#CityLIS Student Perspectives: the widening of library history, part ii / my independent study by Mariana Ou

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Mariana Ou, and is the second part of reflections on her Independent Study about Library History.


In the part i of this series of posts, I have briefly introduced the field of library history in its values and problems, with the promise to come back to talk about some historians who had been expanding library history by diversifying their inquiries and looking more broadly to the library’s social milieu. And here I go:

ii.i Adding ‘culture’ to library history

History in general has become a much more diversified discipline throughout the twentieth-century, owning greatly to the Annales school and their introduction of culture, anthropology, microhistory and many other themes to historical inquiry. And library history, it seems, has been benefiting from this widening trend. In his 2016 essay The Library as History, German librarian Elmar Mittler confirms that ‘Library history is an expanding area of research’, and that ‘The main focus of library history is changing with new research methods and the interests of cultural history. Library history as institutional or organizational history is really only of minor interest. Rather, the relevance of the library as part of the history of different fields of study is coming into greater focus’.

This is in consonance with the previously explored Jesse Shera’s ideas about library history as valid only if it considers the culture where the library is both part and agent of. And to be able to do that, the historian has no option but to resort to the history of other disciplines.

ii.ii Wayne Wiegand and the American library history

An active member of the group of library historians who had been widening the field is American author and academic Wayne Wiegand. One of his most preeminent works is what is considered the best biography of Melvil Dewey written so far, 1996’s Irrepressible Reformer; even though it is a research concentrated on an important figure, it is far from being a descriptive, gentle biography—quite the opposite, as Wiegand didn’t shy away from the man’s more controversial characteristics and actions.

In an assessment of decades of library history in America, Wiegand has recognised that many of the limitations of studies in the field can be attributed to an assumption by library historians that libraries are simply ‘good’ institutions, to be investigated ‘from the inside out’:

To stretch a metaphor, they generally study the history of individual trees with little attention to the ecological patterns and changes in the much larger forest in which these trees are rooted, grow, and survive, prosper, or die. And because librarianship itself has not generated influential or significant theoretical perspectives (it is focused mostly on process, seeking to answer “how” rather than “why” questions), American library history has lacked theoretical diversity.


In his most recent and fascinating book, 2015’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wiegand traveled all around the country to capture librarians and mainly users’ views, memories, and experiences of the public library, in a ‘bottom-up’, ‘library in the life of the user perspective’ to the history of the American public library—an approach which, according to the author, allowed him to ‘shift the focus from issues of information access to include analysis of the competencies and skills public libraries helped users develop that fostered sociability and invited community involvement’. His history of the public library, then, is ‘primarily about people’ who used these libraries’ spaces in the most various ways and the reading they were able to obtain from them. And concluded: ‘From a “library in the life of the user” perspective, public libraries have put cultural participation on public display’.

ii.iii Alistair Black and the British public library

In the UK, scholar and author Alistair Black is one of the most significant names in recent library history and great enthusiast of a more diversified disciplinary field. His perceptions of what it had been and what it should be match Shera’s, as he recognises a valuable library history as the one that engages with debates on social processes; as he wrote in A New History of the English Public Library: Social and Intellectual Contexts 1850-1914: ‘Too frequently researchers have taken the documents relating to a library, or group of libraries, and examined them with a view to producing a mere chronicle, bereft of references to non-library influences. Such an approach misses the central purpose of library history, which should not be pursued for its own sake, or for the glorification of individuals and institutions, but for the comprehension of social processes, historical and contemporary’.

The strong focus on public libraries in his extensive work in library history is no aimless choice. Just as Wiegand, Black also thinks there is a certain idea of the public library as an institution that is simply ‘accepted’, with no political commitment, which really impairs historical inquiry. Instead—and interestingly, like Wiegand, also using a tree metaphor!—he affirms:

The public library has never been a self-contained institution. As argued above, its numerous cultural roots spread far and wide. …[It] has successfully emerged over the past century and a half as an integral ingredient of the social fabric of our villages, towns and cities. It is ingrained in our cultural folklore. Historians of the public library are consequently best advised to view their subject as a part of, rather than apart from, society.

And that is the reason that ‘there is no reason why libraries should not be examined with reference to the history of leisure, or urbanization, or ideas, or class, or social policy, or the economy, or culture, or central-local government tension, or social space, or professional-expert discourses, or any other issue’—being that the exact approach Paul Hoare and himself used in the edition of the lovely volume III of the Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland 1850-2000where one can find articles on the political roots of the ideal of public libraries, on libraries as leisure, on public library services for children, on libraries in relation to urbanisation processes, on women in libraries, on working-class and public libraries, and many other themes that borrow from other disciplines to paint deeper picture of libraries in historical perspective.

My take: Public libraries can function as both starting and ending point of historical research; you start from there to establish your inquiries, then explore the diverse surrounding fields of interest, to finally be able to come back and understand the library in its comprehensive nature. I am very interested in what the activities of people (librarians and users) in public libraries can reveal of the social and cultural milieu, and how can we capture these experiences that are often very personal and limited.


Black, A., (1996). A new history of the English public library: social and intellectual contexts, 1850-1914. London: Leicester University Press.
Black, A. and Hoare, P. eds., (2006). The Cambridge history of libraries in Britain and Ireland. The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mittler, E. The library as history. Quaerendo, 2016, volume 46, issue 2-3, pages 222-240. DOI: 10.1163/15700690-12341352
Wertheimer, A. and Davis D. eds., (2000). Library history research in America: essays commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Library History Round Table, American Library AssociationWashington, D.C. : Library of Congress, The Center for the Book.
Wiegand, W., (1996). Irrepressible reformer: a biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association.
Wiegand, W., (2015). Part of our lives: a people’s history of the American public library. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


You can follow Mariana on Twitter.

This post is an edited version of the original which was published on the author’s blog on 31st March 2017.

If you are interested in studying Library and Information Science, our next Open Evening is on June 14th from 5.30-7.30pm – you can book your place here.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

Posted in Student Perspectives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#citylis Student Perspectives: library history, part i / my independent study by Mariana Ou

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Mariana Ou, and is the first part of reflections on her Independent Study about Library History.


i.i On the value of library history

In an article of 1952, the American librarian and scholar Jesse H. Shera reflected On the value of library history. His purpose was ‘to examine the contribution which history can make to an understanding of the role of the library in society’. First, he thought it was important to establish what is the social utility of history itself; for that he borrowed from English philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History that:

What is history for? … My answer is that history is “for” human self-knowledge. It is generally thought to be of importance to man that he should know himself: where knowing himself means knowing … his nature as man … Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.

Shera agrees with this notion, and also with Collingwood’s pretty definition of history as a ‘science, or an answering of questions; concerned with human actions in the past; pursued by interpretation of evidence; for the sake of human self-knowledge’.

And then what for library history?

Shera characterises the beginning of the writing of the history of libraries as ‘long, tedious, and often uninspiring narration of the events, personalities, and circumstances surrounding the formation, growth, and development of individual institutions’. (Anyone who has ever researched a bit of library history certainly came across one or two of these ‘narratives’.) Thankfully, as Shera noticed, the scenario was changing, and historical studies which considered the library as a social institution embedded in a broader social milieu, not as a ‘isolated and independent agency existing in social vaccums’, were emerging.

A fine example, according to Shera, of a work that defied its time by arguing for history as essential to ‘an understanding of library in relation to its coeval culture’ is professor Lee Pierce Butler’s 1933 An Introduction to Library Science, in which ‘not only did he reveal that a knowledge of history is essential to the librarian’s complete intellectual equipment, but he showed history itself to be the logical starting point for almost every inquiry into the nature and function of the library as a social agency’.


And from Butler’s later tripartite definition of culture as ‘an organic intergration of a scholarship, a physical equipment, and a social organisation’, Shera then concluded in his article that:

Valid library history, then, can be written only when the library is regarded in relation to this tripartite division of culture, a phenomenon which not only has physical being, is formed in response to social determinants, but finds its justification as a segment of the totality of the intellectual processes of society. The library is an agency of the entirety of the culture; more specifically, it is one portion of the system of graphic communication through which that culture operates, and its historic origins are to be sought in an understanding of the production, flow, and consumption of graphic communication through all parts of the social pattern.

i.ii But should ‘library history’ even exist?

Six decades and the World Wide Web on, Shera’s “graphic communication” does sound a bit like history—but everything else seems not only right but timely, even. His article gets refreshed relevancy and is shed new light on when read along a paper presented in the 2015 Library History Conference by Kristian Jensen from the British Library, Should we write library history?

The paper is a provocation for debate, as the author described. He points out how there seems to be ‘a real uncertainty about what library history is’, as the many studies on ‘library history’ cover a too wide variety of themes and periods, suggesting a lack of cohesion in the field. Can a study on ‘the role of public libraries in the twentieth-century Scandinavian models of democracy’ and another on ‘the role of libraries in the life of a Cistercian monastery’ be recognised as doing the same kind of historical investigation?, asks Jensen:

An illustration of the Library of Alexandria (Public Domain), and The New York Public Library (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License- CC-BY-SA 3.0): Can it be that the activities performed in these diverse places are actually related?

Can one meaningfully ask questions of such a diverse set of institutions? Are these phenomena—these libraries—really in the same category, or is Library History one big error of classification?

And even though Jensen is sceptical about library history being able to stand up as a discipline, he is also ‘very optimistic about the opportunities which libraries offer to those who want to write about them from historical perspectives’ and recognises that ‘there is space for historiography on libraries, the writing of the histories of libraries rooted within disciplines, be they political, economic, cultural history, art historical, the study of vernacular literatures, the classics, politics or sociology’.

Both these precious articles go far beyond what I cited here, but when it comes to the author’s decades-apart perspectives on library history, it seems clear that they agree that:

1. the study of history is very much valuable to librarianship and others;
2. the social context and cultural milieu in which the library is embedded is essential to its historical enquiry.

In a next post, I will present the ways in which some historians have widened the antiquarian perspective on libraries to include cultural and political aspects in their approach to ‘library history’.


Butler, P. 1933. An Introduction to Library Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Butler, P. 1951. Librarianship as a Profession. Library Quarterly, XXI (October), 240.
Collingwood, R. G. 1946. The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jensen, K. 2016. Should we write library history? Quaerendo, Volume 46, Issue 2-3, pp. 116-128. DOI: 10.1163/15700690-12341349
Shera, J. 1952. On the value of library history. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 22, No. 3, Jul, pp. 240-251.


You can follow Mariana on Twitter.

This post is an edited version of the original which was published on the author’s blog on 23rd March 2017.

If you are interested in studying Library and Information Science, our next Open Evening is on June 14th from 5.30-7.30pm – you can book your place here.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

Posted in Student Perspectives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

LIS PhD Idea: ‘In Search of Understanding’

This post originally appeared on 05/04/2017, on thelynxiblog.com


The School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering at City, University of London is offering 5 doctoral scholarships for research students who wish to start in September 2017. The School is inviting applications for the scholarships, to be received by May 19th 2017.

The Centre for Information Science would like to put forward a candidate for the project described below, and we would be pleased to hear from potential research students. If you think you would like to work in this growing and important area of library & information science, please drop me a line [lyn@city.ac.uk].

The project is outlined as a suggestion, which can be further developed to reflect the individual interests of the researcher.

We would also be interested to hear from applicants who have alternative funding, or who are able to pay fees and support themselves.

More information can be found on the School webpage.


In Search of Understanding


The promotion of understanding, as opposed to simply the providing of information or the sharing of knowledge, has gained increased recognition in the past three years as an objective for library and information science (LIS), particularly in the context of concerns about the so-called the post-factual society. But how this can be done remains unclear, particularly when the nature of ‘understanding’ itself remains vague.

Within the information sciences, commentators have put forward an informal view of understanding as a special kind of knowledge, lying on a spectrum between knowledge and wisdom. More formal analysis within LIS has usually invoked hermeneutic philosophy in general, and Gadamer and Heidegger in particular, in discussing understanding, but this has not yet led to helpful insights for the discipline, still less to improvements in design of systems and services. David Bawden and Lyn Robinson (2016a, 2016b) have put forward the outline of a concept of understanding for LIS based on Luciano Floridi’s Philosophy of Information (PI). The aim of this project is to more fully develop this idea so as to provide a firmly grounded concept of understanding, which may be used establish the place of LIS in the contemporary information environment, and to improve practice.


The project will have three main phases:

  1. Conceptual analysis

This will involve: (a) a content analysis of the literature of all relevant disciplines, including but not limited to LIS, information systems and communications/media studies, to establish the meaning and significance of understanding; (b) philosophical analysis, focusing on situating understanding within the PI framework; (c) analysis of publicly available information systems, to establish the extent to which any promote understanding

  1. Expert analysis

This will involve: (a) a Delphi study of LIS academics and reflective practitioners, on the concept of understanding for LIS; (b) a series of in-depth interviews with scholars from a variety of fields, for the same purpose; (c) a critical incident study, to identify examples of information systems (in the broadest sense) enhancing understanding

  1. Conceptual design

This will involve the outline design of an information system (or systems) which would have the explicit aim of helping its users improve their understanding of a topic or issue, rather than just providing them with information about it


The project will have both academic and practical impact. Academically, it will help to establish the conceptual and theoretical framework for the LIS discipline, in particular enhancing its philosophical foundations. This in turn will affect disciplinary syllabi. Practically, it will pave the way towards a new generation of information systems, focused on understanding rather than information and knowledge. This in turn should provide some amelioration for the problems of the post-factual society.


The supervisors will be Prof David Bawden and Dr Lyn Robinson. Prof Luciano Floridi (Oxford Internet Institute) has agreed to act advisor.


Applicants for this studentship need to have: a good degree in a relevant subject (e.g. LIS, information systems, philosophy, communications and media studies, publishing); demonstrable ability for conceptual analysis and evaluation of information; demonstrable ability in communication and dissemination of information (through, e.g. publication of papers or blog posts)


At least three papers will be published in major journals of relevant subject areas (e.g. Journal the Association for Information Science and Technology, Journal of Documentation, Social Epistemology), and at least one paper presented at a major conference (e.g. the Conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS) conference). A close of project meeting would be held at the university, in conjunction with a professional association such as CILIP, to publicis the results. A project blog, supplemented by Twitter, will promote and share the on-going progress of the project. Interim results and data sets will be made available in the City University Repository, and in the external Humanities Commons repository.


Bawden, D. and Robinson, L. (2016a), Information and the gaining of understanding, Journal of Information Science, 42(3), 294-299

D Bawden and L Robinson (2016b), “A different kind of knowing”: speculations on understanding in light of the Philosophy of Information. Paper presented at the 9th CoLIS (Conceptions of Library and Information Science) conference, Uppsala, June 25 2016. Open access version in the Humanities Commons at http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/M65046

Posted in Bursaries, Scholarships and Other Opportunities, Reflections and Research | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

CityLIS Student Perspectives: End of 2nd Term!!! My thoughts as an international student @ CityLIS by Shohana Nowrin

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Shohana Nowrin and reflects on the end of the second term at CityLIS.


It was the day of 26th September 2016 when I joined to the City, University of London and became a member of CityLIS. I would like to say that it was the most memorable and lovely day of my life. Before joining to the CityLIS I was really scared and worried about new environment, new educational system and many more other thoughts were circled in my mind (although I visited London 3 more times before joining CityLIS 😊). But I can still remember that smiley face of Dr Lyn Robinson on that day when she cordially welcomed us at the induction day. On that day, I met with all the lovely people of CityLIS specially Dr Lyn Robinson, Dr David Bawden, Ludi Price (Phd student of CityLIS), and all of our fellow nice classmates and returned home with a smiling face.

Time flies. It is almost end of the 2nd term. I can’t believe that we are going to finish this journey very soon. I learned a lot from this last six months during when I visited so many libraries and places (British Library, The National Archives, Linklaters, Internet Archives, Wellcome Collections and so on); attended a lots of seminar, workshop, lectures organized by CityLIS; met with our lovely guest lecturers from different institutions and organizations and many more. It was really a great opportunity for us which we got from CityLIS. One important thing I would like to mention here that all my worriedness and anxiousness that were going through in my mind before joining here are gone away like a magic. I did not face any problems to adapt this new educational system. And this was happened only because of this lovely and friendly environment of CityLIS. When I feel any queries about anything, surprisingly, I observed it was posted in our Moodle forum by our Course leaders before even asking about that. I don’t know how they do this :)😊.!!! It is really amazing. Not only that, I also received the reply of my queries made through email very promptly. The only painful job is to do our Coursework within a deadline 😝 😝 …….


Photo credit: Dr. Lyn Robinson

Although we are going to finish this lovely journey (which I don’t want to do so ☹☹) but I believe that we will not forget each other and we will keep in touch always. Love you all. Love you #CityLIS.


You can follow Shohana on Twitter.

This post is was originally published on the author’s blog, Limit exists only in the mind,  on 1st February 2017.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

Posted in Student Perspectives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CityLIS Writes: Ask the Crowd: Ethnographic Methods and Community Engagement Strategies in Digital Libraries by Irene Tortorella

***This essay was written by CityLIS student Irene Tortorella in Spring 2016. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

Keywords: #digitallibraries #userstudies #libraryoutreach #socialweb #socialtheory #opendata #semanticweb #crowdsourcing


The statement “digital libraries are social systems” underpins the topic of the social significance of digital libraries. Digital libraries are social systems because of their value to the society, the community, the crowd[1]. Calhoun (2014) spoke of the social roles assumed by digital libraries asserting that they: “support the free flow of ideas; empower individuals; support teaching, learning and the advancement of knowledge; provide economic benefits; and preserve intellectual and cultural assets for future generations” (Calhoun, 2014). In addition, digital libraries allow individuals to interact with each other, making use of data and information resources (Borgman et al., 1995). Most of the social roles performed by both digital and physical libraries are related to their contribution in enhancing democratic access to information. In fact, digital libraries are meant and built for a community of individuals in order to meet their information needs and uses (Borgman, et al. 1995). Behind the social value of digital libraries in contemporary society, Buttenfield, et al. (2003) are very interested in understanding the social aspects of digital libraries, “the web of social and material relations in which digital libraries are embedded” (cit. Buttenfield, et al. 2003). This web of social interactions is partially unleashed from digital libraries’ social roles themselves, and concerns the aspects of community involvement, engagement and participation in digital libraries. In this essay, in order to uncover the importance of the network of social interactions for digital libraries, I will start framing my discourse in terms of social theory, establishing and explaining key-concepts from Luhmann’s social systems approach, such as communication, interaction and event. Then, I am going to give an account of two digital libraries’ social aspects: 1) the application of ethnographic methods in the construction of digital libraries systems; 2) the provision of linked open data[2] for community engagement projects, such as digital scholarship crowdsourcing initiatives. I have chosen these two aspects, because I believe they represent the moments in which digital libraries’ interactions with society, politics, values and the community are more crucial in shaping and improving digital libraries’ information architecture, access and discoverability. In analysing their connections with the crowd, I claim that digital libraries are social systems not only because of their value to the community, but also because the community is of value to digital libraries themselves in many ways.

  1. A theoretical framework: digital libraries as social system

Luhmann’s theory defines social systems as based on communication, and precisely, on communicative events (Luhmann, 1995). Events are moments, which together create the sense of the passing of time, with a start and an end (Luhmann, 1995). They are communicative because they are meaningful, and they convey meanings because they are filled with information. Interaction is a fundamental concept of the theory: there is no such thing as interaction-free communication. In fact, “society is not possible without interaction, nor interaction without society” (Luhmann, 1995). For Luhmann, technologies cannot be social systems because they are not “communicative events” (Grundmann, 1999). When he first enunciated his theory technologies could in fact enable communication, but they lacked the interactive aspect which characterises social systems. Recent interpretations of Luhmann’s theory have been applied to the social study of technology: the modern systems theory, built upon older Luhmann’s approaches, considers digital technologies sufficiently interactive to be considered socio-technological systems. The human-machine interaction resembles the human-human interaction, and in this theoretical perspective digital libraries are also entitled to be studied and observed as social systems.

  1. Ethnographic methods in designing digital library systems

“Ethnography” is the study of the distinctive practices of particular human groupings through observation of and immersion in those practices, and also the representations of those people, based on such study (Hakken, 1999). Ethnographic fieldwork involves observing directly and meaningfully in the practices of interest, and includes finding ways to participate actively in the practices; in this sense the notion of “embodied understanding” comes to hand: if a person actually does something, he or she understands it better than just observing it or hearing it from another person (Hakken, 1999). The application of socially grounded user studies in digital libraries development is part of a broader field related to ethnographic methods, also concerned with human information behaviour. “The librarian as ethnographer” (Kline, 2013) is a type of LIS researcher able to inform the design of digital libraries by observing users’ behaviour through the use of ethnographic methods. Borrowing this kind of ethnographic analysis from social science can provide an idea of the perspective of the target user community (Dobreva, et al., 2012). Observational and participatory researches help with understanding digital libraries’ users, the way they try to retrieve and use information, and the challenges they face during information seeking processes (Dent Goodman, 2011).

The investigation of digital libraries’ users’ behaviour has its roots in the application of ethnographic research to business and computer science. Hakken is an ethnographer, and he observed that “cyberspace is the notional social arena we enter when using computers to communicate” (Hakken, 1999). Cyberspace is also a “knowledge society” (Hakken, 1999) that can be analysed applying an ethnographic approach; in the same way digital libraries are knowledge societies, because they represent socio-technical systems interacting with the production of knowledge (Buttenfield, et al., 2003). Digital libraries are designed to provide access – which can be, simultaneously, technical, cognitive and social (Buttenfield, et al., 2003, my italics) – to that knowledge. Ethnographic approaches are relevant to the design of information systems because they give insights on the best way to provide those kinds of access to information, which eventually will lead to knowledge. Examples of community analysis – having a lot in common with ethnography – date back to the end of the 19th century, when the gathering of information about the community for evaluating and improving services was seen as crucial to librarianship (Dent Goodman, 2011). When it comes to designing digital libraries, librarians are ethnographers because they ask the crowd, observe the community, talk to users about what they observe, and ask questions in order to look for patterns in users’ answers. The perfect ethnographic method seeks to gather information through the active observation, over a period of time, of users’ behaviour; it also involves the direct participation of LIS professionals, in order to provide the necessary context to the investigation (Dent Goodman, 2011). It is fundamental to choose a portion of users which is representative of the entire community, and will actually make use of a specific digital library. Complex communities are hard to frame, and this is the reason why Shumar (2005) uses Anderson’s imagined communities concept to choose the target community for his ethnographic research on digital libraries. Communities are products of social imagination, and they must be defined symbolically (Shumar, 2005); therefore choosing a focus group which is “virtually” prototypical of a well-defined community is essential. Nardi and O’Day (2003) argue that it is important to look closer at the people in the moment when they interact with tools, generating practices. “A technological innovation may look good when considered in isolation and yet turn out to be problematic or incomplete in actual settings of use” (Nardi and O’Day, 2003). This is specifically the reason why digital librarians cannot work in isolation, and should instead put the community – the crowd – at the centre of the design process, involving it in various stages of the digital libraries’ implementation and further evaluation.

  1. Community engagement: (linked) open data for crowdsourcing and digital scholarship

Currently, the trend in digital libraries is the move to a linked data environment, inspired by the semantic web model, in which data are released from libraries and their digital catalogue and freely available on the web. Linked open data improves the relevance of faceted search results; moreover, the online availability of collections of data, semantically linked, is an opportunity for libraries and information providers to engage with the public. Over the last decade digital libraries have started to make their data available to the community, with the intent of reaching new audiences, other than the library community (Deliot, 2014). Many institutions are expected to reach out to the community, and ask for its feedback or specialist knowledge in various ways (Van Hooland and Verborgh, 2014). There are many methods of seeking assistance from the community: partnerships with volunteers, social networking, applications such Wikis which allow for communal input and editing (Budzise-Weaver, Chen and Mitchell, 2012). Then, there is crowdsourcing, one of the most important social web phenomena, with plural potentialities and applications in the digital libraries world (Calhoun, 2014). Estellés-Arolas and González-Ladrón-de-Guevara (2012) analysed various definitions of crowdsourcing, in order to extract common elements in crowdsourcing initiatives. From their analysis, the ultimate definition of crowdsourcing has been created:

“Crowdsourcing is a type of participative online activity in which an individual, an institution, a non-profit organization, or company proposed to a group of individuals of varying knowledge, heterogeneity, and number, via a flexible open call, the voluntary undertaking of a task” (Estellés-Arolas and González-Ladrón-de-Guevara, 2012).

The participative activity of crowdsourcing is social because it is voluntary, and done for the benefit of the community. It is also social because it provides an occasion for the crowd to apply its skills and share its knowledge, in a collaborative effort to make digital libraries better. In fact, the above cited authors continue saying:

“The undertaking of the task, of variable complexity and modularity, and in which the crowd should participate bringing their work, money, knowledge and/or experience, always entails mutual benefit. The user will receive the satisfaction of a given type of need, be it economic, social recognition, self-esteem, or the development of individual skills, while the crowdsourcer will obtain and utilize to their advantage that what the user has brought to the venture, whose form will depend on the type of activity undertaken.” (Estellés-Arolas and González-Ladrón-de-Guevara, 2012).

Digital libraries which have been involved in crowdsourcing strategies are social systems, because they use social engagement techniques to ask a group of people to achieve a shared, significant, and large goal (Holley, 2010). Individuals from the crowd – the community – work collaboratively together as a group, and “rather than belonging to a specified group of employees or contractors, people who work on crowdsourced projects are either volunteers or part-time freelancers who generally work online and from home” (Bartlett, 2014). The crowd is a pool of content editors, translators, transcriptionists and annotators (Grassi, Morbidoni, Nucci, 2012), coming into play when, for example, methods such Optical Character Recognition (OCR) are efficient but not perfectly reliable in detecting printed text due to the poor condition of the original image (Bartlett, 2014); not to mention the problems with the identification of handwritten text. A large number of digital libraries get assistance from their online patrons, not only in transcribing texts, but also identifying images, content, and tagging elements in digitised documents (Bartlett, 2014). The crowdsourcing strategy enables the integration of the community into the collection access development process. Similar digital libraries’ projects are, in fact, all about enhancing access, which also, in its turn, enables better interoperability – and discoverability. For example, the LibCrowds platform launched by the British Library and developed by British Library Labs, hosts various crowdsourcing projects, including Convert-a-card (British Library Labs, 2015). The latter focuses on the retro-conversion of British Library’s Asian and African Studies collection’s printed card catalogue, and it asks three volunteers to collaboratively match the image of a catalogue card against a record from the WorldCat database.

Figure 1: Convert-a-Card Process Copyright © The British Library Board

“By asking three people to complete the same task, and looking for cases where at least two volunteers have selected the same record, we can provide a level of risk mitigation and be confident that the records being retrieved are correct” (Mendes, 2015). This example of collaborative effort shows how individuals come together in interactive, communicative events to help improve the findability of the British Library’s Asian and African Studies collection through interaction with a machine or computer, in line with Luhmann’s social systems approach.

So far the contributions to LibCrowds have been applauded as invaluable. The LibCrowds community is so keen on enhancing access to the British Library’s collections that they also voluntarily decided to participate to a forum-like online discussion on the project. In this space the crowd meet, discuss, ask questions, share information and ideas, while curators and librarians from the British Library are active in promoting the use of BL open datasets, available from the LibCrowds’s website[3]. Linked open data are useful not only for crowdsourced data and metadata enrichment projects such as Convert-a-card. The possibilities given by putting data to use are many, and from metadata to research data, leveraging engagement with the community has never been so easy.

When it comes to research data, the community that digital libraries engage with is generally a scholarly one. As I already mentioned, linked open data render digital libraries very similar to the semantic web. “The semantic web and linked data are important to the social web because they produce open, reusable bits of data that facilitate machine-to-machine interactions, in turn enabling better integration and interoperability of digital library information in other contexts.” (Calhoun, 2014). The semantic web allows computers to automatically match, retrieve, and link resources across the internet which are related to each other. From a scholarly point of view, applying the same concept to digital libraries offers significant opportunities for the community of users, in terms of publishing, referencing, researching and re-using digital research outcomes. Linked data repositories are very heavily used digital libraries themselves, and make open data accessible everywhere, in real-time, with immediate research findings’ impact (Griffin, 2015). Linked open data allow scholars to research in a non-traditional way: for example, big datasets are crucial for Digital Humanities research, which applies tools such data mining or text analysis in order to find meaningful patterns (Hearst, 1999). Linked open data ask the scholarly crowd to change old paradigms of research, in order to move towards a data-driven approach for both humanities and science research fields. “The emerging paradigm of social machines provides a lens onto future developments in scholarship and scholarly collaboration, as we live and study in a hybrid physical-digital sociotechnical system of enormous and growing scale” (De Roure, 2014).

Figure 2: De Roure, D. (2014).
Creative Commons 2016.

Figure 2 represents De Roure (2012)’s model for the hybrid physical-digital sociotechnical system we live in, which I find applicable to digital libraries, and their efforts to engage with the scholarly community through the provision of linked open data. The machines’ axis means that computational capacities increase with the growth of data and electronic devices. The “Internet of things” integrates the physical world into IT systems, and so do the “digital libraries of things”. The “library without walls” brings seamless “anytime, anywhere” access to information (Marshall, 2003). Simultaneously, the people axis represents the rapid progress of social interactions derived from technological innovations. The top right quadrant represents the result of the crowd meeting the digital world (De Roure, 2014). All the interactions between the crowd and digital data render the computer machines – and digital libraries – social machines or social systems (see Luhmann, 2015). In conclusion, digital scholarship and crowdsourcing through libraries systems are example of digital interactions, “in-the-wild experiments in the co-production of social machines” (De Roure, 2014).


Social theory, applied to technologies such as digital libraries, can provide new interpretations of the human-machine relationship, and the human-human relationship in the digital information society. It can also help build new research questions, which will lead to understanding new aspects of digital libraries, their effects on society, and society’s effects on digital libraries. My essay started with outlining the theoretical framework behind the statement “digital libraries are social systems”: the modern Luhmann’s social systems approach applied to this study provided a context for the subsequent analysis of digital libraries as human-interactions in a digital environment. The application of user ethnographic studies in the design of digital libraries, and the strategic use of open data for outreach in libraries are exemplars of the plurality of communicative events induced by interactions in the digital libraries world (see Luhmann, 2015). In analysing these two social aspects of digital libraries, I claimed that the latter are social systems because the crowd – the community of end-users – has the vital role of shaping design, contents and discoverability, creating communicative events filled with information and enabled by interactions. As De Roure (2014) brilliantly summarises: “we all are participants, authors and readers alike, and many of us are designers too”.


  • Borgman, C.L., Bates, M.J., Bates, M.V., Efthimiadis, E.N. et al. (1995), “Social aspects of digital libraries” in Background paper for UCLA – National science foundation workshop. Available from http://works.bepress.com/borgman/181/ [Retrieved 26/04/2016]
  • Budzise-Weaver, T., Chen, J., Mitchell, M. (2012). “Collaboration and crowdsourcing” in The Electronic Library, Vol. 30 Iss 2 pp. 220-232. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02640471211221340 [Retrieved 21/03/2016]
  • Buttenfield, B.P., Peterson Bishop, A., Van House N.A. (2003), “Introduction: Digital Libraries as sociotechnical systems”, in Buttenfield, B.P., Peterson Bishop, A., Van House N.A. (eds), Digital library use: social practice in design and evaluation, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Calhoun, K. (2014), Exploring digital libraries: foundations, practice, prospects. London: Facet.
  • Dent Goodman, V. (2011). “Applying ethnographic research methods in library and information settings”, in Libri, vol. 61, pp. 1-11. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/libr.2011.001 [Retrieved 23/03/2016]
  • Dobreva, M., O’Dwyer, A., Feliciati, P., (2012). “Introduction: user studies for digital library development” in Dobreva, M., O’Dwyer, A., Feliciati, P., (eds), User studies for digital library development, London: Facet.
  • Griffin, S.M. (2015). “Libraries in the digital age: technologies, innovation, shared resources and new responsibilities” in Cantoni, L., and Danowski, J.A., (eds), Communication and technology, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 527-552. Available from https://www.dawsonera.com/abstract/9783110271355 [Retrieved 26/03/2016]
  • Grundmann, R. (1999). “On control and shiftind boundarier: modern society in the web of systems and networks” in Coutard, O. (ed.). The governance of large technical systems. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Hakken, D. (1999). Cyborg@Cyberspace: an ethnographer looks to the future, New York: Routledge.
  • Kline, S. (2013). “The librarian as ethnographer: an interview with David Green”, in College & Research Libraries News, 74 n. 9, 488-491. Available from http://crln.acrl.org/content/74/9/488.full [Retrieved 23/03/2016]
  • Luhmann, N. (1995). Social systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Marshall, C.C. (2003). “Finding the boundaries of the library without walls” in Buttenfield, B.P., Peterson Bishop, A., Van House N.A. (eds), Digital Library use: social practice in design and evaluation, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Nardi, B.A., O’Day, V.L., (2003). “An ecological perspective on digital libraries”, in Dobreva, M., O’Dwyer, A., Feliciati, P., (eds), User studies for digital library development, London: Facet. Available from https://www.dawsonera.com/abstract/9781856049269 [Retrieved 21/04/2016]
  • Van Hooland, S., Verborgh, R. (2014). Linked data for libraries, archives and museum. London: Facet.

[1] In the title and throughout the essay, I use the term “crowd” in the sense of “community”. See Merriam-Webster entry for “crowdsourcing”: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crowdsourcing [Retrieved 26/04/2016]

[2] Linked data is a method to publish data in a structured way, so it can be linked to other data. Linked open data is a set of linked data which is openly available on the web. It is ideal for digital libraries that want to improve their access and interoperability (Bojārs, Lopes, Schneider, 2013).

[3] See BL Labs’ open datasets: http://www.libcrowds.com/data/


You can follow Irene on Twitter @irenetortorell4

Posted in CityLIS Writes | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on CityLIS Writes: Ask the Crowd: Ethnographic Methods and Community Engagement Strategies in Digital Libraries by Irene Tortorella