User Requirements for Humanities Digital Libraries

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Jon Rimmer

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

  2. 2. Claire Warwick

    School of Library, Archive and Information Studies - University of Sheffield

  3. 3. Ann Blandford

    UCL Interaction Centre - University College London

  4. 4. George Buchanan

    Dept of Computer Science - University of Swansea

  5. 5. Jeremy Gow

    UCL Interaction Centre - University College London

Work text
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This proposal describes an initial set of end user studies conducted as part of the UCIS (User
Centred Interactive Search with digital libraries1) project.
Traditionally, digital library research has focused on
improving system capabilities (such as the work reported
by information retrieval literature), with little attention
being paid to how information seeking behaviour
develops over time and how this development can best be supported (e.g. Bates 1995). This project takes a three
pronged approach in its research agenda: studying
Humanities scholars’ use of resources in context of the broader information task (such as writing), studying the
development of expertise over the three year undergraduate
degree program with Information Management students, and developing and testing novel interface features that support novice users and the development of expertise in the utilization of digital resources.
With the advent of the World Wide Web there has been a dramatic increase in the digitization of
information and artefacts. There is much discussion about
how societies can benefit from this electronic delivery of information as well as cautionary tales of problems
associated with such a rapid take-up (Lesk 2004). The Scientific community has embraced the technologies
facilitated by the World Wide Web, indeed creating and
nurturing them. Humanities researchers have, in general,
not been so quick to weave these resources into their
research repertoire, with the exception of generic tools such
as Google and online library catalogues and bibliographic tools. Reasons for this could include a lack of comfort and confidence with information technology, a reliance on
colleagues and networking events as a source of information,
reliance on their own personal collections, and a slower, more serendipitous way of searching and formulating their research ideas (see Barrett 2005 for an overview of these positions). Humanities researchers reportedly tend to find chaining, (or following up links from footnotes) to be a more useful activity than searching (Green 2000). Despite the hypertextual nature of the web, this activity is seldom well supported in online environments (Bates 2002).
Over these past few months the largest organisations that provide WWW search engine services have been
competing to create impressive digital libraries that will give
the widest possible audience access to very large
bundles of resources (e.g. Mathes 2005 & BBC 2005). Many
of the resources being donated or used by these projects will be of significant value to Humanities scholars. Our research is immediately relevant to such projects, since
it offers a solid foundation of knowledge about the
working practices, experiences and attitudes of their
intended audiences.
We are therefore studying humanities users, and their interactions with information, in both physical and virtual environments. An important facet of our work is that users are studied in as naturalistic
a context as possible, to gain a fuller understanding of the nature of their information work. Data is being
gathered using interviews, observations, electronic logging
and diary studies of use of digital and traditional library
materials. Three focused research agendas are being
tackled, looking at Humanities scholars, postgraduate
researchers and first year undergraduates. Data collection
and analysis are ongoing; we currently have data from 25 interviews and observations, the majority being from English literature and history specialists, and expect the final paper to be based on detailed analysis of data from approximately 40 participants.
Findings and Discussion
Using broad grained discourse analytical techniques
proposed by Potter and Wetherell (1987) a list of themes that have emerged from the transcribed
interviews will be presented. Offered here is a brief
overview of such themes:
Insights into the positive and negative aspects of the
Humanities ‘research experience’
Detailed descriptions of their research activities revealed
the “Sherlock Holmes” nature of their work; how it
develops across the use of many sources and how the ‘mystery’ is investigated by ‘chasing up leads’. Additionally,
the depths of engagement experienced during interaction
with the actual source materials were described. So for example, hunting down a rare 16th century book in a
second hand shop and slowly leafing through it over the weekend was described as a highly pleasurable, personal
experience. This poses a significant design challenge: How can digital resources best support the work of the research ‘Sleuth’ and how can the experience of doing so be enhanced to facilitate engagement whilst interacting with technology?
The Physical and the Electronic (Real and Virtual)
Different experiences in a variety of physical libraries
were discussed, and how these research experiences
differed to the use of electronic resources was also
explored. We shall be addressing how some of the
qualities of the physical browsing activity can be best supported by electronic resources. This is being done by developing, prototyping and testing interfaces that offer additional information to the user in a variety of ways, such as statistics on article use, related material, and
similar search pathways through the data.
Space, place and people
The importance of, and problems of, places (libraries,
auction houses, book fairs), spaces (e.g. working in
particular libraries) and the relationships with other
people were also revealing. These findings can be set against electronic resources to see how well they support
or hinder these relationships. Do these technologies
need to consider ways of incorporating additional
communication tools to support research communities? How resources are assessed
The criteria scholars used to evaluate resources were
often implicit. These interviews revealed issues of
accuracy and ease of use for both physical and electronic resources. Our prototyped interfaces are exploring ways of expressing, for example, how results are ranked and how the user can interact with the system in order to
present the data according to their own preferences.
Embracing technology
Participants discussed how different sorts of technology fitted into their research practices over the last 25 years, including first use of email, and more recently the Web and electronic resources.
Problems with technologies old and new
Critiques were offered of microfiche, microfilm, CD Roms as well as library catalogues and Internet search
engines. By understanding barriers to previous
technological take up in general, improved techniques can be developed to promote these resources to the
Humanities research community.
The modern researcher and a need for training
The impact of Internet search engines on the quality of students’ work was also discussed, and how there is now a greater need for the researcher to undertake more formal training to acquire the necessary skills to discriminate between information and their sources. Discussion of electronic resource use amongst a wide set of humanities scholars is informing how such training would best be structured and prioritised.
This research is enabling us to develop, test and
deliver open source working systems that support the
development of expertise in information seeking with digital libraries. System development is based on the Greenstone software (, allowing us to
focus on questions of interaction rather than developing our
own technical infrastructure. Our research will provide a detailed account of the development of expertise in
information seeking with digital libraries, and allow
the development of models of information seeking
behaviour with these resources, contextualised within an understanding of the broader information tasks (researching and writing) of Humanities academics.
These initial studies have been useful for us in the development of scenarios and personas that form the basis of the project’s user requirements. These have proved to be highly useful to design teams in general (Jordan 2000) and are particularly useful in illustrating the user, and the context within which they work, to the technical designers on this project. The initial engagement with humanities scholars has gathered rich information that is shaping our initial designs. These subject matter experts will continue to participate in the project by evaluating our prototypes as part of an iterative design process.
This research is part of the User Centred Interactive Search project which is funded by the EPRSC grant number GR/S84798.
Barrett, A. (2005) The information seeking habits of graduate student researchers in the humanities. The Journal of Academic Librarianship. 31(4), 324-331.
Bates, M. J. (1995) The Getty End-User Online
Searching Project in the Humanities: Report No. 6:
Overview and Conclusions. College & Research
Libraries. 57, 514-523.
Bates, M. J. (2002) The cascade of interactions in
the digital interface. Information Processing &
Management. 38(3), 381-400.
BBC News (2005) Microsoft Scans British Library (visited 4th November 2005)
Green, R. (2000) Locating sources in Humanities scholarship: The efficacy of following bibliographic references. Library Quarterly. 70(2), 201-229
Jordan, P. W. (2000) Designing Pleasurable Products: An Introduction to the new Human Factors. Taylor & Francis Books; U.K.
Lesk, M. (2004) Understanding Digital Libraries. 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmaann.
Mathes, A. (2005) Preserving Public Domain Books.
Potter, J. & Wetherell, M. (1987) Discourse and social
psychology: Beyond attitudes and behaviour.
London: Sage.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

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