Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Social Construction of a Digital Library: A Case Study Examining Implications for Evaluation

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Social Construction of a Digital Library: A Case Study Examining Implications for Evaluation

Article excerpt

The social construction of technology (SCOT) frame-work encourages a focus on the multiple perspectives inherent in the development and evaluation of digital libraries. SCOT concepts such as relevant social groups, interpretative flexibility, and closure are used to examine an evaluation case study of the Making of America digital library.

Evaluation is a critical component of effective digital library (DL) design and implementation, but involves many theoretical and practical challenges. Not only are DLs intricate technological systems comprising scanning, storage, transmission, display, and printing components, they are also embedded in complex social systems, comprising librarians, engineers, funders, scholars, and general users. Evaluation of these complex socio-technical systems is complicated by the need to convince early users to look beyond the immature technology and limited holdings; user expectations are especially high because of the rhetoric surrounding digital technologies. Finally, there is little agreement about what exactly constitutes a "digital library," which can encompass an automated reserve system, online archives, or include the current Internet, online journals, existing holdings, or a combination of these,[1] except that the technology is poised to change the roles of libraries, librarians, and scholarly research.[2]

This case study uses the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach to frame both the development and evaluation of a specific DL prototype, the Making of America (MOA) project (the name refers to its holdings of nineteenth-century U.S. journals). An important part of a promising but nascent technology such as a DL system is the evaluation process, which is itself socially-constructed. After summarizing the social constructivist approach and its application to other large-scale technological systems, we describe the MOA project and our evaluation methods and results. Finally, we discuss modifications that make SCOT more appropriate for an analysis of DL development.

Some of the examples in this case study reflect the fact that initial versions of MOA did not meet the needs of all social groups, and that people are often especially critical in their early encounters with a new technology. These examples are, we believe, realistic given the very high expectations for current DL systems. While we are optimistic about MOA and the DL concept, our intention in this case study is to demonstrate the use of the SCOT model in highlighting the differing perceptions of a technology's performance in order to anticipate future design and use challenges. As with any useful analytical approach, SCOT's ultimate benefit lies in its reframing of the problem under study as much as in providing specific lessons for improvement.

Social Construction of Technology (SCOT)

The role of social interactions in the development of technology and the inherent ambiguities of engineering design are increasingly the subject of study.[3] Fundamentally, as Edwards notes, "technological change is... a social process: Technologies can and do have `social impacts,' but they are simultaneously social products that embody power relationships and social goals and structures" (original emphasis).[4]

The SCOT approach, developed in the mid-1980s, accounts for multiple "branches" of a technology coexisting to meet the needs of multiple social groups.[5] Using this approach, the researcher examines the varied conceptions held by these "relevant social groups" involved in a technology's development, and then follows the social construction of each group's technology to examine how it reaches closure, that is, how it is conceptually "frozen" in the view of that group and then across multiple groups. More recent work has focused on the interplay among social groups, including the political nature of technology development,[6] and the mutual construction of technology and society. …

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