Adam Worrall

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This chapter presents discussion and synthesis of the findings presented in Chapter 4, in light of the research questions, phenomena of interest, and literature. It begins with a synthesis organized by the phenomena of interest from boundary object theory (Star & Griesemer, 1989; Star, 1989), the social worlds perspective (Clarke & Star, 2008; Strauss, 1978), and the theory of information worlds (Burnett & Jaeger, 2008; Jaeger & Burnett, 2010). Next, the research questions are answered, identifying the roles played by LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects, in translation, coherence, and convergence of existing and emergent social and information worlds. The chapter then turns to the implications of these findings, in context of the relevant literature, for digital library design and practice; research in digital libraries, social informatics, and information behavior; and theory in those same areas. After an important discussion of the limitations of the study, final conclusions are offered to summarize the dissertation, its findings, and implications.

5.1. Synthesis of Findings

This section synthesizes the research findings discussed in Chapter 4, which should be referred to for detailed, thick description of the results discussed here. A synthesis is presented for each of the phenomena from the theoretical framework, in the language of the framework, that points towards the answers to the research questions and the implications for research, theory, design, and practice. These implications are discussed in later sections of this chapter and summarized in section 5.7. The limitations of this study (see section 5.6) should be taken as context for this discussion; the findings are limited to users of the nine groups that were studied, but there is potential transferability beyond that context.

5.1.1. Translation

Translation has moderate importance in the roles LibraryThing and Goodreads play, as boundary objects, within and across the communities users from the nine groups are part of. Translation processes can be vital in addressing an information need, explaining circumstances that threaten to reduce coherence and convergence, or getting to know fellow group members. While not as central as other phenomena (such as information value) that contributed greatly to coherence and convergence, translation plays a vital role for many users; in many cases, translation processes become coherence and, given time, convergence. In other cases translation can allow existing convergence or coherence to be maintained without great conflict. There were situations when translation did not lead to coherence, and those often led (or promised to lead) to problems and conflicts later on. Encouraging translation processes as a way to reach at last some level of coherence alleviates these problems and ensures a stronger community, backed by a stronger role for LibraryThing or Goodreads.

5.1.2. Coherence and Convergence

Coherence and convergence were measured as a separate concept in the survey; the findings there indicate at least some form of role is played by LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects, in facilitating and supporting coherence within and across existing and emergent communities for the users who participated in the survey. Of course, two other methods were used in this study to add to the survey findings—content analysis of messages and interviews with users—and these operationalized coherence and convergence using concepts and phenomena from the theory of information worlds and the social worlds perspective. Findings on these phenomena, from all three methods and as synthesized, are related in the subsections below.

5.1.2.1. Social norms

The findings show, for users from the nine groups, a strong importance placed on social norms in the roles of LibraryThing and Goodreads in relation to processes of coherence and convergence of existing and emergent social and information worlds. Having at least coherence and a translated understanding around norms is necessary to prevent major conflict, which may lead to a lesser role for the digital libraries. Convergence of norms is most often positive, encouraging fewer conflicts and greater maintenance of a role for LibraryThing and Goodreads and for the group. Too much convergence may lead to groupthink (see e.g. Tsikerdekis, 2013) within one community and a potential lack of coherence, or ability to translate and reconcile meanings and understandings, with other communities. Multiple interviewees’ comments and multiple messages from the content analysis suggest that users, moderators, and administrators should work towards convergence of group-level social norms while ensuring that at least some social norms are coherent across their communities, should there be cross-community roles for LibraryThing and Goodreads to play in users’ activities.

5.1.2.2. Social types

Overall, the importance of social types is weaker, in most cases, than most of the other phenomena for explaining the roles of LibraryThing and Goodreads within and across communities for the users of the nine groups. Much of this can be ascribed to the lower levels of comfort users display in typing others in public (as seen in the content analysis) and in owning up to explicitly doing so (as seen in the survey). While they were willing to type in the interviews, the strongest typing remains of outsiders and stronger ties; weaker ties are typed less often, implying a role again of lack of comfort. Social ties, as distinct from types, play a larger role; this is clearest in the discussion of sites below (in section 5.1.3.1) but is embedded in many of the other findings and is evident here. Getting to know one another is more of a process of establishing social ties than socially typing others. While this activity implicitly strengthens the role for LibraryThing and Goodreads in the community, the level of facilitation is not as high as some other behaviors. Nevertheless, if the ability to connect to others online and learn about them and their identities through profiles did not exist, it might lead to less convergence, and social ties are crucial in the information behavior and activities of many members of the five LibraryThing and four Goodreads groups.

5.1.2.3. Information values

Information values are an important factor despite the survey findings showing no significant role played in them, for the users who participated in the survey, by the two digital libraries. Analysis shows that perfect coherence or convergence of information values is not required for them to be a factor, possibly a strong one, in the roles LibraryThing and Goodreads play as boundary objects for users of the nine groups. Despite differences, communities form that users feel a part of and value from emotional, cultural, and informational perspectives. Analysis implies that coherence and convergence of information values may not be something most users are explicitly aware of; instead, these processes may be “invisible work” (Star & Strauss, 1999) that take place behind the scenes and only become evident when users reflect on how the community has gotten to where it is at (as many did as part of the interviews).

5.1.2.4. Information behavior and activities

Information behavior and activities play a clear role in the existing and emergent communities of users from the nine groups, and LibraryThing and Goodreads play a role in facilitating and supporting that behavior, including discussion of everyday life activities (Savolainen, 1995). The role is not always one that is always manifest—users’ social ties are sometimes more prominent—but the survey findings and discussion with interviewees help confirm there is at least a moderate role for LibraryThing and Goodreads here within the nine groups (see also the discussion of them as sites for supporting information behavior and activities in section 5.1.3.1 below). Convergence is strong enough within the communities that the list of behaviors and activities from the content analysis and interview phases includes some differences due to the different communities referenced; the role played by LibraryThing and Goodreads is still similar. A factor in this is the distinction between an information behavior—as defined in LIS and by the theory of information worlds (Case, 2012; Jaeger & Burnett, 2010)—and an activity—as defined by the social worlds perspective (Clarke & Star, 2008; Strauss, 1978). For some interviewees, most of their examples of information behavior and activities are more compatible under the latter than the former. This has potential implications for theory and future research that will be discussed later in this chapter.

5.1.2.5. Organizations

Synthesis of findings indicates moderate and lesser roles played by LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects, in the organizations of users from the nine groups. There are a few caveats to this. First, when users perceive of their group or community as an organization, they could perceive LibraryThing or Goodreads as helping to facilitate and support it, despite analysis using the social worlds perspective (Clarke & Star, 2008; Strauss, 1978) suggesting there was no organization or a short-term, temporary one. Second, the role as boundary objects for existing organizations can be stronger depending on interactions, translations, or coherence occurring between the worlds of those organizations and the digital library. (In the case of LibraryThing and Goodreads as existing organizations, the role is of course necessary.) Third, the role for organizations that exist as sites for information behavior and activities is stronger in most cases (see also section 5.1.3.1).

5.1.3. Boundary Objects

Boundary objects were operationalized in the qualitative methods (content analysis, interviews) using the concepts of sites and technologies from the social worlds perspective. In the survey, they were measured using a separate scale in addition to scales for sites and technologies. The scale for boundary objects was found to have poor reliability and was dropped. This section focuses on the findings for the phenomena of sites and technologies, from all three methods, and their relation to the roles of LibraryThing and Goodreads as boundary objects in the existing and emergent communities of users from the nine groups. Distinctions in the relationship between sites and technologies were also uncovered from the interviews, and are discussed later in this chapter.

5.1.3.1. Sites

The lower levels of coherence associated with sites seen in both digital libraries and of convergence associated with sites in LibraryThing as part of the content analysis may be a result of different group experiences than those of the survey participants and interviewees. Although all LibraryThing survey participants had seen the survey because they had posted in one of the five groups, visited it during the recruitment period, or posted in a thread analyzed during the content analysis, the primary groups they were part of may not have been a group selected for the content analysis; this is borne out in only one LibraryThing interviewee choosing a critical incident known to be from a selected group (Melissa in Group C). The role of LibraryThing and Goodreads serving as sites is strongest, for users from the nine groups, in those cases where groups have already converged on other phenomena, but by providing a common space for users to get together they serve a moderate, yet important role as boundary objects between their existing communities. Not all participants would agree due to bad experiences (Betty) or a deliberate choice to not engage as much (Taneesha, Jennifer, Kevin to a minor extent). LibraryThing and Goodreads must choose whether to address the desires of these kinds of users to use other sites as spaces and places to engage in their activities of choice. If they would like to play a continuing and successful role in the activities of all of their users and user communities, then accounting for the use of other spaces and environments is necessary.

5.1.3.2. Technologies

Indications across all three methods were that technology is of moderate importance to the role LibraryThing and Goodreads play for users of the nine groups, because the technology implemented allows users to discuss and interact, organize and catalog, and for the digital libraries to exist as digital libraries and online communities. Coherence appears higher than convergence for most, although a few users use technological features to support the emergence of new social and information worlds. This is most true of boundary spanners (Brown & Duguid, 1998; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Levina & Vaast, 2005), who mentioned this kind of use—with emphasis on linking—more often in the interviews and engaged in it more in the content analysis. Such use makes sense; since boundary spanners are already cognizant of the boundaries of groups, communities, and the two digital libraries as a whole, they are more likely to have the site play a strong role as a technological boundary object as part of their behavior. Finding ways to encourage users to cross the boundaries and be cognizant of the multiple communities—which overlap and nest in many cases, but not all—that exist around LibraryThing and Goodreads would lead to greater technological convergence and a stronger role for the two sites as technological boundary objects.

5.1.4. Other Phenomena

From the content analysis and interviews three emergent phenomena appeared: other boundary objects, boundary spanners, and outsiders. Lifecycles only appeared from the interviews. Findings analyzed under that open code that were analyzed as falling elsewhere were included in the discussions above; findings only relating to lifecycles, while of interest in the context of potential further research, do not have direct relevance to the research questions in this study and are not discussed further here.

5.1.4.1. Other boundary objects

Various other boundary objects play a role in the social and information worlds of users from the nine groups, including books, web sites, online resources and articles, unpublished writing, book reviews, web search results, a publisher, a library, the process of receiving books for review, the weather, a web comic strip, and illustrations. These span much of the range of boundary object types referenced in the literature (Carlile, 2002; Star & Griesemer, 1989; Star, 1989, 2010), albeit Star called for consideration of multiple categories of boundary objects beyond those used most often (Star, 2010; Zachry, 2008). Further theoretical considerations around the potential role of these other boundary objects and a sociotechnical view of boundary objects are discussed later in this chapter.

5.1.4.2. Boundary spanners

A few examples of boundary spanners (Brown & Duguid, 1998; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Levina & Vaast, 2005) were seen. Most of this spanning was across two or more groups within LibraryThing or Goodreads, as seen with Jared in the content analysis and Lindsey and Miriam in the interviews. In some cases, new group members explicitly thanked other members for inviting them or introducing them to the group; such messages were not discussed during the interviews, but may have occurred with the members Lindsey and Miriam invited to join groups and threads. Differences between groups can (as Rachelle alluded to) make boundary spanning difficult, but the benefits in doing so are evident in all the cases seen. These benefits extend to the emergent communities that were strengthened through boundary spanning activities and to LibraryThing and Goodreads, which play an important role in providing a framework for the occurrence of boundary spanning—and the attendant translation, coherence, and convergence processes—and for supporting it among users from the nine groups.

5.1.4.3. Outsiders

In the interview data a few outsiders (Chatman, 1996) are mentioned, with the dual role of authors as insiders and outsiders in different contexts and from the perspective of different users emerging as one finding. The content analysis data includes a few mentions or allusions to outsiders by users of the nine groups, including members’ pets and family members who did not understand users’ book-loving culture. There was another dual role in the case of Melanie, an inactive member of the community around LibraryThing Group C who still visited on occasion and was, in terms of the system and its technology, still a member of the group. Melanie’s roles were more understood and supported—within the group and by LibraryThing—than the complex roles played by authors in Goodreads. Coherence of the latter was a more difficult problem than sick cats or cultural outsiders, since authors must play a key role in the larger social and information world of publishing.

5.2. Roles Played By LibraryThing and Goodreads

This section addresses the research questions for this study, working across all methods and all phenomena to report the big picture in relation to the research questions. As stated in Chapters 1, 3, and 4, the two research questions driving this study are as follows:

  • 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?

Three categories or types of role are played by LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects, in the existing and emergent social and information worlds of users from the nine groups. These are:

  • Structure-based roles, where LibraryThing and Goodreads facilitate and support translation, coherence, and convergence through the establishment of community and organizational structure. This role was found for both RQ1 and RQ2 (see sections 5.2.1.1 and 5.2.2.1 below).

  • Values-based roles, where LibraryThing and Goodreads facilitate and support translation, coherence, and convergence through users sharing information values. This role was found for both RQ1 and RQ2 (see sections 5.2.1.2 and 5.2.2.2 below).

  • Social network-based roles, where LibraryThing and Goodreads facilitate and support coherence and convergence through the establishment of social ties and community culture. This role was found for RQ2 (see section 5.2.2.3 below).

The following sections answer RQ1 and RQ2, discussing each of the roles identified above and how that role comes about in the context of relevant literature. Detailed discussion of facets of the roles and findings that may impact or lead to recommendations for digital library design and practice; research in digital libraries, social informatics, and information behavior; and theory in those same areas, relating the findings to further literature, is presented in the sections that follow.

5.2.1. RQ1: Roles in Existing Communities, Translation, and Coherence

5.2.1.1. Structure-based

When LibraryThing and Goodreads serve as organizations, they play a (necessary) role in the existing social and information worlds of users from the nine groups, given that they are engaged in some form of information behavior or activities on the site. The strength and exact nature of such a role, and how successful LibraryThing and Goodreads are at facilitating it as boundary objects, depends on the depth of users’ activities and how much or how little they adapt the digital libraries to their behavior and vice versa. Those who are heavy users of the organizational features (lists, searching, cataloging, etc.) of the site, but do not use the digital library much as a place to interact—such as LibraryThing user Jennifer—see it serving a stronger structural role as an organization and as a place to organize information through such structure. This role hearkens back to early views of digital libraries as collections of content (Kahn & Cerf, 1988) or as organizations providing resources and services (Waters, 1998, as cited in Borgman, 1999, p. 236).

Users who spend more time invested in the groups feature and other spaces for social interactions on the site do not see LibraryThing and Goodreads serving a structural role as an organization. In some of those cases the digital libraries serve a moderate, yet important structural role as a boundary object and site for information behavior within the existing social and information worlds of those users from the nine groups. Those who choose to use other sites for other information behavior or not engage as much in interactions weaken this role; LibraryThing and Goodreads are not always perfectly adaptable to their worlds. Others stressed in the interviews how the sites (in both social world and web senses) fit their chosen and valued information behavior and activities, implying high levels of coherence and a stronger role (if not as strong as in the context of some other phenomena) for LibraryThing and Goodreads as boundary objects in those cases. For many of these same users, the digital libraries serve a structural role in convergence, due to serving as a site for normative information behavior and activities in emergent social and information worlds; see section 5.2.2 below for more on this.

The use of “fit” here—stemming to an extent from Star, Bowker, and Neumann’s (2003, p. 244) view of convergence meaning that “use and practice fit design and access”—speaks to the process of aligning a system with its audience, present in most system design tasks be the view sociotechnical or not. In the context of digital libraries and their communities, Van House’s (2003, p. 290) argument that they must “fit with … [existing] practices” echoes this. A fit should not be forced by enforcing community or technology on people (Brown & Duguid, 2002; Chanal & Kimble, 2010; Roberts, 2006), as will be discussed when considering the potential implications of these findings for design and practice.

In most cases seen in the nine groups, including users who focus on the organizational technologies and users who focus on groups and interaction, technology is important to the coherence of existing communities. The technology implemented by LibraryThing and Goodreads allows users to discuss and interact, organize and catalog, and engage in information behavior and activities; in essence, the full spectrum of features, activities, and abilities ascribed to a social digital library (see section 2.4.3). Activities to create organizational structure include features that could be classified as social annotations (Neuhold, Niederée, & Stewart, 2003): editing metadata, creating lists or shelves, rating books and writing reviews, and linking to other pages for other books, authors, or series. Linking to discussion pages and organizing group discussion boards do not fall under social annotation, but still create structure within the community environment; this is similar to the inclusion of such linking structure in the Ensemble digital library portal and DL 2.0 framework (Akbar et al., 2011; Brusilovsky et al., 2010). Both sets of activities require technology to play a role in turning LibraryThing and Goodreads from a box on the end of an Internet connection into digital libraries, online communities, and virtual book clubs (cf. Rehberg Sedo, 2003; Fister, 2005). The roles the two play, for users of the nine groups, as technological boundary objects in the structural coherence of social and information worlds are quite strong.

5.2.1.2. Values-based

A value-based role for LibraryThing and Goodreads is seen in those communities and contexts where users from the nine groups discuss or imply their individual values of objects and discussion topics of interest. Such individual values cohere with those of others in some cases, but divergences are present and accepted. The role of LibraryThing in Goodreads here is in facilitating the often-“invisible work” (Star & Strauss, 1999) of value expression, translation, and coherence in those cases where users, perhaps without realizing it, have interests and opinions they want to and do share with others. Nevertheless, divergences and lack of coherence in some values may be an asset and themselves valued by members of a broader community, as in the virtual book clubs studied by Rehberg Sedo (2003).

Along with information values themselves, it is the process of translation and its potential to lead to coherence that is most important in a values-based role for LibraryThing and Goodreads within existing communities. In this context, the process of translation consists of negotiation and reconciliation of the meanings and understandings underlying the values and interests of individuals and the meanings and understandings they bring to the table from their existing social and information worlds. As a process, translation may lead to coherence of those values implicitly or explicitly. Translation can lead to better understanding of where divergences and disagreements exist, allowing maintenance of coherence over time without major conflict. LibraryThing and Goodreads serve an implicit and often key role in facilitating this translation process for users from the nine groups.

In the knowledge management literature, translation and coherence of values falls under the view of “common ground” (Davenport & Prusak, 2000), although many authors are vague with their terms and use culture and norms as near-synonyms for values (e.g. Wasko & Faraj, 2000). Shared values, conformity, and reciprocity are frequent motivators for knowledge sharing (Ardichvili, 2008). Bridging values and norms and translating knowledge between contexts helps move communities forward and encourage greater levels of knowledge sharing (Ardichvili, Page, & Wentling, 2003; Bechky, 2003). This leaves potential implications for how translation and bridging of values can lead to a stronger role for a digital library in communities, and greater information sharing and interaction in and between those communities, as translation moves towards coherence and possible convergence.

5.2.2. RQ2: Roles in Emergent Communities, Coherence, and Convergence

5.2.2.1. Structure-based

Social norms, normative information behavior, and sites for that behavior to take place in are important, key factors in the structural roles LibraryThing and Goodreads play in the emergent communities of users from the nine groups. Key members in the LibraryThing groups, and key members in and moderators of the Goodreads groups, establish explicit social norms and rules as guides for the community and to govern the use, purpose, and normative information behavior of groups and their associated sites. Such a leadership role can encourage existing knowledge sharing and new knowledge creation (Ardichvili, 2008; Nonaka, 1994); leaders and others holding authoritative knowledge also play important roles in communities of practice (Brown & Duguid, 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991), most social networks (the concept of “centrality”; Garton, Haythornthwaite, & Wellman, 1997), online patient support communities (Kazmer et al., 2014), and some virtual book clubs (the “question maestros” seen by Fister, 2005, p. 306; and the moderators in groups studied by Elsayed, 2010). A structural role is more common for Goodreads to take on because of greater technological facilitation through stronger moderator privileges and the additional organizational structure of message folders. Sites, in many cases, had already converged due to other phenomena; in those cases the role of LibraryThing or Goodreads for users of the nine groups is stronger than in cases where a site emerged later.

Implicit norms have a cultural impact on the community’s social structure and on the implicitly normative information behaviors and activities it chooses to engage in. These become most evident when they conflict with explicit norms of other intersecting communities (such as in the Goodreads shelving controversy). The danger of having too much structure and of insular groupthink (see e.g. Tsikerdekis, 2013) can be seen in such conflicts, where the common identity of LibraryThing and Goodreads across the social and information worlds of users from the nine groups becomes of some question; in effect, some communities—being perceived as organizations by their users—risk being too unaware of other communities, other objects, and other interpretations of the digital libraries as boundary objects. When they introduced convergence, Star, Bowker, and Neumann (2003) warned that communities might “close off other possibilities of finding information … because they are not part of the routine” (p. 248). Roberts (2006) warned of similar concerns over groupthink in how knowledge acquisition may be limited by the “predispositions” of communities of practice (p. 629). As she suggested in that environment, LibraryThing and Goodreads—and groups that are part of the two digital libraries—should consider the socio-cultural and organizational contexts they are part of and the boundaries that exist within and beyond those contexts, so that “other possibilities” (Star et al., 2003, p. 248) do not get ignored.

Nevertheless, in most of those instances where LibraryThing or Goodreads play a structural role for users from the nine groups, convergent communities are established and maintained as sites for information behavior and activities, with the digital libraries having much to do with facilitating and supporting these communities and the normative information behaviors and activities of users within them. They play a structural role in allowing the strongest communities, with the most structure, to emerge as organizations to further their activities, but with the risk of conflict should those organizations develop substantive differences in their norms, values, and information behavior.

In emergent communities, translation enters into a structural role. The processes of translation allow the existing convergence over the nature of the site, social norms, and technology use to be maintained, through clarification, negotiation, and reconciliation of the meanings and understandings behind the community’s organizational and social structure. Similar processes were at play in the virtual book clubs studied by Rehberg Sedo (2003), Fister (2005), and Greene (2012). While translation is most often associated with existing information worlds—and was in the codebook constructed for this study—its part in maintaining convergence does not stray too far from the ideas present in knowledge management’s view of common ground (Davenport & Prusak, 2000) or in views of distributed knowledge in online communities (Haythornthwaite, 2006; Kazmer et al., 2014). While many studies in knowledge management have focused on a new community created and studied almost right away, studies that examined pre-existing communities that had already converged (Chiu, Hsu, & Wang, 2006; Kimble & Hildreth, 2005; Wasko & Faraj, 2000) are indicative of the importance of common culture and vision, norms, social ties, and a sense of community to successful and continual knowledge sharing, and a continued role for the community as a structure and organization. The part played by translation in maintaining convergence in emergent structural communities and in bridging their structures of distributed knowledge (cf. Haythornthwaite, 2006) is indicative of its importance in how—at least among the nine groups sampled in this study—LibraryThing, Goodreads, and their users can avoid major conflict and maintain a strong structure of multiple social and information worlds.

While technology is not, alone, a strong factor in the roles LibraryThing and Goodreads play in the emergent communities of users from the nine groups, it is important in those cases where boundary spanners (Brown & Duguid, 1998; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Levina & Vaast, 2005) are active. By using the technology to link to other messages, threads, or groups, these individuals could encourage the coherence and convergence processes along. The two digital libraries provide the necessary technological framework to support such boundary spanning activities. These findings echo Pawlowski and Robey’s (2004) study of IT professionals in a large company, where they found numerous boundary spanners based on the structural and technological conditions; they placed the IT systems serving as boundary objects in the latter group. Kimble, Grenier, and Goglio-Primard’s (2010) study was indicative of the important role boundary spanners and boundary objects can play in technological convergence. Kazmer et al.’s (2014) study of an online patient support community included users creating “connections from thread to thread in order to facilitate the discovery of knowledge for the group” (p. 1330), leading to greater convergence around technology and shared practices. As with these studies, boundary spanners identified in this study from LibraryThing and Goodreads are shaped by and mutually shape the digital library and the groups they participate in (c.f. Giddens’s structuration theory; Orlikowski & Robey, 1991) and facilitate structural convergence between technology and information behavior and activities. These boundary spanners, given their greater awareness of the existing boundaries and boundary objects at play in the sociotechnical system, are well-positioned for increasing the role that LibraryThing or Goodreads play, as boundary objects, in technological convergence for users from the nine groups.

5.2.2.2. Values-based

In values-based communities, convergence of those values tends to be an implicit process. As users from the nine groups discuss or imply their individual values, interests, and opinions, they react to and reflect on what others have shared and the commonalities they have. They may not always acknowledge that this happens—as seen in information value not being significant in the survey findings—but the content analysis and interviews indicate that it does as a form of “invisible work” (Star & Strauss, 1999). Values converge, but convergence is not complete; differences remain and users often realize that is the case (which may have led to their responses on the survey). Nevertheless, those differences themselves are valued, and communities form and converge that users feel part of and value for emotional, cultural, and informational reasons.

Besides the relations between shared values and common ground already mentioned, the work of Shilton, Koepfler, and Fleischmann (2013) has focused on the role played by values in the design of technologies and sociotechnical systems, and has potential implications and application for further and deeper research into the role of values in the sociotechnical contexts of digital libraries as they serve as boundary objects. LibraryThing and Goodreads serve a moderate role, in implicit fashion, as boundary objects in the convergence processes around information values in the emergent communities of users from the nine groups. Interviewees’ reflections illustrate the role is quite strong in some cases, and important for many—if not all—users and user communities.

5.2.2.3. Social network-based

Certain elements of normative information behavior and activities lead to a social network-based role being played by LibraryThing and Goodreads for users from the nine groups. By engaging in common activities, “occupations,” and “pursuits,” users feel they can establish connections between each other and feel part of a community-as-social-world. Those connections become social ties and a common community culture through the coherence and convergence of continued activities and information behavior, information values in relation to that behavior, and sites for those activities and behaviors to take place in. Behavior that had been considered non-normative becomes accepted; topic divergences and derailment of threads are allowed because they further users’ cultural, social, and emotional connections to each other. Discussion of everyday life and of users’ everyday life information behavior (Savolainen, 1995) is normative for the same reasons. Such a network-based community is not as reliant on LibraryThing and Goodreads as a venue for its information behavior and activities, but the digital libraries still play a weaker role for users from the nine groups in allowing community members to connect and interact through normative activities and information behaviors. They serve as a standard meeting ground from which users can later branch out if they wanted, as occurred with Melissa and LibraryThing Group C and with the shifting of Sam and others from a public to a private LibraryThing group.

This less space-focused perspective echoes Fister’s (2005) description of a tight-knit virtual book club, and fits with Wellman’s (1999) argument for a network-centric view of community. The emphasis on social ties echoes Marshall and Bly’s (2004) argument for an emphasis on tie-strengthening collaboration, which has taken place in communities where LibraryThing and Goodreads plays a social network-based role. The importance of social and emotional connections in these communities is similar to its role in other online communities (Burnett & Buerkle, 2004; Wellman & Gulia, 1999), including health and patient support communities (Frost & Massagli, 2008; Gooden & Winefield, 2007; Kazmer et al., 2014; Worrall & Oh, 2013). Chiu, Hsu, and Wang (2006) found stronger social ties to predict the quantity (but not quality) of knowledge sharing in an online Taiwanese IT community; quantity of contribution was not analyzed in this study. Social ties were part of a typology Amin and Roberts (2008) proposed to replace communities of practice for studies of learning and knowing in action and practice. They stressed the different contexts, environments, assemblages, ecologies, and spaces surrounding the activities of learning and knowing, a view not altogether incompatible with the framework for and approach taken to the present dissertation study. There is, in effect, a duality here: the complexity inherent in the communities facilitated by a social network-based role—consider Sam’s difficulty in expressing the full nature of the sense of community he felt (see section 4.3.5.3)—sits alongside the “happy” (Lindsey) “family” (Rachelle) of “real friendship” (Melissa) and “real community” (Ann) that, from a certain point of view, requires little to no explanation.

Social types are a part of a social network-based role for LibraryThing and Goodreads among users of the nine groups. Although their importance is weaker than most of the other phenomena, in those cases where users invoke implicit or explicit social types they tend to be of outsiders and stronger ties. The latter is indicative of higher comfort levels, within a strong social network, with characterizing other members of the network: knowing someone well means one is more at ease with sharing that knowledge (as interpreted in individual or socially constructed context) with others. This finding is common sense, but there is little to no literature that explains how differences in comfort level affect willingness to type (as will be discussed further later). There is a weak, but still existent role for LibraryThing and Goodreads in the facilitation of tie formation and maintenance (cf. Marshall & Bly, 2004) among users from the nine groups. Typing of outsiders goes with the territory of LibraryThing and Goodreads being intended to play a role—be it coherent or convergent—for readers first, although Rachelle and others questioned whether that remained as true of Goodreads as in the past.

Boundary spanners (Brown & Duguid, 1998; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Levina & Vaast, 2005) build connections and ties between multiple communities and further encourage the coherence and convergence processes along. Among users from the nine groups, the two digital libraries provide the necessary environment to support such boundary spanning activities and shape the boundary spanners, who shape LibraryThing and Goodreads and the groups within the site right back by establishing connections between social and information worlds that had no ties in common (c.f. Giddens’s structuration theory; Orlikowski & Robey, 1991). Boundary spanners, through their awareness of where the boundaries are in the existing social networks and communities, are well-positioned for strengthening community convergence based on social ties. In doing so, they strengthen the roles of LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects, in the convergence and emergence of social network-based communities. Nevertheless, the activity of the boundary spanners themselves plays the largest role here; LibraryThing and Goodreads are facilitators, not initiators, and their role in this case is moderate.

5.3. Digital Library Design and Practice

This section of the discussion considers the relation of the findings reviewed above and in Chapter 4 to digital library design and practice, in both theoretical and common-sense terms. Relevant literature and potential implications of the findings in this light and in the context of the limitations of this study (see section 5.6) are included throughout.

5.3.1. Establishing a Community

The findings of this research imply establishing one or more communities around a social digital library is possible. Coherence and convergence—the coming together of a community around common characteristics and understanding—occurred in many cases seen in the content analysis and interviews, and the survey findings were indicative of LibraryThing and Goodreads playing strong roles in the emergence of shared communities among the nine groups sampled. There were cases of conflict seen, where communities were not maintained at the same level or did not see as much success in their establishment.

Findings and the research literature imply the first step should be to establish coherence, or to re-establish it if necessary. If conflict has occurred, the best way for a community and its users to recover from a bad experience is to establish community and organizational structure and share values. Perfect coherence should not be the goal; a partially negotiated and translated understanding between users of the norms and rules of the community and of what information is of common value can be enough for a community to become a place users want to interact (as in the virtual book clubs studied by Rehberg Sedo, 2003). Key in this are the translation processes—negotiating and reconciling the meanings and understandings users have—that allow coherence to begin to be established. While often lacking in visibility (Star & Strauss, 1999), digital libraries should consider highlighting translation processes and resources for users that can help them express, negotiate, and reconcile the meanings and understandings behind the information and knowledge they share. Digital libraries should further encourage leaders of communities within the digital library to stress these processes and resources to other users, leading to more frequent distributed knowledge creation and sharing (Ardichvili, 2008; Haythornthwaite, 2006; Kazmer et al., 2014).

Along these lines, Preece has developed a list of nine questions that users may ask as part of becoming a member or maintaining their membership in a community, with implications for the community and its social context (or “sociability”) and usability (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar, 2003, p. 609). Many of these questions are those users should have answered to establish coherence of common social norms and rules, valuing of information, and information behavior and activities. Doing so will allow meanings and understandings to be reconciled between different users and user communities. Paraphrased, some of these include:

  • What is the purpose of the community?
  • How does membership work?
  • What rules exist?
  • How can and should I interact with other members?
  • How can I get information I desire or value?
  • Why should I stay here over time?

For many of these suggestions, Preece suggested providing structure for supporting translation and coherence: stating the purpose in clear terms, explaining membership and rules, developing help pages and a list of frequently asked questions that explain how the community works, providing direct help when and where needed, facilitating the information seeking and searching process, and encouraging leaders to stimulate continued interaction. Some of these were seen in the present study in one group, LibraryThing Group C, who had created pages and threads that introduced the group, its rules, and its members. All indications were having these resources present for those new to the community or needing a refresher served to help facilitate translation, coherence, and convergence.

Leaders within the community—moderators, boundary spanners, and others with high visibility—should engage in the processes that create these resources; wiki technology or concepts have potential for facilitating this (Frumkin, 2005; Krowne, 2003). Their coherence to the community as it changes should be maintained, and further translation of meanings and understandings for existing and new members should take place when necessary. This shares existing knowledge and facilitates further knowledge sharing and creation (Ardichvili, 2008; Haythornthwaite, 2006; Nonaka, 1994); encourages the development of common ground (Davenport & Prusak, 2000); and enhances the role of the digital library, as a boundary object, as a site for information behavior and activities and as technology that provides the structure for carrying out those activities (cf. Pawlowski & Robey, 2004).

Another important element of establishing community around a digital library is that both coherence of existing user communities and convergence of one or more emergent communities can be necessary. As seen in conflicts due to groupthink (see e.g. Tsikerdekis, 2013), sometimes a community can “close off other possibilities” that are outside its borders. A digital library with such communities will not have as strong a role as a boundary object and may see conflicts like those over shelves in Goodreads or the value of an author’s work, or find that users visit other sites that they find more coherent with their other communities. To serve a successful role as a boundary object, a digital library must adapt to the “local needs” (Star, 1989, p. 46) of many communities simultaneously while maintaining a common identity across them; it must reconcile and cohere meanings and understandings across these communities and worlds to allow users to “work together,” collaborate, and interact without major conflict (Star & Griesemer, 1989, pp. 388–389). At least a moderate degree of coherence between the communities that use a digital library—be they those emerging from its use or those already existing beyond it—will support this.

To facilitate this coherence, digital library designers and practitioners should ensure that clear expressions of site-wide social norms and rules, understanding of what types of information are valued, and expectations for normative information behavior and activities are made, using many of the same suggestions made by Preece discussed above. At the same time, they should be willing to engage in a translation and negotiation process with users and the communities they are part of, an interactive discussion of the meanings and understandings behind these expressions. This will help maintain coherence with the social norms and rules, information needs and values, and normative information behavior users expect, based on their pre-existing communities and experiences. Those who span the boundaries between multiple communities—as in the experiences of Miriam and Lindsey among the interviewees—can help with this process. More negotiation—with both readers and authors—and a clearer statement of values and expectations may have alleviated the conflict Goodreads and its communities faced over its policies on typing authors via shelf names, for example.

When translation leads to coherence and coherence to convergence, social ties—connections between multiple users based on one or more relationships between them, often including an informational component (see e.g. Garton et al., 1997)—begin to be established. Along with supporting and facilitating structure and value-based roles, digital libraries should facilitate users’ abilities to form and maintain these social ties, so they can serve as strong boundary objects in a social network-based role and support deliberate and serendipitous information and knowledge sharing that furthers true collaboration (Gunawardena, Weber, & Agosto, 2010; Marshall & Bly, 2004). Ties facilitate and support everyday life information behavior (Savolainen, 1995), which may start out as non-normative but becomes normative as users look to share and converge their values, norms, and culture and form tight-knit communities along the lines of the virtual book club Fister (2005) described.

User profiles are a good way to help facilitate ties; as seen among the users from the nine groups in this study, this allows them to learn about and get to know each other from looking at the information they have posted about themselves and the identity they choose to present. While privacy concerns must be considered, encouraging users to fill out most of the fields in their profiles will give them greater control over how their identity is perceived by others. The usefulness of profiles is limited, however; not all users will want to portray or disclose the same identity to everyone using a given digital library or part of a given online community. The specific context is important to behavior, activities, norms, interests, and other facets of identity construction, as literature on context collapse and online identity indicates (see e.g. boyd, 2014; Vitak, 2012). User profiles can only go so far to facilitate the sharing of identity—as individually and socially constructed in varied contexts—and the formation of ties. The ideas present in the Fringe prototype drawing on folksonomies, the semantic web, and social constructionism (Farrell, Lau, & Nusser, 2009); the Ensemble educational digital library portal (Brusilovsky et al., 2010); the CallimachusDL prototype (García-Crespo et al., 2011); and in social media and social networking services past and present (including Pinterest; Zarro & Hall, 2012) may help facilitate users socially identifying and typing themselves and others, although their willingness to do so in public venues is of some question (as discussed further below) and the issues surrounding context collapse should be accounted for. Providing separate sites and spaces for off-topic discussion allows for the building of social ties and networks, but ensures users who are only interested in on-topic, normative discussions and do not share common values around off-topic information can skip over most such interactions, if they wish. Some tie formation will happen anyway, but if a digital library can provide the technological resources, platform design, and appropriate services to facilitate users’ forming and maintaining social ties, it will serve a stronger role as a boundary object and reduce the potential for major conflicts within and between the communities it serves.

5.3.2. Right Features, Right Audience

Once a social digital library as boundary object has developed features that facilitate its potential structure-, values-, and social network-based roles, it should not push them all out there, without thought, for all its users to see, use, and appreciate. Other findings from the users of the nine groups that were part of this study imply that the digital library should target and promote the right features to the right audience. Not all users will be interested in using every feature, as was seen in the interviews. Taneesha’s narrow focus was on using Goodreads “to find new books, and to discuss books”; Jennifer found another site (BookCrossing) more to her liking for interaction than LibraryThing, using the latter for reviewing; Kevin interacted quite a lot in Group I but chose to post his writing elsewhere despite the opportunity to post it in the Goodreads group he was part of. Digital library designers and practitioners may think that these or other users should take better advantage of the features provided by a digital library to facilitate and support community and the processes of translation, coherence, and convergence, but we cannot force technology or community down the throats of our users, no matter if we think we know better than they do what features they should use.

Focusing too much on the technology (Brown & Duguid, 2002), or not having a good grasp of the community aspects (Chanal & Kimble, 2010; Roberts, 2006), will lead to problems down the road with adoption and use—as occurred with Marchionini’s sharium model (Marchionini, Plaisant, & Komlodi, 2003)—or with maintaining funding for research or as an organization—as occurred with the Alexander project (Kolbitsch & Maurer, 2006a, 2006b; Kolbitsch, Safran, & Maurer, 2007). Technological determinism is not the way to go, but neither is social or community determinism; sociotechnical systems and infrastructures, and the social informatics approach, require consideration of both technological features and community context in combination (Edwards, Bowker, Jackson, & Williams, 2009; Kling, 1999; Rosenbaum, 2014). This is no less true of digital libraries, as Lynch (2005); Tuominen, Talja, and Savolainen (2003); and Van House (2003) have helped make clear in the past (see also section 2.4).

Those designing and developing digital libraries should keep technology and community in mind during the design process, and not push out features because they might support a small part of the audience. Targeting the appropriate segment of the audience allows Ann to know about profile features that she finds useful without Taneesha having to know the features are there. It allows Kevin to choose to post his writing elsewhere while allowing other members of that group to engage in collaborative critique of each others’ work. This does not mean that easing users in to a feature that they might have some interest in is never appropriate—for example, Jennifer held a preference for BookCrossing’s forums over LibraryThing’s, but left the door open for more use of the latter if usability improved—but such features must cater to the audience. Technological features, usability, and sociability (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar, 2003) are all necessary components.

5.3.3. Cross the Streams

As discussed earlier in this chapter, among users from the nine groups in this study boundary spanners—those who crossed the boundaries between different communities—made more frequent use of the technology provided by LibraryThing and Goodreads to support the emergence of new communities. Their cognizance of the boundaries of the groups and communities that exist within and around the two sites, and of the two digital libraries as a whole, is indicative of the importance of spanning boundaries for facilitating and supporting coherence and convergence and for strengthening communities of all shapes and sizes. This is true for users, but it is also true for digital libraries themselves and for digital library designers and practitioners. Closing off possibilities (Star et al., 2003) for crossing the streams means forgetting the broader contexts; as Roberts (2006) suggested for knowledge management, the socio-cultural and organizational contexts that surround organizations and communities should be considered.

An awareness of boundaries and a willingness to span them in design and in practice is a necessary quality for those working with digital libraries. Computer scientists should talk to information scientists, and both should talk with sociologists and other social science and humanities scholars. Researchers, theorists, and practitioners should not stay in their insular worlds, but talk about how they can work together. Those interested in digital libraries should talk with others with similar and different interests, be they in the same discipline or not. By being cognizant of and willing to span the boundaries of the multiple communities that they find themselves in, digital library designers and practitioners will have a greater understanding of how they should do what they do.

Returning to users, the same is no less true: users of social digital libraries—or who are part of any community—should be willing to stretch their legs a little and see what lies beyond the boundaries of any one group or community setting. Encouraging this through design and practice is not easy, but there are some potential approaches. The activities of the boundary spanners identified among users of the nine groups in this dissertation study show some of these possibilities. Facilitating and encouraging linking between parts of communities and parts of the digital library—in the case of LibraryThing and Goodreads, this includes messages, threads, groups, book pages, author pages, and series pages—allows relevant information that crosses boundaries to be shared, without those boundaries becoming barriers to such sharing. Technology similar to that proposed in the DL 2.0 framework of Akbar et al. (2011) that brings in and interconnects related content automatically, generating links or displaying information from beyond the current context that may be useful and valued, could encourage boundary spanning, coherence, and convergence. (Per Miriam, a new feature on LibraryThing is the introduction of links to active discussions on book pages, which is a great step in this direction.) Users should have the option to turn off anything automatic, since they may not be interested in these features (see section 5.3.2 above). The issues of identity construction and impression management surrounding context collapse, especially when boundaries are crossed (boyd, 2014), mean that complete convergence and the collapse of all boundaries should not be expected or forced. Multiple findings from this study show that this is not necessary for a digital library to have a strong role in a strong, tight-knit community, but some level of boundary spanning can be productive for users and user communities.

Boundary spanning and crossing can enhance the quality of the information behavior and activities that take place. This is true in scientific collaboration; successful juggling of, bridging between, and adapting to multiple communities and lifecycles increases the likelihood of a scientific team continuing to conduct research and building a long-term research agenda, as they converge their norms, values, behaviors, and other characteristics (Burnett et al., 2014; Worrall et al., 2012). Such common ground then encourages higher quality and quantity in information and knowledge sharing, as seen in online communities (Chiu et al., 2006). Encouraging interaction between administrators, moderators, boundary spanners, and other active members in social digital libraries should produce similar results. Venues for discussion of community structure across the boundaries of communities—as social and information worlds—could help encourage such discussion and the sharing of information and knowledge between key stakeholders. Features like these, if built into the design of a social digital library and its ongoing practice, should facilitate and encourage boundary spanning activities, leading to increased coherence and convergence and a stronger role for the digital library, as a boundary object, in the existing and emergent communities it serves.

5.4. Research

This section considers the relation of the findings discussed above and in Chapter 4 to research in digital libraries, social informatics, and information behavior. Relevant literature and potential implications of the findings for further research are included throughout.

5.4.1. Digital Libraries in Context

These findings—despite limitations (see section 5.6)—and the context of the literature reviewed in Chapter 2 stress the need to consider the full context of social digital libraries as they are used by individuals, groups, communities, and organizations. Not all individual users or groupings of users can or should be treated as one unit (Dervin, 1977); while user communities must be studied and the broader implications considered, there are other contextual factors that must be taken into account. This study included other demographic and background variables and characteristics as part of its survey instrument, and asked individual users in interviews about their practices and preferences as they used LibraryThing and Goodreads. Contextual factors of the users from the nine groups such as age; educational level; frequency of use of the Internet, of LibraryThing or Goodreads, and of the groups features; and use of other social networking sites and services impacted on translation, coherence, and convergence; on the social norms, social types, information value, information behavior and activities, and organizations of the users and their communities; and on uses of the digital libraries as sites for information behavior and activities and as technologies supporting such activities. Individual differences in these factors affected how users chose to participate in groups and communities as part of their use of LibraryThing and Goodreads, with the roles played by the two sites varying from community to community and from user to user.

This variance is evidence that these findings may not transfer beyond users of the five LibraryThing and four Goodreads groups to other populations and environments without subtle, context-sensitive changes, although reasonable transferability of the content analysis and interview findings is believed to exist to LibraryThing and Goodreads as a whole. Contextual factors should be considered in further research—both to confirm the findings and conclusions made here and to build on them—that takes place on LibraryThing, Goodreads, and other social digital libraries as used within and across communities. A digital library does not exist in a vacuum, nor does its use take place solely in individual, technological, or community contexts; the approach of social informatics and sociotechnical research should be taken, considering all of the contexts surrounding the roles of digital libraries within and across communities (Edwards et al., 2009; Kling, 1999; Rosenbaum, 2014). Deeper dives that explore a few facets of this context—while remaining aware of the others—are possible, as are applications of a similar approach and set of background factors to different digital libraries. Such research will help confirm if the interactions of demographic and background variables found here are transferrable to other sets of users and communities and within and around other digital libraries—including those that have less overt social features—or are unique to the particulars of this study and to users from the nine groups studied.

5.4.2. Social Informatics and Information Behavior

Context enters into how the findings and conclusions of this study, of two social digital libraries, fit alongside other research streams. This research has potential implications for digital library design and practice (see section 5.3 above), but it also has further potential implications for research in social informatics and information behavior. Some of these relating to information values and boundaries are discussed in sections that follow this one. With reference to context, there appears to be great potential to build on this study by comparing across platforms, communities, and user populations with regard to the phenomena seen here. Translation, coherence, and convergence do not happen in digital libraries alone; all information and communication technologies (ICTs) should play roles in communities, and studies that apply the concepts and theories of boundary objects, social worlds, and information worlds—or the social informatics, social constructionist, and contextual approach taken here—to other ICTs as used in sociotechnical context can add to the conclusions and potential implications of this current study.

For example, let us consider information behavior and activities, a phenomenon of interest in this dissertation. The findings of this study apply to the specific context that was studied here—five LibraryThing groups and four Goodreads groups—but have potential transferability to other settings and environments. These include digital libraries, of course—with emphasis on those that can be considered social digital libraries—but may include other online communities, social media services, or contexts where social information behavior takes place. Such transferability must be confirmed by conducting further research and reviewing the related literature. This is not the first study of information behavior, or of activities, that has been completed; Case (2012) and Clarke and Star (2008) are evidence of that. This is not the first study of information behavior or activities in an online community (the review by Fisher & Julien, 2009, provides many examples); in a digital library (the review by Bearman, 2007, discusses many studies of individual and collective information behaviors and use); or from the view of social informatics (which information behavior research complements; Sawyer & Eschenfelder, 2002), social constructionism (see Case, 2012, pp. 190–191), or context (see the review by Courtright, 2008). Along with comparisons within the literature—which this study adds to—there is scope and need for further research that compares platforms and communities within the same study, theoretical framework, and/or overall approach.

Such research might maintain a focus on a given platform, such as LibraryThing or Goodreads, and study the information behavior and activities of the many different communities that use them. Research could shift to studying a broader range of platforms, such as multiple digital libraries, a range of virtual book clubs, other online communities, and other social media sites. For example, examining, comparing, and contrasting information behavior and activities and the processes of coherence and convergence across Facebook, Pinterest, LibraryThing, and Goodreads could provide much insight into the similarities of and differences between how users communicate and interact on each of those sites; their use of the technical structure provided for organization, curation, and interaction; and the social phenomena of forming social ties, maintaining social ties within and across communities, and boundary spanning. Research could move further beyond this, to considering other facets of information behavior that involve social or community contexts (such as mobile information sharing as suggested by Worrall, 2013a). These kinds of studies would use many of the same theories and approaches as this dissertation study, but move beyond a focus in online communities or digital libraries and allow for comparison of phenomena of interest in the areas of social informatics and information behavior with the findings and conclusions discussed here.

The next two sections consider two areas of interest to social informatics and information behavior researchers for which the current findings have particular overlap and potential implications: (a) information values and (b) boundaries.

5.4.3. Information Values

The strongest factor found to influence the roles that LibraryThing and Goodreads played in the existing and emergent communities of users from the nine groups was information value. Jaeger and Burnett (2010, p. 35) defined it as “a shared sense of a relative scale of the importance of information, of whether particular kinds of information are worth attention or not.” Such values could include, but were not limited to “emotional, spiritual, cultural, political, or economic,” and might be explicit or implicit (p. 35). Values are referenced in literature on values in sociotechnical systems design, online communities, and common ground in knowledge management. This literature and the potential implications of this study in these contexts are discussed below.

5.4.3.1. Values in sociotechnical systems design

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Shilton, Koepfler, and Fleischmann (2013) have explored the roles played by values in the design of technologies and sociotechnical systems, taken from the approach of social informatics and other research traditions with a spin towards social welfare and social justice (see Fleischmann, 2014, for a broader review of this research area). Shilton (2010) examined mobile sensing from a participatory perspective, focusing on how values are built into such systems. She found design practices that encouraged integrating social values as integral parts of the design. Values are articulated by design teams through the process of system development, becoming personal and an important factor as design becomes iterative in response to testing. Designs were more successful due to the influence of values; external values, such as feedback from users, did not play as successful a role. While most of the users from the five LibraryThing and four Goodreads groups in this dissertation study did not engage in “design” as such, in the cases where they collaborated together—often led by a moderator or boundary spanner—coherent or convergent values were present and helped activities take place without major issues. Conflicts were caused by lack of agreement over values (such as Betty’s referencing of such disagreement over the value of Isaac Asimov’s writing) or a lack of translation; the articulation processes mentioned by Shilton could be seen as a parallel to translation.

Fleischmann (2007b) has suggested digital libraries should have embedded social values, and applied a framework of “boundary objects with agency” to digital libraries, drawing on social worlds, boundary objects, and nonhuman agency (the latter as used in actor-network theory; pp. 417–418). This framework has similarities to that used in this study, but does not include the same range of ways of looking at coherence and convergence and instead focuses on information and social values (as is, of course, necessary for his value-sensitive view), with the addition of the concept of nonhuman agency. Fleischmann argued that this framework “can be a useful concept for understanding the connection between values and other forms of IT, including digital libraries” (p. 420). Van House’s (2003) identification of trust and credibility as values that affected coherence and convergence in another digital library is seen as a complementary finding by Fleischmann.

Shilton, Koepfler, and Fleischmann (2013) introduced another framework for studying “where and how values are negotiated and enacted by people, institutions, and technology” in sociotechnical systems (p. 259), drawing from the “value-sensitive design” and “values in design” research streams (p. 260). The framework allows for classification of the source and attributes of values identified through research and analysis. They applied the framework to three case studies—one from each author—where similar values to those emerging from this dissertation can be seen. Their framework overlapped information values with social values, which makes sense given their interest but limits the potential for direct comparisons with research based on Burnett and Jaeger’s (2008; Jaeger & Burnett, 2010) concept of information value as defined in the theory of information worlds, or the earlier concept of worldview used in Chatman’s theory of normative behavior (Burnett, Besant, & Chatman, 2001; Pendleton & Chatman, 1998). Koepfler’s case study (Koepfler & Fleischmann, 2011, 2012) is most comparable of the three, given that she studied an online social media community (Twitter users who had or were experiencing homelessness) that engaged in information sharing. Nevertheless, some values identified by Koepfler and Fleischmann fell beyond the scope of information value, especially if the latter is interpreted on the narrower side. Their findings stress the importance of context in determining values and the frequency with which values are expressed, true in this dissertation study.

All told, these frameworks hold much potential for deeper dives into the information value phenomenon and its impact on the roles played by LibraryThing, Goodreads, and other digital libraries as boundary objects in their users’ existing and emergent communities, both within the nine groups studied here and in other social and information worlds. If the framework included here, including the theory of information worlds, was used with that of Shilton et al. or Fleischmann, a line—likely fuzzy—would have to be drawn between all values and information values. With or without these frameworks, further research into the nature and scope of information values in and their impact on the roles played by digital libraries and other sociotechnical systems would extend the findings of this current study and of related literature in the values in design and value-sensitive design communities. The values and design literature has strong implications for the future of social informatics research, including the issue of scale (Fleischmann, 2014). The multi-leveled theoretical framework used in this dissertation study, or parts of it, might be useful in furthering these implications from another perspective.

5.4.3.2. Online communities

Of the literature reviewed in Chapter 2, Kraut, Wang, Butler, Joyce, and Burke (2008) focused their view of virtual community on “common or complimentary interests” and advice; these are not direct substitutes for the concept of values, but have a strong relationship. What one is interested in is assumed to be of value, and asking for advice implies that one will value an informative response. Whittaker, Isaacs, and O’Day (1997) reviewed a CSCW conference workshop where a “prototypical” community—online or face-to-face—was considered to include “members [that] have some shared goal, interest, need, or activity that provides the primary reason for belonging to the community” (p. 29). Here, interests are similar to needs as with Kraut et al., while needs could be considered similar to values, in the sense of something one “needs” implies a high degree of value. A goal could be considered related, since having an end result in mind implies that result is valued.

While a thorough review of all studies that studied value in online communities is a bit beyond scope, studies with a high degree of comparability in the community studied and in the research methods and approach taken are worth consideration. Seraj (2012) is an example that, while from the marketing field, has such a high degree of comparability; she employed qualitative analysis of messages and interviews with users to understand how value is created in the Airliners.net online community, which has quite a few similarities to LibraryThing and Goodreads. Seraj used a definition of value from Zeithami (1988, as cited in Seraj, 2012, p. 209) as “the utility of a product based on perceptions of what is received and what is given.” She found intellectual value (“co-creation and content quality”), social value (“platform interactivity through social ties”), and cultural value (“self-governed community culture”) to be created in the Airliners.net community (p. 213), and related these to different social roles she identified (e.g. an “educator” held both intellectual and social value, while an “innovator” held only social value; p. 219).

While the view of value in this and other online / virtual communities literature is not identical to that of information value—and the latter, of course, has a narrower focus on valuing of information—comparisons can still be drawn and potential implications considered. Kraut et al., Whittaker et al., and Seraj all believe value (or its close cognates) is an important part of a community, which matches with its emergence as an important factor in this study. That coherence and convergence of information values were not always visible to users of the five LibraryThing and four Goodreads groups is somewhat similar to other concepts (interest, goal, need, activity) that might be raised first; in this study information behavior and activities were significant among users who completed the survey, and many users mentioned interests in the messages and interviews. While Seraj and I differed in our analysis of social types and roles, the prevalence of social value in the Airliners.net community compares favorably with the social network-based role played by LibraryThing and Goodreads in this study. Both studies illustrate a socially co-constructed community (or more than one, in this dissertation) where users shape and are mutually shaped by the social organization (c.f. Giddens’s structuration theory; Orlikowski & Robey, 1991); such a view of co-construction is also present in Rehberg Sedo’s (2011a) study of virtual book clubs. Seraj calls for longitudinal studies of communities at different stages in their development, which would be a natural progression for studies of information value. Such a longitudinal view would facilitate further exploration of the implications of users’ values and communities mutually shaping each other over time, and consideration of the relationships between values and other characteristics of social and information worlds (e.g. social types) and of online communities (e.g. goals, needs).

5.4.3.3. Common ground

In knowledge management, the idea of culture, norms, interests, and values being shared or similar across a community is called common ground (Davenport & Prusak, 2000). Different authors drawing on this perspective have used different combinations of those elements; some focused on culture and norms (e.g. Wasko & Faraj, 2000) as near synonyms for values, while others were more direct in considering interests and values (e.g. Ardichvili et al., 2003), and still others emphasized the translation of these (Olson & Olson, 2000). Shared values, conformity, and reciprocity are common motivators for knowledge sharing (Ardichvili, 2008); users are more likely to share what they know with others, and help create and share distributed knowledge (Haythornthwaite, 2006), if they have a shared sense of what information is important and of value. In this study, convergence of values did seem to lead to users from the nine groups sharing more information with others via LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects, but there were differences in value indicating moderate levels of convergence; these did not discourage such sharing. The knowledge management literature does not—in most cases—distinguish between coherence and convergence, but it is likely that the levels of convergence present here, despite differences, are sufficient to be considered shared values for the purposes of establishing common ground.

The bridging of values and norms by translating knowledge between contexts leads to greater levels of knowledge sharing, based on the knowledge management literature (Ardichvili et al., 2003; Bechky, 2003). In this study, translation helped users from the nine groups address information needs, explain circumstances that could reduce coherence or convergence, and get to know other members of the community. The latter two cases include elements of value. Explaining of circumstances involves bridging the already cohered or converged norms with potential disruptions to them. In the cases where this was observed or discussed, the translation process was successful and the community did not end up in conflict; it may be that the degree of knowledge sharing stayed the same, but the finding is similar to those of Ardichvili et al. (2003) and Bechky (2003). Getting to know other members is a process of forming and maintaining social ties within a community or across multiple communities; in a way, the “happy” (Lindsey) “family” (Rachelle) of “real friendship” (Melissa) and “real community” (Ann) sensed by some interviewees, resulting from this process, is similar to common ground, if less rooted in values than other findings. The addressing of information needs is less related to the idea of common values, although addressing someone else’s need is easier if one shares at least some common values with them. Translation and boundary spanning activities did seem to encourage more interaction, information behavior and activities, and knowledge sharing, so in most cases the findings from the knowledge management literature and from this study mesh.

Olson and Olson (2000) were coming from the computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) perspective, but borrowed the idea of common ground and considered the relative difficulty of establishing it, through translation, when not collocated (i.e. speaking face-to-face). Most of their research included an audio or video link, which is missing for users of LibraryThing and Goodreads unless they use an external site and technology. Olson and Olson mention the importance of having a sense of awareness of where the other people in an interaction are coming from, their example being having had a difficult, stressful meeting. In the present study, this speaks to the high value some users from the nine groups placed on sharing and reading information about the everyday lives of community members and to the social network-based role played by LibraryThing and Goodreads in those cases. Those who have already established sufficient common ground, Olson and Olson reported, can communicate with success over almost any media; in this study, those who have met face-to-face did seem to have converged that much more—including their information values—although this was not a big enough sample to prove true correlation, to say nothing of causality. Olson and Olson’s work comes from the perspective of media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1986), which has faced its share of critiques in the literature; other contextual factors can be more important in whether a particular medium can facilitate successful interaction and collaboration (see Lee, 1994). Facilitating collocation or so-called “richer” communication (e.g. video) for LibraryThing and Goodreads members might lead, for a few members, to easier translation and negotiation between users over the meanings and understandings they bring to their discussions and to the processes of information and knowledge sharing. It may lead to greater coherence and convergence of shared values and other phenomena, given sufficient time and frequency of interaction. However, this is not a practical recommendation for most users, and other contextual factors—as discussed earlier in this subsection—could make greater contributions to the formation of common ground. For digital libraries and other ICTs that serve those who can be collocated or communicate through video, the findings of Olson and Olson (2000) and the current study indicate it may help in selected (but not all or even most) contexts with translation and negotiation processes that lead to coherence and eventual convergence, and strengthen the role the digital library or ICT has as a boundary object.

Taken together, the findings from this study and literature on common ground imply shared values, and translation of said values, are important in cohering and converging communities around ICTs intended for the sharing of information and knowledge. The knowledge management literature does not make clear distinctions, in most cases, between the different phenomena that enter into views of common ground, nor distinguish—as black-and-white or on a continuum—between coherence and convergence. Whether further research on values, information and knowledge sharing, and community convergence is approached from the knowledge management perspective, the information science and social informatics perspective, or another perspective, it should be sure to consider various degrees and levels of information, knowledge, and value sharing.

5.4.4. Boundaries

The roles played by LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects, were the main focus of this study, but boundary spanning individuals and activities were identified in the process. The literature on boundary objects and boundary spanning is deep, and further development and use of boundary object theory and the concept of boundary spanners is proceeding and sometimes overlapping (see e.g. Bechky, 2003; Burnett, Subramaniam, & Gibson, 2009; Carlile, 2002, 2004; Kimble et al., 2010; Levina & Vaast, 2005; Swan, Bresnen, Newell, & Robertson, 2007; Van House, 2003). The current study fits better with the boundary objects literature, given its focus, but also has potential implications in boundary spanning.

Hara and Fichman (2014) reviewed the recent literature on boundaries, boundary objects, and boundary spanning, with an eye to the types of boundaries found. The emphasis in their review is on knowledge sharing, but much of the literature has potential application beyond that field (as seen elsewhere in this chapter and dissertation). The frameworks available for classifying boundaries are useful, but Hara and Fichman warned they are somewhat limited due to their development for use in organizational contexts, not in online communities or other environments where the role of organizations is low. In most cases this is true for the groups and threads of users from the nine groups in the current study, although LibraryThing and Goodreads sometimes served as organizations (but not in quite the same sense as in knowledge management literature).

The boundaries seen in this study, based on the phenomena of interest, can be analyzed using Hara and Fichman’s synthesized framework (pp. 96, 99):

  • Physical: Although no true physical boundaries were present in this study, the phenomenon of sites serves as a variation on physical boundaries, and Wright (2009, as cited in Hara & Fichman, 2014, p. 99) considered this category as “structural” instead, which describes the idea of a site. The more permanent (and “structural”) organizations could be construed to fit here , although sometimes may go into the political category. Technologies fit best into this category; again, they may be seen as the most structural elements of the sociotechnical system.

  • Cognitive: These boundaries occur in the context of information value, where users have different views and opinions that, at their base, are based on thought and consideration (albeit in socially constructed context). The translation of understanding and meaning and the work of boundary spanners involve the crossing of cognitive boundaries.

  • Social: These boundaries occur in the context of social norms and normative information behavior and activities, as the potential coherence and convergence of a community culture takes place. Informal organizations fit here, as they may not have reached the level of formality required to be considered physical. Sites for information behavior and activities may fall here if there is good convergence taking place. Information values may fall here if they are far along in the social construction process and the boundary is with another community instead of between a few people.

  • Political: Serious conflicts over information value and social norms end up falling under this category, which Hara and Fichman stated can sometimes be considered a sub-category of social boundaries. Formal organizations may end up here in the case of conflict.

Hara and Fichman’s (2014) framework does not characterize types of boundary objects or the roles those boundary objects can play. The roles seen in this study—structure-, values-, and social network-based—do not fit well into their framework, but neither should they be expected to. Hara and Fichman intend “to investigate further development of boundary types in online communities” (p. 100), and further research is necessary in this vein. Such research would be complemented by further research expanding on Star’s (2010) call to catalog the types of boundary objects and to categorize the roles those types of boundary objects may play in interfacing with communities, as part of a broader research agenda into information from a boundary-aware viewpoint.

Awareness of a boundary-sensitive view of information, and of social and community theories of information, can help further research in many areas within library and information science. Crossing the streams does more than defeat supernatural marshmallow men; it ensures design, practice, and research do not become insular. Digital library researchers and practitioners should talk to those conducting social informatics, online community, and information behavior research (as suggested in section 5.3.3), and researchers in the latter three areas should be talking back to digital library people. Mutual familiarity with the lessons that can be learned from each set of research literature, combined with bridging and spanning of boundaries, will help connect what are sometimes disparate research literatures together. Researchers must juggle, bridge, and adapt to multiple communities, as with collaborative scientific research teams (Burnett et al., 2014; Worrall et al., 2012), to encourage successful long-term research on boundaries.

It helps that a boundary-sensitive view already crosses many of the boundaries that are present, and social informatics and information behavior researchers should consider the perspective offered by boundary object theory and the broader literature on boundaries as they conduct research.1 Information is shared with and placed within new contexts and environments (Courtright, 2008); consideration of the boundaries between these contexts, how individuals can span those boundaries, the potential overlapping or nesting of communities as contexts, and the roles of boundary objects in translating, cohering, and converging these environments can lead to thorough and insightful study of information, information behavior, and related phenomena. Many theories and framings to ground such studies could fit within a boundary-sensitive view, including the following present as elements in this study (and explained in detail in Chapter 2):

  • Strauss’s social worlds perspective (Clarke & Star, 2008; Strauss, 1978)
  • Burnett and Jaeger’s (2008; Jaeger & Burnett, 2010) theory of information worlds
  • Star’s boundary object theory (Star et al., 2003; Star & Griesemer, 1989; Star, 2010)
  • Gatekeepers and boundary spanners (Leonard-Barton, 1995; Levina & Vaast, 2005)

Additional theories and framings could be adapted within a boundary-sensitive view of information and information behavior:

  • Fisher’s information grounds (Fisher, Durrance, & Hinton, 2004; Pettigrew, 1999), with emphasis on recent research on virtual information grounds (Counts & Fisher, 2010) and integration of information grounds alongside other theories that inform information behavior and social informatics research (Meyers, Fisher, & Marcoux, 2009). The advantage of information grounds is its high compatibility with many of the other theories and framings listed here.

  • Savolanien’s (1995) everyday life information seeking model and approach, given its overall influence in considering information behavior in many everyday contexts, its inclusion of social contexts and factors, and its potential ties to social constructionism.

  • Social network analysis (SNA) and the social network perspective (Garton et al., 1997; Wellman, 1999); while these limit community to a view through the social network lens, they are flexible enough to allow for study of a range of information phenomena, with emphasis on information sharing and exchange. SNA allows for the detection and visualization of communities and boundaries.

  • Actor-network theory (ANT) (Latour, 2005); boundary object theory borrowed and adapted concepts—including translation—from prototypical versions of ANT. While a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around, its specific inclusion of nonhumans as actors and appropriateness for studying complex contexts could lead it to be useful for boundary-aware studies.

These framings and theories can be used one at a time, when a smaller study is necessary or a lot of data can be collected and needs quick analysis. A synthesis of more than one of them could lead to insightful findings, such as was done in this dissertation. Either case should, if a boundary-sensitive view is taken, lead to greater insights and implications for studies of information, information behavior, and communities and a stronger research agenda for the social informatics and information behavior fields as a whole.

5.4.5. Willingness to Type

As raised in section 5.1.2.2, the comfort levels of users from the nine groups in typing others varied. Socially, in the public messages seen in the content analysis, most users were less willing to apply social types to others beyond using nicknames and initials than might have been expected. The survey results further implied users were unwilling to own up to explicitly typing others or that it was a factor in their use of LibraryThing or Goodreads. The interviews included more typing, with interviewees more willing to type other users who were strong ties and outsiders to the community due to the one-on-one setting and with a promise of confidentiality, but a lack of comfort was still seen in typing weaker ties.

This willingness to type has potential effects on the current and future roles of LibraryThing and Goodreads as boundary objects: Are users unlikely to type others participating in groups on the two sites? Should users be encouraged to type more? Will encouraging and better facilitating social ties have knock-on effects on social typing? These questions also apply to social typing in other online and offline community and information environments. Studies have been made of social types in contexts where information sharing and collaboration are factors, examining how the different types of other users affect the willingness to share (e.g. Olson, Grudin, & Horvitz, 2005; Wiese et al., 2011) or the roles that types play in sharing information and collaboration (e.g. Burnett et al., 2014; Pendleton & Chatman, 1998; Pettigrew, 1999; Turner & Fisher, 2006). However, no known studies have examined the motivations and willingness of users to type each other in social information environments. Further research on social types in online communities, information grounds, and digital libraries, with emphasis on this behavioral choice component, would shed light on the willingness to type other users and the implications for design, theory, and practice.

5.5. Theory

This section considers the relation of the findings discussed above and in Chapter 4 to the theoretical framework for social digital libraries and boundary object theory, in the context of social informatics and information behavior research. Since theoretical implications are discussed, the language of the theoretical framework (see Chapter 2, sections 2.7 and 2.8) is used throughout this section.

5.5.1. Social Digital Libraries

The theoretical framework for this study provided deep and descriptive analysis of the data collected. No theory can explain everything, and three theories together still miss out on some potential findings (although data can be reanalyzed using other theories and frames). Nevertheless, the combination of boundary object theory, the social worlds framework, and the theory of information worlds served to answer the research questions, and informally the theoretical framework has tested well. The survey developed, operationalizing these concepts, was found to have acceptable reliability for exploratory research once appropriate items were dropped (see Chapter 4, section 4.2.1), with the exception of the boundary objects scale and, perhaps, the information value scale. Further refinement could further improve the survey instrument, of course, and full testing of the instrument and theory is left for another research study, but I believe this study has shown this combination to have much power for use with qualitative and quantitative methods.

5.5.1.1. Information behavior vs. information value

With such power, of course, comes the responsibility to be critical where there were minor issues during analysis. One of these is the broadness of the concepts of information behavior and information value. Buckland (1991) and Case (2012) have adopted broad definitions of information, and Jaeger and Burnett’s (2010) view of information behavior is almost as broad. Information value, while facing a similar issue, had similar frequency in analysis here to other studies that have used the theory of information worlds. Narrowing the focus and applying slight caveats to definitions of these concepts might be appropriate.

5.5.1.2. Information behavior vs. activities

Another issue, referenced in Chapter 4, is that differences emerged in a few cases between information behavior and activities. Although these concepts are quite compatible in theory, a few interviewees agreed they shared common activities but not common information behavior. Other examples were also seen where information-related activities occurred, but could not be considered to be true normative information behavior, with a clear connection to information seeking, use, sharing, or avoidance. The distinctions that emerged between the two are reliant, to an extent, on how broad a view of information behavior is taken. My own view and operationalization was broader than some other information science researchers might take, influenced by the broad range of activities that Strauss (1978) considers to be possible in social worlds. Restricting his view to information-related activities still does not narrow the scope to those that all information scientists would consider information behavior. The different facets of these concepts may need annotations or memos to note, and subcodes for different types and degrees of information-relatedness and of information behavior (sharing, seeking, etc.) would be appropriate and useful when particular facets are of interest in a given study. This would parallel the different facets examined by models and theories of information behavior (see Case, 2012; Wilson, 1999), and could better account for the different breadth of information behaviors considered by different scholars, models, and theories.2 Gary Burnett (personal communication, Jul. 7, 2014) is working with other colleagues to construct a detailed codebook for the theory that refines many of the concepts, which may well be helpful towards addressing the issues identified in the previous two subsections.

5.5.1.3. Other difficult and edge cases

Difficult and edge cases existed in the continuum between translation, coherence, and convergence, which can have some overlap; translation was used to maintain convergence, a view not explicitly included in the theoretical framework. Continuing to keep coherence and convergence—and existing and emergent worlds—separate, but annotating or memoing for cases where the line between them is close or where translation involves maintaining convergence, appears an appropriate instruction for future use of this theoretical framework. The continuum between existing and emergent worlds was vague at times, and this was found to be the cause of many of the disagreements found during the intracoder reliability testing. In the coding process as a whole, this was most true for the concept of sites. The blogs referred to by LibraryThing user Sam could be associated with the emergent social and information world of the group, or with one or more existing social and information worlds that intersected with that of the group (see section 4.3.8.4). Another online community LibraryThing user Betty participated in included a site within an emergent world from the perspective of that community, but a site within an existing (and external) world from the perspective of LibraryThing. In analysis I reasoned that context was most important, and coded these under existing worlds, but the distinction between existing and emergent is not a line but a continuum, where examples like these end up sitting in the middle. Additional codes or clearer instructions on annotations or memos to provide context would clarify these difficult and edge cases.

5.5.1.4. Sites and technologies

A somewhat similar situation occurred with the distinctions between sites and technologies. These are both concepts from the social worlds perspective of Strauss (1978). Sites are places and spaces that information behavior or information-related activities take place within; technologies are tools that provide the capability to carry out such behavior and activities. Potential overlaps were identified between the two during the latter stages of analysis and the discussion of findings and conclusions with other researchers. When considering overlaps, one must remember the word “site” has two meanings within the context of this study: it may mean a web site, or it may mean a social world site. In some cases both meanings apply, and both sites and technologies may be invoked as phenomena. For example, interviewees used Facebook as both a web site and a social world site, in ways that required using the technology associated with it (see section 4.3.9.2). Rachelle’s friends sending her links through Facebook led to Facebook serving as a social world site and space for particular information behavior and activities—the sending of links—and as technology that facilitated that behavior and activity.

In the case of social media service use the concepts of sites and technologies are inextricably tied together, but in other examples the concepts have important distinctions between them. Kevin’s use of an iPad to access Goodreads (also discussed in section 4.3.9.2) is a case of the latter: the technology—the iPad—facilitated Kevin’s information behavior and activities, but within sites and spaces for that behavior that it is not always connected to. Unlike Facebook’s provision of a space (or site, in social world terms) for Rachelle’s information behavior, Kevin’s iPad does not provide such a space; it is only a technology that may be used in other spaces. In future research, emergent distinctions between sites and technologies must continue to be accounted for; greater theoretical and conceptual clarity between these concepts, and greater clarity in how to code for them, may be necessary additions to the framework.

5.5.2. Boundary Objects, Scope, and Scale

Along with the implications for theoretical research in social informatics and information behavior discussed above (section 5.4.4), at least one further implication exists for studies using boundary object theory and the concepts from it. On reflecting on her theory and how it had been used over 21 years, Star (2010) stated the scale and scope of those objects conceived of as boundary objects should be useful; conceiving of a word as a boundary object, for example, would not lead to much insight. Many of the other boundary objects identified in this study (see section 5.1.4.1) do or could fit most or all of the criteria in the original theory (Star & Griesemer, 1989; Star, 1989; see also section 2.7), and deserve to be called boundary objects. The scale and scope of their use is not near the level of LibraryThing or Goodreads.

These objects serve as small parts of the multi-scaled network of sociotechnical systems called sociotechnical infrastructure (Edwards et al., 2009; Ribes et al., 2012) and as part of the wide range of scales, contexts, and systems studied in social informatics (Rosenbaum, 2014; Sawyer & Tapia, 2007). From a theoretical point of view, most studies will have a main boundary object, technology, and system of interest; in this case that was LibraryThing or Goodreads. This must remain the main focus; it defines the baseline when it comes to the scale and scope of this research. Nevertheless, even in research driven by a case study approach—as this dissertation has been—other objects and artifacts of potential interest should not be discarded altogether from further analysis. Doing so would place artificial restrictions on the potential objects that can serve as boundary objects in some form.3 Instead, remaining pluralistic and flexible with regard to units and scale—as in the social worlds perspective (Clarke & Star, 2008; Strauss, 1978) and the theory of information worlds (Jaeger & Burnett, 2010)—is necessary.

Theories and theoretical perspectives used to study sociotechnical systems and infrastructure, information behavior, online communities, and digital libraries should continue to consider multiple units of analysis and scale, and consider the broad scope of the social, technical, sociotechnical, and organizational contexts of users’ information behavior, the communities they are part of, and the technologies that they use. Further, researchers and theorists should be cognizant of and take care to consider issues of scope, scale, and context as they think about sociotechnical infrastructures and the design, development, use, and study of these contexts and systems.

5.6. Limitations

As with any study, the findings from this dissertation face some limitations. Because of the way groups were sampled, the content analysis and interviews may not have captured the full range of LibraryThing and Goodreads users’ opinions of and experiences with using the two digital libraries within and across communities (as social and information worlds). Limiting the research to nine groups—with one having to be dropped due to determining the moderator was underage—and limiting the sampling for the survey and interviews to members and visitors to these nine groups means differences which may exist in other groups were not uncovered.

Since sampling for the survey was not purely random—users could choose to participate or not and not all users of the nine groups were guaranteed to see the invitation to participate—it was impossible to rely on traditional inferential statistics—that assume a representative sample obtained through simple random sampling—to infer beyond the sample (i.e. the participating users). Selection bias—a form of sampling bias—may have generated results that are not representative, but one may assume that survey respondents are at least moderately representative of the population of users of the nine LibraryThing and Goodreads groups, allowing for conclusions to be inferred about users from the nine groups. Nonparametric statistics were used and the focus of statistical analysis to strengthen the findings of the survey.

The need to obtain consent from the moderators of the Goodreads groups prior to data collection—a condition of Goodreads’ consent for this research to take place (see Appendix E)—led to the inability to study nine Goodreads groups whose moderator did not respond or declined to take part. The random sampling from popular LibraryThing and Goodreads groups reduced this limitation, creating a representative sample from these groups reflecting the broader population. While a pure random sample of survey participants could be obtained—due to the inability to construct a sampling frame and ethical concerns with requiring consent and responses—the random selection of groups helped improve the potential transferability of all findings. Providing compensation encouraged participants to respond to the survey, increasing the sample size. Interviewees provided insightful data and interviewing continued until saturation was reached, lessening the impact of the limited samples at each stage.

Using a case study approach to focus on LibraryThing and Goodreads places some limits on the generalizability of findings beyond these two settings. The results of the study say much about the nine groups, and the content analysis and interview findings have reasonable transferability to LibraryThing and Goodreads as a whole. Less can be said for sure about digital libraries as a whole. 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 has been limited to what was known as part of conducting the study. Their nature as large, public digital libraries and inclusion of multiple features and facets allows for most results to have a degree of transferability to other digital library settings, with higher transferability to other social digital libraries with similar features, users, or content to LibraryThing and Goodreads. Comparing with previous research literature, as done throughout this chapter, helps improve the degree of transferability.

One cannot conclude from this study that a particular method for supporting existing communities, the emergence of new ones, and collaboration within and between them is better than another one. While LibraryThing and Goodreads incorporate elements of wikis and social annotations (see sections 2.5.2.1 and 2.5.2.2), other digital libraries may be as successful (or not) by using other techniques, and play as significant roles in the social and information worlds of their users. Follow-up research with other digital libraries and with different users and user communities is necessary, as discussed earlier in this chapter.

Results and findings—as seen in Chapter 4 and earlier in this chapter—inform the theoretical framework incorporating boundary object theory, the social worlds perspective, and the theory of information worlds, but further research and testing is necessary to confirm if the conclusions drawn from this study apply to other digital libraries, social worlds, and information worlds. Findings lead to potential implications for social informatics, online communities, and information behavior research, when considered in light of existing literature, but no firm conclusions can be drawn across the breadth of these fields given the limited setting of this study.

Time and resources are limitations in any research study. This dissertation study was constructed to provide significant, insightful data into the roles LibraryThing and Goodreads play, as boundary objects, within and across the social and information worlds of their users. Using a sequential, multiphase mixed methods design allowed different types of data to be collected and synthesized, providing thick description of these environments, their use, and of their roles for users and user communities (see Chapter 4 and earlier in this chapter). It is my belief that successful achievement of this goal took place, and the data were found to be rich and insightful. Nevertheless, needing to complete this dissertation research without taking too much time placed limits on how much data could be gathered and analyzed and how many different methods could be used. While other methods such as social network analysis or focus groups could add further to the significance and insightfulness of the data collected, providing a fuller picture of LibraryThing and Goodreads in the context of their existing and emergent user communities and collaboration between them, the limitation of time meant those were left for future research by myself or other researchers. Time was a factor in determining sample size; while more groups could have been looked at in the content analysis phase, or additional users surveyed or interviewed, this would have required additional time to collect and analyze the data in question. I believe the completed dissertation study strikes an appropriate balance, providing rich, complete data while being successful in completion within the time and with the resources available.

Some may consider the subjective, interpretive nature of this study, falling under the social paradigm of information science and taking information to be a socially constructed phenomenon, to be a limitation of the research. While this is a potential issue when looked at from a positivistic or post-positivistic perspective—and leads to some limitations to generalizability and transferability—much of the previous research literature, and all of the theories and perspectives, drawn on by this research take an interpretive and social constructionist stance to information, information systems, and social science research. Situating this study within the landscape of this existing research and theory required that the study—and I as a researcher—take a similar stance, as shown by the issues faced during the pilot test of the coding scheme and content analysis procedures (see section 3.7.1). While my biases and predispositions of a researcher have influenced the choices of paradigms, approaches, theories, and methods, it is believed that their use in this study is appropriate and justified. Biases and predispositions may have had subtle impact during the coding and analysis phases, but I did my best to put any biases aside and believe that any impact that was had was minimal.

5.7. Conclusions and Implications

This exploratory and descriptive dissertation research study examined the roles of two digital libraries, LibraryThing and Goodreads, as boundary objects within and across the existing and emergent communities of their users, seen as social and information worlds. Their roles in three processes taking place in these contexts were also examined: (a) translation, or the negotiation and reconciliation of users’ intended meanings and understandings around information and knowledge; (b) coherence, or the extent of agreement within pre-existing communities on common community characteristics, understandings, and translations; and (c) convergence, or the extent of agreement within new, emergent communities on common community characteristics, understandings, and translations. A clear need was present for theoretical and practical research to see if and how digital libraries support collaboration, communities, and other social contexts (see the literature review in Chapter 2), and an appropriate theoretical framework based in Star’s boundary object theory and incorporating elements of Strauss’s social worlds perspective and Burnett and Jaeger’s theory of information worlds was constructed (see section 2.8). Through a mixed methods research design of multiple sequential phases, data was collected from users of five LibraryThing groups and four Goodreads groups in the form of messages, a survey questionnaire, and semi-structured interviews (see Chapter 3). This data was analyzed under the theoretical framework to improve understanding of the organizational, cultural, collaborative, and social contexts of digital libraries, contexts with important effects on users, communities, and information behavior.

LibraryThing and Goodreads were found to serve three roles, discussed in detail in section 5.2, as boundary objects in the existing and emergent social and information worlds of users from the nine groups:

  • structure-based roles, where the digital libraries facilitate and support translation, coherence, and convergence of existing and emergent communities through the establishment of community and organizational structure;
  • values-based roles, where the digital libraries facilitate and support translation, coherence, and convergence of existing and emergent communities through users sharing information values; and
  • social network-based roles, where the digital libraries facilitate and support coherence and convergence of emergent communities through the establishment of social ties and community culture.

The potential implications of these roles and other findings, connected with the literature, are summarized below for digital library design and practice; research in digital libraries, social informatics, and information behavior; and for theory in these areas. In all cases, these implications should be tested through further research.

5.7.1. Digital Library Design and Practice

  • Highlight translation processes and resources for users, and encourage leaders of communities within the digital library to do so, facilitating the negotiation and reconciliation of users’ intended meanings and understandings of information and knowledge. These resources should provide structure by explaining the purpose and rules of the community and helping users through documentation (including frequently asked questions) and human aid. Digital library-wide rules, values, and expectations should be made clear, but designers and practitioners should be willing to engage in translation and negotiation over these with the pre-existing and newly emergent communities of users of the digital library.

  • Provide for user profiles and encourage users to fill them out, if comfortable doing so; separate sites and spaces for off-topic discussion should be provided. These will allow users to build social ties, connections, and relationships between each other, should they so desire.

  • Target the right features at the right audience, taking a sociotechnical approach that provides technology and community features, but tailored to those who want them; features should not be pushed out just because they might support a small part of the audience. Such features should support the roles identified in this study, allowing users to establish community and organizational structure, shared values of given types of information, and social ties.

  • Encourage users’ boundary spanning—their crossing of boundaries between multiple communities—by facilitating and encouraging linking; bringing in related content automatically (but with the ability to turn it off); and encouraging interaction between administrators, moderators, boundary spanners, and other active members about the digital library and the communities it serves.

  • Span boundaries and work with other practitioners and researchers beyond one’s home discipline towards solving problems of digital library design and practice.

5.7.2. Research

  • Consider the full context of social digital libraries as they are used by individuals, groups, communities, and organizations, including demographic and background variables that may impact use. Consider deeper dives or examination of other digital libraries, with emphasis on those that have less overt social features.

  • Vary the communities, phenomena, and/or platforms studied, to complement the findings and implications seen here and explore them in different contexts (e.g. curation practices, mobile information sharing, and social media).

  • Examine in detail the nature, scope, and impact of information values—the strongest factor found to influence the roles that LibraryThing and Goodreads played—in the roles played by digital libraries and other sociotechnical systems. Consider drawing on frameworks for values in sociotechnical systems design, such as those suggested by Shilton, Koepfler, and Fleischmann (2013; Fleischmann, 2007b), and/or the view of information value offered by the theory of information worlds. Consider various degrees and levels of information, knowledge, and value sharing; taking a longitudinal view; and/or examining the relationships between values and other characteristics of communities.

  • Work on a boundary-sensitive research agenda, and have awareness of such a view and of social and community theories of information. Such theories may include the social worlds perspective, the theory of information worlds, boundary object theory, information grounds, everyday life information seeking, social network analysis / theory, and actor-network theory; the concepts of gatekeepers and boundary spanners serve as a potential framing.

  • Explore and examine in greater detail the motivations and willingness of users to type each other in social information environments.

  • Look to span boundaries as a researcher and work with other researchers, theorists, and practitioners others beyond one’s home discipline. Researchers in digital libraries, social informatics, online communities, and information behavior should not be insular, but should be talking to one another.

5.7.3. Theory

  • Further develop and test the survey instrument to improve its reliability for non-exploratory research.

  • Consider minor revisions to the theoretical framework for social digital libraries and the instructions used in coding and analysis to address issues uncovered in the distinctions between information behavior and information value; information behavior and information-related activities; translation, coherence, and convergence; and existing and emergent worlds..

  • Remain pluralistic in considering multiple units of analysis and scale, and other boundary objects as a part (if not the focus) of the sociotechnical system. Consider issues of scope, scale, and context when thinking and theorizing about such sociotechnical infrastructures and systems.

5.7.4. Summary

Digital libraries must support pre-existing and newly emergent communities and collaborations. The study reported in this dissertation of LibraryThing and Goodreads, conceived as social digital libraries and boundary objects, found they play at least three important roles in the processes of coherence and convergence of common community characteristics and understandings: establishing community and organizational structure, facilitating sharing of information values, and supporting social ties and community culture. Digital library designs and services should support these roles and users’ social information behavior across the existing and emergent communities they are part of. Further research should look at deeper facets of these roles, other digital libraries (with emphasis on those with less overt social features), and other ICTs in light of the processes of coherence and convergence, taking a boundary-sensitive view of information phenomena in community and collaborative contexts.


  1. The argument made in this section is similar to one I previously presented in Worrall (2013a).

  2. Particular thanks to Gary Burnett (personal communication, Jul. 3, 2014) for helpful discussion on these issues.

  3. Thanks to Lori Kendall (personal communication, Oct. 23, 2013) for helping to stimulate my thinking in this area.