Adam Worrall

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Introduction and Summary

You took part in a research study, part of my dissertation (The Roles of Digital Libraries as Boundary Objects Within and Across Social and Information Worlds), intended to improve our collective understanding of the organizational, cultural, institutional, collaborative, and social contexts of digital libraries and information-centric online communities. The study focused on two examples of social digital libraries, those featuring content, services, and organizations with the primary purpose of facilitating information and knowledge creation and sharing; LibraryThing was one of these. The study looked at many different phenomena from across three theories, analyzing messages from five LibraryThing groups, surveying users of the five groups, and interviewing a selection of survey takers.

LibraryThing was found to serve three roles in the existing and emergent communities of users from the five groups studied: a role based in community and organizational structure, a role based in shared information values, and a role based in social networks. These roles and further findings imply social digital libraries should highlight translation processes and resources; make clear rules and values that apply across the digital library; provide for and encourage the use of user profiles and spaces for off-topic discussion; and encourage boundary spanning by facilitating and encouraging linking, bringing in related content automatically, and encouraging interaction and information exchange about the digital library and the communities it serves. The right features should be targeted at the right audience, not just pushing features out because they might support a small part of the audience, but looking to support the roles identified in this study. Digital library designers and practitioners should work with others beyond their home discipline towards solving problems of digital library design and practice. Deeper examination in research of the full context of social digital libraries and of particular phenomena is necessary, to fully explore digital libraries and information-centric online communities from a boundary-sensitive perspective and in various contexts.

The remainder of this brief report provides further detail on the background and framing of the study, the results and findings of the study, and the implications of the findings for practice, design, research, and theory. Please feel free to read or skim the entire report or focus on the sections of most interest to you. If you find this interesting and would like to learn further about the study and its findings, you can visit the page I have set up for my dissertation as part of my web site.

Background and Framing

My focus and interest was in social digital libraries, those sharing many of the same characteristics of online communities and having a strong social component. Many of these are used more in everyday life than in specialized settings. A social digital library can be defined as (a) having one or more collections of digital content collected on behalf of a user community; and (b) offering services, relating to the content, by or through the digital library to the user community. The content and services are managed by one or more formal or informal organizations — or by part of one or more such organizations. A social digital library also focuses on facilitating information and knowledge creation and sharing, excluding different primary motivations such as selling products (this is why web sites like amazon.com were excluded from the study’s scope). LibraryThing includes content (generated by publishers, libraries, and users), services (tagging, discussion boards, etc.), and organizations (LibraryThing itself and the groups formed on the site). It supports, as part of its primary purpose, information and knowledge sharing among everyday people who love books and reading. As such it was a natural fit for the study.

The study was framed within a social paradigm of information science, conceptualizing social digital libraries as boundary objects. Under this theory first proposed by Susan Leigh Star in 1989 in an article for Social Studies of Science, boundary objects are objects such as information systems, documents, maps, etc. that are used across multiple communities simultaneously. For example, both students and teachers might use many information systems in a school or university, such as the system used for scheduling and signing up for classes. Students and teachers can be considered part of separate communities and may use the system in different ways, have different understandings of it, and mean different things in how they talk about it. Despite this, the system has enough of a common identity that, while it adapts to multiple communities simultaneously, it allows for the negotiation and translation of those meanings and understandings between communities. To continue the example, students and teachers can come to a common (in whole or in part) understanding of what classes are being offered, what they are about, and how difficult they will be. A critical role of a successful boundary object is to maintain what is known as the coherence of meanings and understandings across and between these different communities. There is also the possibility that, over time, new communities may emerge — a process known as convergence — as users interact with each other and use the boundary object to build new common understandings.

I used two other theories as ways to think about communities and the key phenomena within them. One was Anselm Strauss’s social worlds perspective, first specified in his 1978 chapter “A Social World Perspective” in volume 1 of Studies in Symbolic Interaction. It says a community or other social group, defined as a social world, engages in “at least one primary activity”; features “sites,” or spaces “where activities occur”; uses “technology” [for] carrying out" these activities; and — in a more established social world — forms “organizations” to further one aspect or another of the world’s activities." The other was Gary Burnett and Paul Jaeger’s theory of information worlds, as seen in their 2010 book. It says communities, defined as an information world, feature social norms, or what it seen as right or wrong within the community; social types, or how people are classified or “typed” within a community (e.g. as a sci-fi fan, parent, lover of puns, etc.); information behavior, any common (or “normative”) behavior that relates to information; information value judgments made about what is important to individuals and the community; and boundaries where communities come into contact with one another and may (or may not) share information and communicate. Both theories allow for communities of multiple sizes, shapes, and settings to be considered, including the potential overlapping or nesting of communities with other communities.

Within this framing, the study used quantitative and qualitative methods to study five groups from across LibraryThing. First, a selection of messages from each group were qualitatively analyzed for their content, to help understand the communities existing around each group and the roles played by LibraryThing in them. Second, users from each of the groups were invited to participate in a survey, which asked them questions aimed at understanding what they sensed the roles to be in a broad sense. “Community” was left vague in the survey to allow users to interpret it based on their individual experiences; $25 gift cards were distributed to survey participants selected at random. Survey responses were quantitatively analyzed using appropriate statistical techniques. Third, select users were interviewed about their use of LibraryThing individually and as part of groups and communities, with a focus on an incident of interacting with others while using the site; as with the messages, interview transcripts were qualitatively analyzed based on the framing to help identify the roles played by LibraryThing.

Findings

Through analysis of the messages, survey responses, and interviews, LibraryThing was found to serve three roles as a boundary object in the existing and emergent communities of users from the five groups studied:

  1. A structure-based role, where LibraryThing facilitated and supported the translation, coherence, and convergence of existing and emergent communities through establishing community and organizational structure. This role, the strongest of the three seen, was about how well the digital library “fit” as a site and space for users’ practices in organizing content, discussion threads, and the group as a whole. Group moderators and key members helped establish the community’s structure, including what behavior was accepted and what social norms were to be followed. The translation and reconciliation of users’ meanings and understandings of the community and organizational structure allowed for new communities to emerge and be maintained over time. This also helped to avoid major conflicts that could occur otherwise (and did, in a couple of cases observed by me or discussed by interviewees). A structure-based role has been echoed in other research literature on knowledge sharing, common ground, communities of practice, social networks, and virtual book clubs.

  2. A moderate values-based role, where LibraryThing facilitated and supported the translation, coherence, and convergence of existing and emergent communities through users sharing information values. Although information value was not found to be a significant phenomenon from the survey responses, analysis across all three methods showed the role of LibraryThing is in facilitating what is often invisible work of value negotiation and translation. Users, perhaps without realizing it, have interests and opinions that they share with others through the space and features provided by LibraryThing. This invisible work becomes evident to users — who are insiders to the community, unlike my outsider-like role — in reflection on the community (as occurred in many of the interviews) or when conflicts occur. Some divergences and disagreements in values are accepted, however; information values may not cohere or converge completely, and often do not need to. The remaining differences may have contributed to values not being significant in the survey responses. Nevertheless, communities were seen to converge around digital library use that users feel part of and value for emotional, cultural, and informational reasons.

  3. A social network-based role, where LibraryThing facilitated and supported the coherence and convergence of emergent communities through establishing social ties and community culture. This role was only present in newly convergent communities, and was the weakest role of the three across many cases. Nevertheless, it was key for many individuals and communities. Users established connections and social ties and felt a sense of and part of a community (as a social world), with a common community culture. Boundary spanners — users who are members of, cross between, and interact with multiple groups and communities — were often important in this; their behaviors and activities were shaped by the digital library and the groups they were part of, but also mutually shaped the behaviors, activities, and norms of the groups and site back again in a cyclical, recurring process. In many cases, non-normative divergences in behavior — that which we might call “off-topic” — were accepted as activities that helped further cultural, social, and emotional connections. Users could exchange and share information about their everyday lives, information which might not have been relevant to the topic established for a thread or group, but brought them closer together and helped establish a community. A social network-based role has been echoed in previous research literature on tight-knit virtual book clubs, network-centric communities, and arguments for emphasizing digital library-based collaborations that strengthen social ties.

Implications

The potential implications of these roles and other findings, connected with the previous research literature, are summarized below for practical design and use of digital libraries and similar online communities, and for research and theory in these areas. In all cases, these implications should be tested through further research, but can be seen as initial conclusions that can be drawn about LibraryThing and other social digital libraries and information-centric online communities.

Digital Library Design and Use

  • Social digital libraries should highlight translation processes and resources for users, and encourage leaders of communities within the digital library to also highlight these processes and resources. This helps facilitate 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 to users, which helps avoid potential conflicts between individual or group norms and values and those of the broader organization. Designers and practitioners should be willing to engage in translation and negotiation over these rules with the pre-existing and newly emergent communities of users of the digital library.

  • Social digital libraries should provide for user profiles and encourage users to fill them out, if they are comfortable doing so. Separate spaces for off-topic discussion should be provided and encouraged. These features will allow users to build social ties, connections, and relationships between each other, should they so desire.

  • Designers and developers of digital libraries and online communities should target the right features at the right audience, taking a sociotechnical approach that provides appropriate technology (technical) and community (social) features, but tailored to those who want them and to the contexts and roles they are most useful for. 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.

  • Social digital libraries should 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.

  • Digital library designers and practitioners should span boundaries themselves, working with other practitioners and researchers beyond their home discipline towards solving problems of digital library design and practice.

Research and Theory

  • Researchers should consider the full context of social digital libraries as they are used by individuals, groups, communities, and organizations. This includes demographic and background variables that may impact use.

  • Deeper examination of particular phenomena — such as information value and its nature as invisible work — and of other digital libraries with less overt social features is necessary. Further variation in the communities, phenomena, and/or systems studied will complement the findings and implications seen in this study and explore them in different contexts. Some of these contexts may include curation practices, information sharing, and other information-centric online communities and social media sites.

  • Researchers should be boundary-sensitive in their work, and have awareness of such a view and of social and community theories of information.

  • Researchers and theorists should also look to span boundaries and work with other researchers, theorists, and practitioners beyond their home discipline. Researchers of digital libraries, social informatics, online communities, and information behavior should not be insular, but should be talking to one another.

  • The theoretical framework used for this study, and the survey developed from it, require minor revisions to address a few issues uncovered in the data collection and analysis processes. (Many thanks to all study participants for your indirect help in uncovering these!)

  • Finally, researchers and theorists should remain pluralistic in considering the multiple units of analysis and other boundary objects — such as books in this study — that may exist as a part (if not the focus) of the system of interactions surrounding a social digital library or online community.

Further Details

As stated above, further details of this study can be found on the page I have created for my dissertation on my web site. The page includes an abstracted summary of my dissertation, a PDF of the entire dissertation, and links to HTML versions of each of the chapters. Those who are interested in further details may find reading Chapter 1 (Introduction) and Chapter 5 (Discussion) provides the best long-form summary of the study and its findings, with Chapters 2, 3, and 4 providing extensive details of the existing research literature, methods of data collection, and results and findings, respectively. Parts of the dissertation use specialized language common in the field of information studies (within which I earned my PhD) that you may not be entirely familiar with. The page also includes links to copies of the consent form(s) you agreed to as part of participating in the survey or in an interview. The page includes links to publications and presentations I have made relating to my dissertation research, including my dissertation defense at Florida State University; these are shorter than the entire dissertation and may interest you. More publications will be posted once they are available.

If you have any further questions about the study you took part in, the findings and implications discussed in this brief report, or the related links mentioned above, please feel free to contact me; you can find my contact information below. If you have questions or concerns and would like to talk to someone other than me about the study, you are encouraged to contact the FSU Institutional Review Board (IRB) at 2010 Levy Street, Research Building B, Suite 276, Tallahassee, FL 32306–2742, or (850) 644–8633, or by email at humansubjects@magnet.fsu.edu. Thank you again for taking part in this research study, and I hope you found the experience worthwhile and find the results and implications interesting!