Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

What Is Usability in the Context of the Digital Library and How Can It Be Measured?

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

What Is Usability in the Context of the Digital Library and How Can It Be Measured?

Article excerpt

This paper reviews how usability has been defined in the context of the digital library, what methods have been applied and their applicability, and proposes an evaluation model and a suite of instruments for evaluating usability for academic digital libraries. The model examines effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction, and learnability. It is found that there exists an interlocking relationship among effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction. It also examines how learnability interacts with these three attributes.


Digital library development, since its inception in the 1990s, has made significant progress thus far. Although there is still a long way to go before reaching their full potential, digital libraries are maturing (Fox 2002; Marcum 2002). However, the evaluation of digital libraries has not kept pace. As Saracevic (2000) has outlined, fundamental concepts remain to be clarified, such as What is a digital library? What is there to evaluate? What are the criteria? How to apply them in evaluation? Why evaluate digital libraries in the first place? Borgman (2002) has also stated that the digital libraries research community needs large test beds, including collections and testing mechanisms, as a means to evaluate new concepts. There is also a need of benchmarks for comparison between systems and services.

This research is to develop and evaluate methods and instruments for assessing the usability of digital libraries. Compared to other areas in digital library research, as Theng, Mohd-Nasir, and Thimbleby (2000a, 238) point out, "Little work is being done to understand the purpose and usability of digital libraries." Borgman et al. (2000, 229) also state, "Relatively little work has been done on evaluating the usability of digital libraries in any context." The same observations are also made by Blandford, Stelmaszewska, and Bryan-Kinns (2001) as well as Brogan (2003). Blandford and Buchanan (2002b) call for a need for further work on methods for analyzing usability, including an understanding of how to balance rigor, appropriateness of techniques, and practical limitations.

This study contributes to the literature the understanding of usability, reviews what methods have been applied and their applicability, and proposes a suite of methods for evaluating usability for academic digital libraries.

* Definition of Digital Library

There are many different views in the literature on what digital libraries are. This paper does not intend to provide a comprehensive collection on the definitions of digital libraries, but rather representative ones.

Lesk (1997, 1) views digital libraries as "organized collections of digital information." Arms (2000, 2) views digital libraries as "managed collection of information, with associated services, where the information is stored in digital formats and accessible over a network."

The Digital Library Federation (1999) representing the practical community, defines digital library as follows:

   Digital libraries are organizations that provide the
   resources, including the specialized staff, to select,
   structure, offer intellectual access to, interpret, distribute,
   preserve the integrity of, and ensure the persistence
   over time of collections of digital works so that
   they are readily and economically available for use by
   a defined community or set of communities.

Francisco-Revilla et al. (2001) report digital libraries are increasingly being defined as ones that collect pointers to Web-based resources rather than hold the resources themselves. A library's Web site is an example of this definition. Greenstein (2000) shares this view and says that the digital library is known less for the extent and nature of the collections it owns than for the networked information space it defines through its online services. Paepcke et al. (1996) also state that a digital library provides a single point of access to a

wide range of autonomously distributed sources. …

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