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 [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 [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 [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 [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 [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 [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”: [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:


You can follow Irene on Twitter @irenetortorell4

Posted in CityLIS Writes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CityLIS Student Perspectives: When Librarians and Archivists Get Radical by James Hobbs

This post is by our CityLIS student James Hobbs. Here, James reports on some of the issues arising at the recent Radical Voices conference, which took place at Senate House, on March 3rd, 2017.

This post first appeared on James Hobbs at #CityLIS on 5th March 2017.

Image for Radical Voices at Senata House 2017


Radicalism and the drive for change can take on many forms in the world of libraries and archives, and the packed room for the Radical Collections: Radicalism and Libraries and Archives conference, which took place at the Institute of Historical Research at Senate House Library on 3 March, heard arguments that covered some ground.

Across four panels, the themes tackled included how collections are being developed, catalogued and organised, and who works in them and uses them. These were interspersed with not one, but two fire alarms to keep us on our toes, which led to impromptu networking sessions on the street outside, resumed at the end of the day with wine and nibbles in the Institute of Historical Research common room.

Starting out, Wendy Russell from the British Film Institute archive explored the barriers faced by the director Ken Loach in the 1980s when his TV series for the new Channel 4 about trade unionism, Questions of Leadership, was commissioned and then scrapped, and considered the archive’s significance beyond the fields of TV and film. Lisa Redlinski and John Wrighton of the University of Brighton spoke about the remit of HE libraries with particular relation to the library’s digitisation of Brighton’s rich history of underground and alternative press. And historian Lucas Richert (University of Strathclyde), in his paper about radical psychiatry, LSD and MDMA, raised issues (among others) about how funding from private and public sources can affect the consumption and “selling” of archives.

Panel 1: Chair Richard Espley, Lucas Richert,
Lisa Redlinski, John Wrighton and Wendy Russell

Julio Cazzasa talked about the problems faced by the Senate House Library’s collection (the Heisler collection of 50,000 items tracing labour and progressive political movements, for instance, is a mixed library and archive collection). Alycia Sellie (CUNY) raised questions of the whiteness of librarians and how collection practices should strive to be radical in relation to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s newspaper and periodicals collection. And the discriminative nature of library classifications (it took the Library of Congress 18 years to remove the subject heading “yellow peril”) and the need for a focus on critical theory in LIS studies were just some of the issues picked up by Gregory Toth of the Senate House Library.

After a lunch interrupted by the fire alarm, Mairéad Mooney (University College Cork) looked at British imperialist influences on libraries in the early days of the Irish Free State, and Amy Todman (National Library of Scotland) spoke about the archiving of Engender, the Scottish feminist organisation, since the 1990s. Siobhan Britton (University of Brighton) explored issues surrounding the collection, preservation and accessibility of zines in libraries. (My thanks to her about a lightbulb moment I had midway through her talk when I had an idea regarding my own dissertation.)

Tamsin Bookey (Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives), who navigated the rude interruption mid-presentation by the second fire alarm, described moves in Tower Hamlets to widen participation and attract hard-to-reach potential users (respect people who are hostile, use marketing, get non-gender specific toilets). Katherine Quinn (University of Warwick) spoke about the challenge of radical librarianship in the HE context (the audit culture, and how LIS is drawing on management culture), and, finally, Kirsty Fife (National Media Museum) and Hannah Henthorn (University of Dundee) described the issues they, as marginalised people, faced as they negotiated their way into the archive sector and how the expense of qualifications restrict diversification.

Just how radical some of the ideas discussed really are is debatable. In a point raised by our own Thomas Ash, the non-discriminatory nature of classification terminology, for instance, is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It’s simply how things should be. A theme running through the day, it seems to me, was that obstacles put in the way of opening up access and information to all – and that really does mean people who currently wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a library or archive – need dismantling, and that means they won’t be the quiet, safe places they are generally perceived to be now. White western patriarchy has had its day. That change seems more sensible and representative of the UK as it is than radical. But the conference provided a great variety of voices that asked questions and offered solutions that deserve deeper and longer consideration – and action.

You can track Radical Voices on Storify for much more insight and detail on the day’s events than I can manage here. And for more about the Radical Voices series of events at the Senate House Library, see

You can follow James on Twitter: @jameshobbsart and read his professional blog James Hobbs.
If you would like to find out more about radical librarianship, please join us at CityLIS on Monday 20th March from 5.15pm, when Binni Brynolf and Simon Barron will lead an informal discussion for our AfterHours series, titled: We hunt in packs.. More->
Posted in Student Perspectives | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

CityLIS Research Student Profile: Jerald Cavanagh

We are delighted to welcome three new research students to CityLIS for 16/17.

In this post, Jerald Cavanagh tells us a little about his background and shares his initial research plans.

Jerald will examine, explore and evaluate the different mechanisms currently (if any, what types, how are they used, are they the most effective etc.) used to evaluate European Union Erasmus + Capacity Building Projects. The aim is to review similarities and differences between methods used throughout sectors of the EU with a view to deriving a universal evaluation tool which can be used to measure the impact of EU projects.

Jerald will be working under the supervision of Dr Lyn Robinson and Professor David Bawden.

You can follow Jerald on Twitter: @jeraldcavanagh

I started my career in the Irish Navy (yes we actually do have a Navy) in 1981. Just over two years later I transferred to the Military College in the Irish Defence Forces Training Centre where I spent the best part of a very interesting and adventurous military career spanning over twenty years. This journey brought me from the Glens of Wicklow to the Wadies of South Lebanon and a few places in-between.

At some point, I decided to hand in my musket and to end the more active part of my military career to become a professional librarian in the Defence Forces Library. I earned an honours degree in Library and Information Studies after graduating from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

I enjoyed a fantastic and interesting career in the Military Library until I retired in 2002 when I started working as Deputy Librarian in the Institute of Technology Tallaght located in South County Dublin. I only spent one year in that role before I took up the position of Institute Librarian, in the Limerick Institute of Technology.

I am currently Head of the Library and I am part of the senior management team for over fourteen years. I also lead a number of multi-country European Union funded projects which requires intensive change management and project management skills and experience.

My work involves, strategic planning, financial management, human resource management and planning staff development and training.

At present I oversee thirty information professionals, on four library sites, who are enthusiastic, creative and work as a team with a common focus. Together we deliver our services to take advantage of technological and digital advancements to ensure resources of all types are available when our patrons require them. We strive to be creative and bring innovation to our services while maintaining our core principles as librarians.

My professional interests are the constant desire to create new opportunities, lead my teams by example, mentor and coach staff through change initiatives and delivering new and exciting developments.

As mentioned above, I hold a degree in Information and Library Studies from the University of Wales. I also received a post graduate degree in e-learning and an honours Master’s Degree in Learning Technologies, both from the National College of Ireland. In addition, I completed an honours Master’s Degree in Education Planning and Management with the International Institute for Educational Planning, UNESCO Paris. This MA course was focused on improving education systems in developing countries, and was very valuable to me personally and professionally. The knowledge and expertise I gained from this study has assisted me in my current role both in Ireland and overseas in providing high end, state of the art information and library services to staff and students and other stakeholders.

Following on from my experience in Paris, I became involved in European Union (EU) Tempus and Erasmus+ Capacity Building in the Field of Higher Education (CBHE) projects. Working on these projects has enlightened me to many things, in many countries and many places. To date I have been involved in nine projects, in counties such as Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Laos, Ukraine, and Vietnam. I’m also involved in a number of other EU Erasmus + International Credit Mobility projects in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. So I have been around a bit, and I love this quote from Hans Christian Andersen, in The Fairy Tale of My Life,

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,

To gain all while you give,

To roam the roads of lands remote,

To travel is to live.”

The projects which I’m involved with are varied and concentrated on delivering change and enhancing best practice to help improve current conditions. Projects range in subject matter from information literacy, to training for doctoral research students to university vocational teaching methodology’s. Other projects focus on modernising libraries through staff development and reforming libraries and promoting access to society for people with individual requirements and disabilities (more detailed descriptions of each project can be seen here:

For my research I hope to draw on my experience of Erasmus + Capacity Building projects, both as a project leader and as part of the EU project partnership teams. What I want to examine, explore and evaluate are the different mechanisms currently (if any, what types, how are they used, are they the most effective etc.) used to evaluate European Union Erasmus + Capacity Building Projects. I will be reviewing similarities and differences between methods used throughout sectors of the EU with a view to deriving a universal evaluation tool which can be used to measure the impact of EU projects.

I also want to examine collaboration and synergies between past and present projects in similar subject areas and within regions. The research will establish the level of awareness of these projects from a project partner or project leader perspective and explore how these effect or impact on capacity building in their regions. The EU spends tens of millions of euros on educational projects each year. Erasmus + Capacity Building projects are a large part of this spend. Throughout my time working on projects, I have always got a sense that more could be done to measure the effects of projects, to measure the impact and to examine what if anything has changed as a result of a particular project being undertaken. Establishing proof of impact of projects can be a challenging task. Measuring the impact of projects can be hampered by ambiguity and claims of the success of projects or otherwise often go unsubstantiated, because they focus mainly on outcomes, deliverables and budget spend over the duration of the projects. Little attention is given to measuring the impact of projects during their life cycle, nor to the short to medium term duration after a project has concluded. Key stakeholder input is essential to measure this so as to establish a more accurate picture of the true impact of projects. It is not my intention to look at the long term effects of projects such as this. However, it is intended that this research will aid future research in the area which may be used by upcoming researchers and students.

My journey in this research I imagine will be quite challenging and may at times be a bit like trying to pick up mercury with a fork. However, with some hard work, guidance from my supervisor Dr. Lyn Robinson and perseverance I hope to come up with an effective universal evaluation tool which can be used to measure the quality, effect and impact of Erasmus + Capacity Building projects.

Posted in Reflections and Research | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on CityLIS Research Student Profile: Jerald Cavanagh

CityLIS Writes: Gregorian chant and the story of musical documentation by David Baker

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

Gregorian chant is the name given to a large collection of monodic (i.e. single-line) melodies which were sung as part of the religious rituals of the medieval Christian Church in the Latin West, from around the eighth century onwards. Somewhat ironically, in recent years this type of music has found its way into a secular context, primarily in the form of ambient playlists for purposes of relaxation and reflection, or as part of the soundtrack for many a medieval-inspired film and television drama. Nevertheless, it has a deep-set history in the Roman Catholic liturgy[1] and is still used today around the world in the daily prayers of monastic and clerical communities and in the celebration of Mass according to the Roman rite.[2]

As with of all kinds of music which date from before the invention of sound recording devices in the mid-nineteenth century, our knowledge of Gregorian chant is entirely dependent upon written documents which survive from the Middle Ages, the earliest of which are dated to around the year 900 AD. The history of these documents and the forms they take can tell us a great deal about the transmission and reception of chant. What is more, they are also our main source for the sounds of Gregorian chant itself and for much of our information regarding the practices and modes of worship of the medieval Church. In this paper, I will investigate the ways in which the documentary forms given to this important repertoire of medieval music mirrors wider issues of changing musical documentation and notation.

First, it is worth examining a little more closely some of the concepts involved in the documentation of music. As a form of human communication, music is thought to be about as old as language itself. Yet, in some ways, music could be said to resist being recorded in abstract written symbols in a way language does not. Our aural experience of hearing a melody, on the one hand, relies upon the perception of successive combinations of pitch, tonality and rhythm, in the same way as speech does. On the other hand, the elements required to create an efficient transfer of information by means of the written word—that is, a recognised series of signs which, when combined, allow the user to encode the semantic content of the message—are at once fewer and less dependent upon a precise performative context than in the case of music. To put it another way, while the written word aims to give form to what is—or, rather, was—said, it does not for the most part need, and is not able, to offer an account of what it sounded like.

Music, by contrast, is the result of an ordered series of sounds normally produced by means of vibrations emanating from either the performer’s vocal chords or from some form of instrument. A large part of the essence of a melody resides in precisely how these sounds are experienced, in real time, by a listener or group of listeners. For this reason, forms of musical documentation can be said necessarily to involve the encoding of some sort of performance: [3] one which either occurred at some point in the past or is envisaged as being enacted in the future. Like a recipe book or play script, therefore, written musical notation can function as a record which points towards the successful reproduction of a certain aural experience—provided, that is, that enough information regarding the performative factors which characterise that experience (such as, in the case of music, pitch, note duration, rhythm, tempo, etc.) has been supplied. Modern sheet music, for example, includes a complex system of signs, markings and annotations, all of which enable the performer to interpret how the composer or arranger of the piece of music in question had intended it to sound, and then to reproduce the same effects (albeit with a certain amount of space left for artistic licence).

Earlier forms of musical document, situated as they are in a different context, can appear more simplistic in their approach to the representation of musical information. The earliest examples of musical notation from the Ancient Near East and the Greek world typically involve the substitution of letters or other signs for particular sounds.[4] This system is sufficient to encode the pitches of the melody, but the absence of elements suggesting factors such as rhythm or note duration can make it difficult for those familiar with modern methods of musical documentation—largely a product of the nineteenth century and the rise in the popular mass printing of music that occurred during this period—to interpret how these melodies might have sounded. Since early musical production was conducted as part of a primarily oral culture, its performers had the advantage of being situated within a living musical tradition. This meant that they either knew or had learnt melodies through other, most likely aural, means. In this context, early notation systems were likely intended as a memory aid for a performer or, in the case of music for religious rituals, perhaps as a way of establishing which melodies were to be performed together with which texts. As we shall see, all these points also apply to the forms of document in which we find Gregorian chant recorded.

As has already been mentioned, written records of Gregorian melodies first appear in manuscripts dated to the late ninth century. The Latin texts associated with the chants, of which the majority are excerpts from the Book of Psalms and other parts of the Bible, are of course much older in terms of their textual tradition as part of the biblical canon; their assignment as texts to be sung during certain parts of the complex ritual drama that makes up the Church’s liturgy, and at certain standard times and seasons in the year, can be traced back to around the end of the seventh century, first appearing in documents dating from around 700 AD.[5] This process of standardisation had its origins in the practice of the church in Rome in the early medieval period and the customary forms of worship sponsored there by successive Roman pontiffs, including Pope Gregory I the Great († c. 604), after whom Gregorian chant is sometimes thought to be named.[6]

In the wake of Charlemagne’s coronation of himself as Holy Roman Emperor in the city in 800 AD, these practices also became the official standard and were promoted throughout the Frankish king’s extensive realm. Since, for political reasons, the Carolingian rulers were eager to have their liturgical customs be seen to be in communion with those of Rome, they likewise sought to adopt Roman method of singing the liturgy by employing cantors who had been trained in the papal courts to teach their own monks and cathedral singers. Very little is known about what precise form this music might have taken, since no contemporary documents for it survive, but scholarly consensus suggests that much of the repertoire we know today as Gregorian chant is the product of an amalgamation of Roman and Frankish traditions of liturgical song.[7] Indeed, it is precisely within a Carolingian sphere of influence that these melodies first become tangible, in the form of manuscripts containing the liturgical texts notated with signs (or neumes) indicating a progression of relative pitches, the earliest of which were produced in the decades surrounding the year 900 AD.[8]

As we might expect of a religion which had always put great store by the technology of the codex, books had a large part to play in the liturgical life of the medieval Church, and books of chant were no exception. Various types of medieval document containing chant notation survive, most of them dating from later in the Middle Ages; from the evidence of these it is possible to trace, among other things, some aspects of the development of chant notation in the medieval period.

The most common kinds of medieval book to contain Gregorian chant in notation are the gradual and the antiphonal. Together with other texts such as the missal and the breviary, these represent part of the extensive collections of documents which monastic and other church communities in the Middle Ages required in order to perform the daily round of services which comprised the Church’s liturgy. The gradual contained the texts and music for the parts of the Mass sung by the choir; it typically gave the antiphons (short pieces of chanted text) for the ‘proper’ of the Mass, that is, those texts which vary according to the season of status of a particular day in the Church calendar (as opposed to the ‘ordinary’ texts, which are sung at every Mass). The missal, by contrast, contained all the texts for the different parts of the Mass, including the prayers recited by the priest, the scriptural readings, and the chants. These also sometimes included notation for the chant melodies. Although during the Middle Ages, it became a liturgical requirement to have the missal open on the altar during celebration of the Mass,[9] nevertheless, medieval missals commonly give only the opening words of readings and chants, suggesting that they were primarily intended for reference rather than as a functional performance text.

Rather like the gradual, the antiphonal contained the chant texts for the antiphons sung as part of the Divine Office (otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours). This was the name given to the series of eight services made up of psalms, prayers and readings that were sung at regular times throughout the day.[10] The full set of texts for the Office was contained in another book called a breviary; many of these also contain musical notation. Especially during the later Middle Ages, the breviary was employed primarily for private devotion and was therefore of slightly smaller and more portable format than the larger choir books, the gradual and the antiphonal. The large number of these kinds of books that were required by monastic and other church communities in the Middle Ages in order to supply the necessary information for their liturgical needs is attested by the substantial number which have survived in libraries the world over.

That the function of medieval books containing chant was to serve as a point of reference for the memory of singers, rather than as a book to read from while performing, is indicated by their format and by the style of their notation. As Crocker (2000) observes, most liturgical manuscripts produced before the fourteenth century are simply not large enough for a group of singers to stand around and sing from. Some are very richly decorated, these may in fact have been intended for show, as visible objects of authority to be placed on the altar or carried in procession through the church; alternatively, the time and effort taken to illuminate these manuscripts may be a measure of the honour given to their contents and their official status as approve service books for Mass and Office.

The form of notation in medieval chant manuscripts also developed throughout the Middle Ages. The graduals and antiphonals that have survived from the ninth and tenth centuries employ a form of staffless notation, the aim of which is to represent the musical shape of the melody in terms of a succession of single pitches and groups of pitches, represented by way of fine strokes of a scribe’s pen that appear to hover almost weightlessly over the line of text.[11] This type of notation can be best seen in the gradual from Laon (Bibliothèque municipale, MS 239) dated to c. 930.[12] In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a movement towards a notational practice which employed a staff of a kind more familiar from later Western musical tradition, was inspired by the work of the Italian monk and musical theorist, Guido d’Arezzo († c. 1050). Guido’s innovation was the use of a four-line staff, with the lines for the notes F and C marked in a different colour or by using a clef (a sign to indicate which pitch corresponds to which line). Since these two notes each come above a semitone in the standard diatonic scale (inherited by the Middle Ages from the Greek musical tradition, and used as standard in Gregorian chant), it is possible to map out other pitches in the melody by reference to those.[13]

The introduction of the staff does not necessarily signal a change in the primarily mnemonic function of Gregorian notation, at least not as far as the traditional repertoire of melodies was concerned. As Hiley (2009) points out, part of the motivation behind the introduction of tools to help singers towards a more accurate pitching of chant can be explained by the influx of new melodies to liturgical corpus, in response to the addition of more saints’ days to the calendar during this period during this period. Thus, the singers (or the cantor who trained them) would still have been able to intone their familiar melodies by heart, while needing the help of the staffs to interpret those which were outside the tradition.

Much of the methods used to notate Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages would stay practically the same up until the waning of the tradition itself at the dawn of the Renaissance, and its replacement with new forms of liturgical music. It is only in the later revivals of earlier forms of Gregorian chant as a practical music of liturgical worship by the monks of Abbey of St Pierre in Solesmes in the nineteenth century that a new chapter in the story of the documentation and reception of chant begins to open. Inspired by the reawakening of Catholic life in France and a new appreciation for Gothic art and architecture during in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of monks from the newly-founded community of Solesmes began to study medieval chant manuscripts (many of which had, by this point, been collected into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, established in 1789). Their hope in doing so was to rediscover the original, pure forms of liturgical practice and, above all, methods of singing which had been lost in the Revolution.[14]

The results of these labours were several publications, beginning in 1883 with the first Solesmes Graduale Romanum, which sought to present Gregorian chant as the most authoritative and most natural style of music for the Church. Suitably framed in typefaces and a notational style that evoked the glory days of fourteenth-century French Gothic art, these books were accompanied by companion volumes which offered collections of facsimiles of the principal chant manuscripts from libraries across Europe.[15] The use of photo-reproductive technologies and the production of facsimiles signalled the final step in the changing reception of Gregorian chant from one of a living tradition in the medieval Church to a scholarly and antiquarian field of study which valued a particular conception of the past. With the publication of the official Vatican edition of the Solesmes-produced Graduale (1908) and Antiphonale (1912), and subsequent revisions of both these texts following the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), the Solesmes method of representing Gregorian chant has gradually become the authoritative standard. For those in the modern Catholic Church with an interest in the musical heritage of the liturgy, these documents are now the primary form in which Gregorian chant is encountered.

In conclusion, the importance of Gregorian chant notation lies in the fact that it is the direct ancestor of much of our modern traditions of musical documentation. Yet the changes that occurred in the documents that represent chant in written form also mark its transformation from a part of the oral tradition of medieval Christian worship to a form of music that belongs to the past and needs to be re-learnt today (if it is learnt at all) by reference to standardised service books. It is fitting, therefore, that this part of our musical heritage—one which even in the Middle Ages sought to represent an authoritative liturgical standard for —should still, to a modern listener, seem to evoke a standardised (albeit somewhat stereotyped) image of the spirituality and mysticism of the medieval past.


Barlow, C. (compiler) (2011) Singing the Mass: Sung Order of Mass in English and Latin.

Solesmes: Éditions de Solesmes.

Bent, I. et al. “Notation.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 19 December 2016).

Bergeron, K. (1998) Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Clemens, R., and Graham, T. (2007) Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca, N.Y.:

Cornell University Press.

Crocker, R. (2000) An Introduction to Gregorian Chant. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fowells, R. (2007) Chant Made Simple: An Introduction to the Ancient Neumes. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press.

Gant, A. (2015) O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music. London: Profile.

Gleick, J. (2011) The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. London: Fourth Estate.

Graduale Romanum (1974). Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre.

Gregorian Missal (1990). Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre.

Hiley, D. (2009) Gregorian Chant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

doi: cbo9780511807848 (Accessed: 28 November 2016).

Saulnier, D. (2003) Gregorian Chant: A Guide. Translated by E. Schaefer. Solesmes: Abbaye


Strayer, H. (2013) ‘From Neumes to Notes: The Evolution of Music Notation’, Musical

Offerings, 4(1), pp. 1-14. doi: 10.15385/jmo.2013.4.1.1

Available at: (Accessed: 13 October 2016).

Whitworth, B. (2012) Music in the Liturgy. London: Catholic Truth Society.

[1] ‘Liturgy’, from Gk. leitourgia, denotes a ‘service’ done for the public good; in the context of Christian worship, it refers to everything that is performed as part of the daily round of services that are offered up by the Church on behalf of the faithful to give thanks and praise to God.

[2] Among the most accessible introductions to Gregorian chant as it appears within the context of modern Roman Catholic liturgical practice include those by Crocker (2000), Saulnier (2003), Fowells (2007), and Whitworth (2012). The chants for the post-Vatican II Roman rite (in Latin) can be found in the Solesmes editions of the Graduale Romanale (1974) and (in English and Latin) the Gregorian Missal (1990); for an edition of the Ordinary of the Mass based on the new English translation of the Roman Missal (2010), see also Singing the Mass, ed. by Christopher Barlow (2011).

[3] This of course holds true as much of recordings of music on CD or MP3 as it does of musical notation in written form, although in a slightly different way. Indeed, the modern experience of encountering music (including Gregorian chant) divorced from a performance situation in the present is uncannily one of extending the audible life of a musical performance which occurred at a moment in the past.

[4] The earliest clear example of musical notation is to be found on a cuneiform tablet from the Mesopotamian city of Nippur dated to around 2000 BC. With the emergence of the Greek alphabet in early centuries of the 1st millennium BC, the way was cleared for Greek musical notation to harness an alphabetic method of describing pitches; this seems to be the case from around 500 BC. For more on ancient musical notation, see the discussions in Bent et al. (2016) and Strayer (2013).

[5] See the discussion in Crocker (2000), chapt. 6.

[6] Crocker (2000), p. 7.

[7] See, for instance, the discussions of the issue in Crocker (2000), Saulnier (2003), and Hiley (2009).

[8] Two of the earliest surviving examples of these manuscripts are Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 359; and Laon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 239. For images of these manuscripts, see Crocker (2000), pp. 154-55; online facsimiles can be found here (via E-Codices):; and (via Europeana) here:

[9] See Crocker (2000), p. 153.

[10] These are: Matins (or the Night Office), Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. For more information on the Office and the Mass, see the discussions by Hiley (2009, chap. 1), Saulnier (2003, chap. 2) and Crocker (2000, chap. 6).

[11] This type of notation can be best seen in the gradual from Laon (MS 239) dated to c. 930.

[12] For an image of this manuscript, see Crocker (2000), p. 155, Plate 2. A full online facsimile is also available online via Europeana here:

[13] The first surviving manuscript using this notation is a gradual from Rome dated to 1071 (Cod. Bodmer 74 in the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Cologny, Switzerland). For a facsimile of the manuscript see the one provided online by the e-Codices project, available here:

[14] On the aesthetic motivations of the Solesmes monks, see the discussion by Bergeron (1998).

[15] For instance, the series Paléographie Musicale, first published by the monks of Solesmes in 1889.


More of David’s work can be found on his blog The Cathologuer, and you can follow him on Twitter @thulrbaker.

Posted in CityLIS Writes | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on CityLIS Writes: Gregorian chant and the story of musical documentation by David Baker

#CityLIS Events: Visit to the Internet Archive by Sophie Johnston

*** This post is by current MA/MSc Library Science student Sophie Johnston. Here she describes the background to the CityLIS forthcoming visit to the Internet Archive. Sophie is our student rep for Library Science for 16/17.***

I am now in the second term of my MA/MSc in Library Science and we’ve started studying on a module called Digital Libraries. In this class we’ve been discussing the role of libraries in the digital age and the ways in which online content for libraries, archives, museums, and art galleries are now arguably blurring into the single category of ‘digital libraries’.

The relevancy of digital content in libraries cannot be overstated as so much content is either born online or duplicated online, creating the need for digital preservation. Which is where organisations like the Internet Archive come in. Created in 1996 and located in San Francisco, they are a non-profit organisation and rely on data donations from others. They believe in the importance of preserving cultural artefacts and as there is a danger of webpages being deleted and their content never being recovered, their mission is to capture as much online content as possible. [1]

Despite having the word ‘archive’ in the organisation name, there is regular mention on their website of the organisation as a ‘library’; for example, ‘The Internet Archive is one of the world’s largest public digital libraries’. [2] This goes back to my earlier mention of the crossover between digital libraries and digital archives. As physical spaces these are two different places, and yet it can be difficult to define the distinction between their digital counterparts.

It therefore seemed appropriate to try and arrange a visit to the digitisation centre at the Internet Archive’s London offices. Chris Booth, Digitisation Manager, has kindly agreed to show our class around and talk to us about their current projects and processes. This is a fantastic opportunity and we’re all looking forward to it.

Access to the Internet archive is via their website. The homepage has a search engine function for the whole site as well as a banner at the top of the page to search their ‘Wayback Machine’. This function allows you to search for a url, or keywords, and look at archived webpages by date. A search for the BBC news website came back with 25,306 archived webpages saved between December 1, 1998 and February 19, 2017. Overall the Wayback Machine claims to have 279 billion webpages saved.


A nice feature about the homepage is that if you scroll down the page you are given a large selection of their top collections. These are in no specific order and it a great way to explore the collection in the same serendipitous way you might browse a bookshop or physical library. Collections include ‘Russian Audiobooks’ (28,303 items), ‘Hip Hop Mixtapes’ (12,055 items), ‘Classic PC Games’ (9,923 items), and ‘Political Ads’, (3,475 items) to name a few. There is also the option to browse via media type, with options for images, software, audio, video, texts, and web.

The Internet Archive seems like a great tool for digital preservation, as well as a publicly accessible resource. It will be interesting to see how both the Library and Information Science community and others look back, in say 30 years, at organisations like this and how helpful they have proven to be in cultural preservation.





This post first appeared on Sophie’s blog LibraryGoth on February 19th 2017. Sophie is also on Twitter as @sophieanna30

Posted in Events | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on #CityLIS Events: Visit to the Internet Archive by Sophie Johnston