User Centred Interactive Search: a Study of Humanities Researchers in a Digital Library Environment

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Claire Warwick

    School of Library, Archive and Information Studies - University College London

  2. 2. Ann Blandford

    UCL Interaction Centre - University College London

  3. 3. George Buchanan

    UCL Interaction Centre - University College London

Work text
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This poster proposal describes research on humanities users
of a digital library (DL). It seeks to understand their needs
and behaviour both in digital and more traditional information
environments, in order to develop and refine a digital library
system, the better to support use in the humanities. This study
of humanities users forms part of the larger User Centred
Interactive Search (UCIS) project.
Large, structured information repositories such as digital
libraries (DLs) are becoming commonplace. To realise
their potential, they need to be usable and useful - by a range
of users, in different situations, supporting a variety of
information tasks. The current generation of DLs still poses
substantial user difficulties: searches are often time-consuming
and frequently unsuccessful (Blandford et al.), and the reasons
for success or failure remain mysterious to most users. Within
the broader information task, the information requirements are
often poorly defined, as users are often trying to refine the
information problem by using available information to
understand what is possible, so that information acquisition is
an evolving, highly interactive activity.
It is widely recognised that creating effective search criteria to
achieve a particular information goal is a demanding and
difficult task, particularly for less experienced users, and
particularly when the goal is as yet under-defined. Shneiderman
et al. observe the challenges of selecting a variety of search
attributes, such as the words to be used in a query and the
syntactic peculiarities of the system at hand. In addition, the mapping of an information need to the use of metadata fields
or full text search can prove difficult (Blandford et al.). Unlike
the web, where the document text is the only possible target
for a search, DLs provide a rich environment for information
seeking: the user has a much wider potential range of selections
(classification, author, publication date, etc.) to make. Effective
searching relies on the careful selection and use not only of
words or syntactic commands, but also of fields and information
Use in Context
Surprisingly little work on information seeking has set it
within the context of the broader information work of
which it is a component (Attfield et al.). While this divorce
from the context may be valid when considering work in
physical libraries, where the information seeking task is often
a bounded activity delineated by arrival at and departure from
the library building, it is less so for DLs that can be accessed
from the user's normal place of work, removing the marked
transitions between information seeking and other activities.
One hypothesis this study will test is that users expect
information seeking to flow more naturally into their broader
information task when searching from their normal place of
Humanities Users
Humanities researchers are the focus for studying use in
context for several reasons: they typically have little
technical or mathematical knowledge (e.g. for immediately
understanding the designs of complex interactive systems or
intuitively being able to construct the Boolean queries that are
often key to successful query formulation); they often do not
have a clear idea of what they are looking for, but will usually
recognise it when they find it; and they have not been
extensively studied, although they have substantial and
sophisticated information requirements. In summary, humanities
researchers are a particularly challenging population to design
for, and many solutions that work for this user population are
likely to also suit less demanding users. Studies of humanities
researchers have tended to concentrate on needs or the types
of resources used (Library Trends; Open University). Many of
these are now relatively dated, and although their conclusions
were important at the time, both the types of resources available
and the technology used to find them have changed. Studies
by Stone and Watson-Boone established that humanities users
need a much wider range of resources than those in other
disciplines; for example, they may need to refer to material
which is much older than that used by researchers in the
sciences and social sciences. They may still need to use
historical material in the form of manuscripts or early printed
books even if digital surrogates are available (Warwick and
Carty, Duff and Johnson). Relatively low levels of use of digital
resources have been blamed on these particular needs, and on
a lack of knowledge about their capabilities (Corns), but this
has yet to be verified by an empirical survey.
Warwick's previous work suggests that humanities users may
find it difficult to adapt search behaviour from a traditional to
a digital library setting, and thus become discouraged by failed
attempts to locate appropriate resources (Warwick, 1999a;
1999b) She has found that the patterns of use of digital
resources in English literature have changed little since Corns'
work in 1991, and argued that this may be because of lack of
fit between the searching tasks users wish to carry out and the
present capabilities of DLs. This was based on only a small
sample of users, and on theoretical data. It is therefore important
to test these hypotheses by studying a meaningful sample of
humanities users in both a traditional library setting and a digital
environment. This is one of the tasks that the present research
is engaged in.
Aims of the project
Overall, there are four strands of work in the UCIS project:
1. studying use of information in context, focusing on
humanities researchers;
2. studying the development of expertise in searching (focusing
on information management students);
3. identifying requirements on the design of digital libraries;
4. developing and testing system modules for a digital library.
The proposed poster will describe the first strand of work,
briefly outlining how it fits within the rest of the project. We
believe that this work is important since very little work has
studied use in context - particularly in the humanities - and
translated findings into testable design requirements.
Qualitative data (from interviews, observations, diary
studies, transaction logs, etc.) will be gathered from
academics and other researchers in the humanities regarding
their activities with DLs and similar information resources.
Two sub-issues will direct this work: how humanities
researchers work with digital resources and how they integrate
use of electronic and paper resources - both within the broader
task context. The first approach to data collection will be by user diaries, in
which humanities users record their use of information resources
(both traditional and digital) to support their research. This will
provide base-line data to inform the use of techniques for
subsequent study (depending on the patterns of resource use).
The main approach to data collection will be contextual inquiry
interviews, observing users as they work with digital libraries
of their own choice and interviewing them on their perceptions
of the usability of such electronic information sources. The
focus of this data collection will cover what users currently do,
their perceptions of the strengths and limitations of current
technologies (including traditional resources), and requirements
for future systems.
Data will be analysed in two different but complementary ways:
first, using a Grounded Theory-style approach (Strauss and
Corbin) to develop theory on the use of digital resources in
context by humanities users; second, using design-oriented
techniques to draw out requirements for design.
To enable us to focus on new technical challenges rather than
needing to replicate work already done by others, technical
developments will be based on the NZDL Greenstone software,
for which a test collection material specific to the humanities
has been developed. By grounding the work in empirical
studies, we will be able to identify and present further
requirements on the design of such systems. By basing system
development on an established DL platform, we will be able
to test candidate design solutions, deliver working components
as part of the Greenstone system and provide examples for
developers of other DL systems that illustrate tested approaches
to improving user experience.
The UCIS project began in August 2004 and the humanities
phase will begin in early 2005. We therefore propose to
use this poster to report on early findings of the research. It is
for this reason that we have proposed a poster session, since
this will be a report or work in progress.
This work is funded by EPSRC Grant GR/S84798.
Attfield. S.J., A. E. Blandford, and J. Dowell. "Information
seeking in the context of writing: a design psychology
interpretation of the 'problematic situation'." Journal of
Documentation 59.4 (2003): 430 - 453.
Blandford, A.E., H. Stelmaszewska, and N. Bryan-Kinns. "Use
of multiple digital libraries: a case study." Proc. JCDL 2001.
Roanoke, VA, 2001. 179-188.
Corns, T.N. "Computers in the humanities: methods and
applications in the study of English Literature." Literary and
Linguistic Computing 6.2 (1991): 127-131.
Duff, W.M., and C.A. Johnson. "Accidentally found on purpose:
Information-seeking behavior of historians in archives."
Library Quarterly 72 (2002): 472-496.
Open University Library. Safari: Skills in Accessing, Finding
and Reviewing Information. 2001. Accessed 2005-04-15. <h
Shneiderman, B., D. Byrd, and B. Croft. "Sorting out
searching." Communications of the ACM 41.4 (1998): 95-98.
Stone, S. "Humanities Scholars-Information needs and uses."
Journal of Documentation 38.4 (1982): 292-313.
Strauss, A., and J. Corbin. Basics of qualitative research:
grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park,
CA: Sage Publications, 1990.
Warwick C., and C. Carty. "Only Connect, a Study of the
Problems caused by platform specificity and researcher isolation
in humanities computing." Electronic Publishing 01, 2001 in
the digital Publishing Odyssey. Proceedings of the 5th
International ICCC/IFIP Conference on Electronic Publishing.
Ed. Arved Hubler, Peter Linde and John W.T. Smith. 2001.
Warwick, C. "English Literature, electronic text and computer
analysis: an unlikely combination?" Proceedings of the
Association for Computers and the Humanities- Association
for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Conference, June 9-13.
University of Virginia, 1999a. 71-74.
Warwick, C. "The lowest canonical denominator: Electronic
literary texts, and their publication, collection and preservation."
New Fields for Research in the 21st Century, Proceedings of
the Anglo Nordic Conference 1999. Ed. M. Klasson, B.
Loughridge and S. Loof. Boras, Sweden: Swedish School of
Library and Information Studies, 1999b. 133-141.
Watson-Boone, R. "The Information Needs and Habits of
Humanities Scholars." Reference Quarterly 34 (1994):

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None