Who is the ‘digital user’?

Elders from Turkey

Image via Wikipedia

The first part of this phrase is easy to understand: “Digital” here refers to data that are recorded and stored electronically, using binary code. We can now create or convert written language, spoken language, static and kinetic images, and all sounds that are capable of being heard by human beings, in digital formats.

But who or what is is the “user”? It seems that the original use of this term was very specific, referring to a localised community of regular users or visitors to a particular library files in a building. Generally speaking, this community was reasonably homogenous: the community could be described demographically by age, socio-economic position, types of work or industry, lifestyle, age and so forth. It was therefore relatively easy to draw conclusions quite quickly about such large groups of people, and additionally, extrapolating what they are reading habits might be. For example, if there were large numbers of school children using a particular library, it was likely that there would be a heavy demand for those resources which supported and helped with homework assignments; a preponderance of elderly people might suggest a number of visitors who lingered, reading newspapers and magazines, and so on.

“User studies”, as an area of study within the discipline, has perhaps not receive the amount of attention that the discipline/profession should demand. Much early work in the discipline/profession involved solving the technical problems that were involved in handling physical collections.  But once upon a time, the librarian/scholar knew each and every one of his/her users personally, and knew what they knew or alternatively, what they didn’t know. There was no need for user studies. When libraries became very large indeed after the invention of printing, the librarian scholar not only lost touch with the content of all the books under his/her management, but also with the masses of users, or visitors, to the establishment.

As information professionals, we have an expressed dedication to providing a service: specifically, an information service. But how would we ever know whether the services that we provided were in fact appropriate for our users without knowing more about the users themselves?  For some time, user studies appeared to constitute rather general surveys of users, sometimes even based on personal and subjective observations, and these resulted largely in stereotypes. For example, ” Ten-year-old boys will read Harry Potter books”. My son didn’t.  Such user studies had the additional defect that they only looked at those who physically visited the library; not those who have never visited at all nor those who had others borrowing items on their behalf.  An “information user” was somebody who not only visited the library, but did borrow books and was an enrolled member; “information users” who did not visit the library or were not members of the library, as were not considered as such. The very thought that people were using information that lay outside the walls of the library was not even considered, and such information is regarded as of poor quality, if not subversive.

There are many problems with this construction of an information user. The most glaringly obvious is that there has been no research that I can find that examines the ways in which people use the information that they find in a library – or indeed beyond its walls – in their lives, apart, perhaps from Elfrida Chatman. There is an assumption that the use of this information has “good” outcomes, otherwise why would people want it? Furthermore, the library user is constructed as somebody who reads: reading itself, as an activity, is seen as “good”. It is logical though to suggest that some reading may be good, but some reading may be downright bad, and some may have no interest at all: a little like tasting the porridge of the three bears in the story.  Librarians have tended to avoid approaching this issue, which has resulted in a paradox: on the one hand, librarians have sought to provide a selection of materials that are deemed to be appropriate and good; on the other hand, it can be said that such selection involves a subtle, or surreptitious, type of censorship. But this matter can be addressed at another time.

Not only does the librarian – or indeed any other information professional – ignore any use of information or documents outside of his/her domain, but the user is also constructed as being deficient in some way. The main stimulus for anybody to visit a library or information centre of any kind is that they have an “information need”. In other words, they lack something which the librarian or archivist or  records manager can supply, and this is something that is found in a document. But usually all attention is paid to the document itself as a physical artefact: most commonly, a document is provided, or indeed, perhaps even more commonly, directions to a particular document given. How is an information need satisfied when one is given a classification number or an indexing term? This question doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody.

I must acknowledge that during the 1990s, interest developed in what is known as “information seeking behaviour”, or “human information behaviour”. Much of this research was based upon the theory of phenomenology, which contextualises the user within a particular milieu or context.  Unfortunately, there are so many factors or elements or phenomena or entities within anybody’s context at a particular moment, this research has, for the most part, been rather superficial. For example, a person is embedded in his or her own social construction: gender, for example, is largely understood to be a socially constructed phenomenon. The physical context, with its temperature and light variations, may have an effect on whether a person looks for information or not, or accept information or not. The organisational culture or climate will have an effect; as will the larger social environment, the philosophical and epistemological assumptions of both individual and his or her colleagues; religious persuasion; interest in the topic; personality and so on – the list is practically endless. It is certainly as complex as any given human being on this planet. And to add to this complexity and difficulty, context or situations trial resumed and variable, so that anything that may be true on one particular space – time continuum, may arguably not be true in another.

Working out who precisely a ‘digital user’ or ‘digital information user’ is,has become a matter which deserves focused attention. Now that everything except smell and taste can be digitised, information (as binary data) can easily be transmitted far and wide. This means that anybody can access nearly any information at nearly any time, should they have the correct equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. In other words, the digital user is as diverse as the people who live on this planet. The digital user or digital information user cannot be construed as a composite or average of human characteristics even, because of the great diversity that we find in our species at many levels, as indicated.  Add to this some of the problems identified above: the construction of the user as needy, the lack of knowledge concerning what people do with information once they get it, or even whether they understand it or not, we can rapidly realise that the global access to information presents a number of challenges. Not least amongst these challenges, is that of language: this is a quite obvious marker of culture. But beyond language, for example if we were to speak symbiotically, there are many images, icons, sounds, colours and so forth which, when represented digitally, may have quite different possible interpretations for different people at different times.

How then are we going to provide information services for people who we have not only not even met, but possibly cannot even imagine that exist? For those of us framed within our own contexts of space, time and culture, it is hard to imagine somebody who exists for the entire lives in a context that is quite different from our own. I am fortunate enough, for example, to live in a soundly constructed house which has clean running water, electricity, space and privacy, and a garden. I have easy access on made roads to schools, hospitals, and shops – as will as any other facility that I might need, such as a gym.  I have also been lucky enough to have received an excellent education at school and at university, I have travelled extensively, I can speak several languages, and have always been a voracious reader.

I therefore find it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine myself to be a woman who lives in the mountains of Lesotho, who is illiterate, who speaks only Sesotho, and must walk for hours carrying her sick child to a clinic which is visited by a nurse once a week. The same woman has no easy access to clean water, no electricity, and has experienced little beyond her own experience and the experiences that others have had – others who have told her their version of the events that they have experienced. And this woman is not, and may never be, a digital information user. But assuming that one day, using open access information sources and wireless technologies, and hoping that she or her children will be literate, she will be – even if secondhand through her children. With all due respect, her information needs will be not only substantially different from mine, in terms of what we find interesting or useful, but there will undoubtedly be a number of other differences and distinctions, but I cannot really understand how different, nor what I need to do, as an information professional, in order to solve any information problems that she may have.

While much important work has been done thus far on the development of digital information resources, most of it is predicated upon the assumption that the digital user will be a Minority world inhabitant: a person who is literate, fluent in possibly more than one language, highly educated on a comparative basis at least, and wealthy enough to have the equipment and connections. This person will also have social demands placed upon him or herself: his/her information needs may or may not be related to how to make a living, how to improve one’s financial and social position, how to survive, or even how to enjoy leisure time.

Who do you think the digital user is?  Is it someone you know, or someone you’ve never met?  How should your professional relationship be shaped?

I look forward to your comments as ever. All the very best from Sue.


SaveLibraries and Hitler: oh, the politics of it

Rt Hon David Cameron MP speaking at the Conser...

Image via Wikipedia

Many of you will be aware that David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, has a dastardly plan to close hundreds of British libraries, including school and mobile libraries.  Various groups have arisen to oppose this move, which can be likened to certain other totalitarian, heartless dictators of whom we have heard tell.  Hitler, for example, burnt many books, but here he is fulminating against his plan to close the libraries of Nazi Germany (yes, I didn’t know this before either! LOL). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7I67Hg-Gtno# On another note, with reference to Open Educational Resources (supported by UNESCO):  on 23rd February, a meeting will be held to further discuss and plan a truly ‘open’ university, which will be able to grant credit and academic status. I have included their Tweet tag here; the URL, if you want to follow this topic, is http://wikieducator.org/OER_for_Assessment_and_Credit_for_Students/Meetings .

A little cross-fertilization

Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed...

Image via Wikipedia

Today I decided to do a little cross-pollination from the FaceBook group of the same name (Digital Collaboration) which, of course, you are welcome to join.

There, I asked if you could list the issues that you think you should know something about in order to be a successful 21st century information professional. So far, the suggestions have been:


Australian Policy Online (apo.org.au) Briefing paper on impact of open access outside European universities. http://www.apo.org.au/research/briefing-paper-impact-open-access-outside-european-universities

Legal aspects of Open Access in Australia: http://www.oaklaw.qut.edu.au/

Fitzgerald, Anne (2009).  Open access policies, practices and licensing: a review of the literature in Australia and selected jursidictions.  (pdf available here).  http://eprints.qut.edu.au/28026/

Academic publishing in Europe. http://www.ape2011.eu/

Open access: Europe’s secret weapon? http://www.lightreading.com/document.asp?doc_id=158534

Directory of Open Access Journals http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=newTitles (courtesy of Lund University).

Hylén, Jan (2007)Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources. Paris, France: OECD 10.1787/9789264032125-en

“Open educational resources programme – phase 1” JISC 2009

“Open educational resources programme – phase 2. JISC. 2010.

WSIS Platform of Communities.  http://www.wsis-community.org/pg/groups/14358/open-educational-resources-oer/

University of Geneva. CERN Workshop on innovations in Scholarly Communication.  22-24 June 2011.  http://indico.cern.ch/conferenceDisplay.py?confId=103325

People’s Open Access Education.  http://www.peoples-uni.org/

OECD. Giving knowledge for free.  http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/giving-knowledge-for-free_9789264032125-en

OER Commons.  http://www.oercommons.org/

I HAVE EMPHASISED THIS SECTION I suppose because it serves to illustrate the extent to which we (the people) – knowledge users and creators – live in a virtual, digital, information environment.  My apologies if you think I have gone a bit overboard.  What is our role in such an environment?  Do we become guides and mentors? Comments?


National Library of Australia. http://www.nla.gov.au/preserve/digipres/

Digital preservation e-forum. http://neflin2.blogspot.com/2011/01/digital-preservation-e-forum.html

Digital Preservation Coalition.  http://www.dpconline.org/

Alliance for Permanent Access.  http://www.alliancepermanentaccess.org/events/event-payments

JISC Beginner’s guide to digital preservation. 2011.   http://www.alliancepermanentaccess.org/events/event-payments



Critical information literacy (Not only for library users – records managers and archivists would also know that their users may well need some assistance in this area).

Primary author here is James Elborg.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2006. http://acrlblog.org/2006/03/21/making-information-literacy-critical/

Information Literacy Thinking Group.  http://infotheory.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2011/02/09/2011-lacuny-instruction-spring-event/

Swanson, Troy.  2004.  A radical step: implementing a critical information literacy model.  http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/portal_libraries_and_the_academy/summary/v004/4.2swanson.html

Archive fever: interations on identity and knowledge in an age of accelerated human information interaction. (interesting blog).  http://www.archivefever.com/2011_01_01_archive.html

Viadhyanathan, Siva. Critical information studies: a bibliographic manifesto.  http://www.sivacracy.net/archives/002930.html. (I really like this).  You could also take a look at

Pawley, Christine.  2003. Information literacy: a contradictory coupling. Library Quarterly, Vol. (4): pp. 422-452.


15th International Conference on Information Visualisation (in London).  http://www.wikicfp.com/cfp/servlet/event.showcfp?eventid=12052&copyownerid=17187

Some exampleshttp://www.flickr.com/groups/datavisualization/pool/

And some morehttp://www.designer-daily.com/information-is-beautiful-30-examples-of-creative-infography-5538

I love the way these guys transform data into something easily understandable:  Information is beautiful. http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/

The state of information visualisation 2011.  http://eagereyes.org/blog/2011/state-of-infovis-2011

AT &T Labs Research Information Visualisation.  http://www.research.att.com/groups/infovis/ (And they’re looking for staff!!)

Bertini, Enrico.  I fell in love with data [blog].  Here he lists the most important papers to read on information visualisation. http://fellinlovewithdata.com/guides/7-classic-foundational-vis-papers and more useful stuff at http://infosthetics.com/archives/author/enrico_bertini/


There is a journal devoted to this topic:Marketing library services. http://www.infotoday.com/mls/jan11/index.shtml as well as a track at the upcoming ‘Computers in Libraries‘ Conference (March, Washington DC): http://www.infotoday.com/cil2011/day.asp?day=Monday#TrackD.

Dempsey, Kathy. 2009.  The accidental library marketer.  Medford, NJ: Information Today Inc. is a recent book on this topic.  A book review of this item appears at http://www.infotoday.com/mls/jan11/Book-Review-The-Accidental-Library-Marketer.shtml, explaining why this is important for librarians.

Ideas for marketing can be found at the blog New marketing trends: marketing ideas for non-profits and libraries. http://themwordblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/2011-john-cotton-dana-library-public.html

Marketing in 2011. http://www.margieclayman.com/ten-questions-and-answers-about-2011-marketing

Many of you will be aware of the IFLA Marketing Award: http://www.ifla.org/management-and-marketing/marketing-award


This is a useful and recent starting point: Digital library futures: user perspectives and institutional strategies.  2010.  Edited by Ingeborg Verheul, Anna Maria Tammaro & Steve Witt.  Berlin/Munich: De Gruyter Saur.

Enhancing user interactions in digital libraries is a useful blog, with plenty of examples as well.  http://boonious.typepad.com/ux2/2011/01/index.html


‘Crowdsourcing’ is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘outsourcing’.  In the information world, it means getting a range of opinions and ideas from which to choose – hopefully this choice means you will discern the best possible information.

Interesting sites and software can be found at this blog: Readwriteweb.  http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/crowdsourcing_million_heads.php

Crowdsourcing in action can be experienced at this blog:  http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/

This leads naturally into the next topic:


The Semantic Web continues to develop. Some latest news: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/parc_releases_new_semantic_technology_in_form_of_an_outlook_plugin.php

There is, in fact, a semantic web association (there had to be, I suppose): http://iswc.semanticweb.org/

A guide to the top recent software for the semantic web:  http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/top_10_semantic_web_products_of_2010.php and http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/semantic-web/

There are a couple of conferences coming up on the topic, too (aren’t there always?  In fact, who has the time and money to attend all of these conferences?????)

The 10th International Conference on the semantic web is being held in Germany this year: http://iswc2011.semanticweb.org/

There is, interestingly enough, a call for papers on the topic of semantic web and collaboration (through social networking).  Check it out: http://www.wikicfp.com/cfp/servlet/event.showcfp?eventid=11843&copyownerid=9889

Combining with information visualisation, there is a conference in Palo Alto on Visual interfaces to the social and semantic web, but as it’s this Sunday, I don’t suppose many of you will be able to go, even if you really wanted to! http://www.smart-ui.org/events/vissw2011/

In Europe – Crete, Greece, to be precise – the EU is holding a conference on the Extended Semantic Web. http://www.future-internet.eu/events/eventview/article/eswc2011-the-8th-extended-semantic-web-conference.html


Cloud computing predictions for 2011.  http://www.computerworlduk.com/in-depth/cloud-computing/3253266/cloud-computing-2011-predictions/http://www.cio.com/article/645763/Cloud_Computing_2011_Predictionshttp://www.cloudtweaks.com/2010/11/2011-cloud-computing-predictions/http://searchcloudcomputing.techtarget.com/feature/Cloud-computing-in-2011-Whats-on-tap;

ACM Symposium on Cloud computinghttp://socc2011.gsd.inesc-id.pt/

One other link that some of you may be interested in is the South African framework for digital resources, available at: http://digi.nrf.ac.za/publ/Managing%20Digital%20Collections.pdf

Underneath each of these topics, I have inserted linked to some of the seminal sites in the respective area.


What other topics are important to you and should be discussed here?

Would you like to contribute a paragraph or two on why you find this essential/intriguing/important or whatever?

This is long.  That’s what happens when information professionals get going.  We know there’s so much out there.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.