translation and coherence between the existing social and information worlds they are used within?

  • RQ2: What roles do LibraryThing and Goodreads play, as boundary objects, in coherence and convergence of new social and information worlds around their use?

The concepts of boundary objects, translation, coherence, convergence, social worlds, and information worlds used in these research questions are part of the theoretical framework for this study, explained in section 1.4.2 below.

1.4. Theoretical Framework and Approach

1.4.1. Social Paradigm

This research falls under the social paradigm of information science, a view seeing information as a broad phenomenon having “social significance” (N. Roberts, 1976, p. 249) which “must be examined in the context of its social nature” (Raber, 2003, p. 222). Information is subjective within this context, differing in meaning and interpretation between different individuals, groups, communities, organizations, cultures, and societies (Jaeger & Burnett, 2010; Talja, Tuominen, & Savolainen, 2005). Data, information and knowledge may be within information systems, outside these systems, in the heads of users, or be socially constructed by groups and communities (Tuominen & Savolainen, 1997). Research in the social paradigm examines the “production of knowledge” (Karamuftuoglu, 1998, p. 1071), where “information acquiring and processing capabilities are not individual but social manifestations” (Brookes, 1975, as cited in N. Roberts, 1976, p. 254). Users are active participants in the social construction and production of information and knowledge and may take on multiple roles in the resulting discourse (Talja et al., 2005).

1.4.2. Theoretical Framework

This dissertation research draws on a synthesized theoretical framework consisting of three theories, discussed and developed at greater length in Chapter 2.1 The primary theory is Star’s (1989; Star & Griesemer, 1989) boundary object theory, which conceives of boundary objects as crossing the boundaries between multiple communities, being used within and adapted to many of them “simultaneously” (p. 408). Such boundary objects, which may be abstract or concrete, have weak structure when used across communities, but are seen as having strong structure when created and used in individual communities (p. 393). The “different” and overlapping meanings they have across communities can cause “mismatches,” which require negotiation and translation (p. 412). Successful negotiation requires careful management of the boundary objects, their representations, and the interfaces they provide between social worlds. Maintaining “coherence” across and between social worlds is a critical role of boundary objects (p. 393).

Star and Griesemer drew on Strauss’s (1978) social world perspective, the second of the three theories included in the framework for this study (see also Clarke & Star, 2008). Strauss built his social worlds perspective on the work of Shibutani (1955), who argued there is a great “variety of social worlds,” each with its own “organized outlook” based on the norms, beliefs, interaction, and communication of a given group of people (p. 566). Strauss (1978) proposed social worlds consist of “activities, memberships, sites, [and] technologies” in relation to social change (p. 121). A social world includes

  • “at least one primary activity … strikingly evident”;
  • sites where activities occur”;
  • technology … [for] carrying out the social world’s activities”; and
  • in established social worlds, “organizations … to further one aspect or another of the world’s activities” (p. 122; emphasis added).

To these four key concepts, Strauss added social worlds could and would “intersect … under [various] conditions” and segment into smaller subworlds given sufficient analysis (p. 122).

The final theory making up part of the theoretical framework used in this study is Burnett and Jaeger’s (2008; Jaeger & Burnett, 2010) theory of information worlds. Burnett and Jaeger built on Chatman’s theory of normative behavior (Burnett, Besant, & Chatman, 2001; Pendleton & Chatman, 1998), but wanted to move beyond its limitation in small worlds. Chatman had used the term information world as early as the 1980s (see Chatman, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1996), but left it ill-defined, requiring its meaning to be interpreted based on her views of small worlds and social worlds. In developing their theory of information worlds, Burnett and Jaeger saw to be more explicit, combining Chatman’s work with Habermas’s on lifeworlds and the public sphere. Besides information worlds themselves, five additional concepts are part of the theory:

  • social norms, or the “standards of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ in social appearances”;
  • social types, “the [social] classification of a person” (Burnett et al., 2001, p. 537);
  • information behavior, “the full spectrum of normative [information] behavior … that are available to members of a … world” (Burnett & Jaeger, 2008, “Small worlds” section, para. 8);
  • information value, relating to the value judgments of different information within and across worlds; and
  • boundaries, “the places at which information worlds come into contact with each other and across which communication and information exchange can—but may or may not—take place” (Jaeger & Burnett, 2010, p. 8).

The resulting information worlds are social spaces of varied sizes, settings, and shapes, which may be contiguous or overlapping. The theory allows for “multi-leveled” analysis of these worlds and their information-based interactions (p. 30).

1.4.3. Approach

This research conceives of digital libraries as socially constructed phenomena, following the tenets of the social paradigm, social informatics, and social constructionism. It focuses on the individual and social information behaviors of the users and communities that use a digital library, placing special emphasis on collaborative and community-building behaviors. Because they are used by and cross the boundaries of multiple social worlds, information worlds, and communities, social digital libraries are socially constructed boundary objects (Van House, 2003). Under the three theories mentioned above, they should

  • adapt to the “local needs” (Star, 1989, p. 46) of as many of these worlds and communities as possible;
  • reconcile and translate the “meanings” and understandings across these worlds to allow users to “work together” (Star & Griesemer, 1989, pp. 388–389), collaborate, and interact;
  • support the emergence of localized and common social norms, social types, information values, and information behaviors shared—to varying and potentially overlapping extents—by the different information worlds using them (Burnett & Jaeger, 2008; Jaeger & Burnett, 2010); and
  • act as common sites and technologies for users to engage in information-based activities (Strauss, 1978), including collaboration, information sharing, and knowledge sharing.

In acting as boundary objects, social digital libraries should support the possible emergence of a broader community (information world, social world) as the social digital library converges, coalesces, and reconciles portions of the multiple communities it serves.

1.5. Research Design

This dissertation study employed a mixed methods research design, using qualitative and quantitative methods together to combine their strengths and minimize their weaknesses; improve validity, reliability, and trustworthiness; and obtain a fuller understanding of uses of social digital libraries as boundary objects within and across social and information worlds. The research design is a variation on Creswell and Plano Clark’s (2011) multiphase design incorporating elements of their explanatory sequential and exploratory sequential designs. Qualitative and quantitative data was collected and integrated in sequence; qualitative data was prioritized, but not at the expense of quantitative data collection; multiple methods were used within the one study; and the study was and is based on the theoretical framework discussed above and the tenets of the social paradigm, social informatics, and social constructionism.

Three methods of data collection were used, with the choice of research design following the process proposed by Ridenour and Newman (2008) and taking the approach to thought suggested by these authors, Creswell and Plano Clark (2011), and Greene (2007). The selection of this design and these methods was based on the purpose, setting, and research questions discussed above. The three methods used to collect data were:

  • content analysis of messages in LibraryThing and Goodreads groups;
  • a structured survey of LibraryThing and Goodreads users; and
  • semi-structured qualitative interviews with users of LibraryThing and Goodreads.

The holistic combination of these methods, interrelated together in a multiphase design and combined with the theoretical framework discussed above, allowed for exploratory and descriptive research on social digital libraries as boundary objects incorporating the strengths of quantitative and qualitative methods, the viewpoints of multiple perspectives, and a multi-leveled approach to analysis. The research design and the application of these methods in this dissertation research are discussed in detail in Chapter 3.

1.6. Assumptions and Limitations

The study makes a few assumptions and has limitations, although their impact has been minimized as best as possible. The literature review presented in Chapter 2 is assumed to include all relevant literature; while it is always possible something has been missed, best efforts have been made to situate this study in a complete, accurate picture of the existing research, practice, and theory on social digital libraries. My biases and predispositions as a researcher have influenced the choice of paradigms, approaches, theories, and methods, but it is believed their use in this study is appropriate and was justified throughout. Data collection was limited to the given research setting, LibraryThing and Goodreads, and to users of nine groups across the two sites. Results from the survey cannot be generalized due to the sampling procedures that were necessary to use, but the results of all three methods are believed to have sufficient transferability to apply to LibraryThing and Goodreads as a whole and have some transferability to other research settings, leading to potential implications about social digital libraries and related areas of study. Further research is necessary to confirm this transferability. This is not participatory research—as I am not a frequent user of either site beyond the bounds of this study—and so internal knowledge of the two is limited (and was more so at the beginning of the study), but their nature as large, public, and multi-faceted digital libraries allows the findings to have more transferability beyond the two cases and nine groups studied here. The sampling methods used limit the broader applicability of the findings, but measures were taken (see Chapter 3) to help ensure the results are as representative and transferrable as possible given other constraints at hand. The study assumed prospective participants were willing enough to complete the survey and interview phases of the study, and sufficient participants were found; compensation was provided for the survey to help encourage participation. The study assumed limited time and resources, as is true in any research study. I believe the appropriate balance was kept between providing rich, complete, descriptive data and ensuring the dissertation was completed within the time and with the resources available. Details of the limitations of the study can be found in Chapter 5, section 5.6.

1.7. Benefits

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, a traditional role of physical library environments is to serve as inherently social spaces (Pomerantz & Marchionini, 2007). The field of digital library research should benefit from this study’s treatment of digital libraries as social spaces, examining their support for social, collaborative information behaviors and activities. Studies of social digital libraries grounded in theory, practice, and data, like this one, can help ensure social opportunities to seek, use, and share information and knowledge are not diminished or lost as libraries become increasingly digital and hybrid in nature. My dissertation helps toward providing a fuller understanding of uses of social digital libraries as boundary objects within and across social worlds, information worlds, and communities, with many potential benefits and implications.

Many of these uncover ways that the design and practice of social digital libraries may better support and facilitate the coherence and convergence of the communities of their users. Others speak to the importance of considering the full, sociotechnical context of digital libraries in use by individuals, communities, and organizations. There are wider-ranging implications, when the findings of this study are considered in context of other literature, for research on social digital libraries and in the related areas of social informatics, information behavior, and online communities research. Examining many different communities, phenomena, and platforms—including other digital libraries, such as those with less overt social features than LibraryThing and Goodreads—in relation to the framework, approach, and perspective taken here can help build a broad, ongoing boundary-sensitive research agenda. Details of these benefits and implications are given in Chapter 5.

Participants can receive indirect benefits from the increased knowledge and understanding researchers will have of the potential roles of social digital libraries within and across communities. They may benefit from the implications of the study findings as they relate to the design and development of digital libraries they may use (such as LibraryThing and Goodreads) and the provision of services to them in and by these digital libraries. Users of social media, social networking, and social Web services and sites will benefit over time from the broader implications of the results and conclusions of this study and related literature.

1.8. Conclusion

This broader has presented an overview of the research problem of interest in and purpose of this dissertation research; the questions that were to be answered; and the approach, methods, and theories used in answering them. Chapter 2 presents a thorough review of the literature of importance and relevance to the study of social digital libraries as boundary objects within and across social and information worlds, examining research on digital libraries, communities, collaboration, and social digital libraries and the theoretical framework used in the study. Chapter 3 provides a detailed look at the research design and methods that were used, including the research setting, method choices, procedures for each method, and means of analysis. Chapter 3 further discusses the management of data; measures taken to improve validity, reliability, and trustworthiness; and ethical considerations. Chapter 4 presents a descriptive look at the findings from this study organized by the three methods used: content analysis of messages, a survey of users, and interviews with users. Chapter 5 provides synthesis—serving as briefer, higher-level summary of the findings—and discussion of the answers to the research questions, relations between these findings and the research literature, and implications for design, practice, research, and theory.


  1. While this dissertation research proceeded, the theoretical framework has also been presented as part of posters, conference papers, and talks (see Worrall, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c, 2014).