Digital Libraries or Digital Objects: Measuring the Impact and Value of Use and Reuse

This invited blog post was contributed by Ali Shiri, Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta. 

The emergence of large scale digital libraries and repositories such as HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, the Open Library, the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana and the World Digital Library, provide new opportunities for digital information users to openly and freely interact with a broad range of digital objects. The unprecedented availability of massive digital collections of books, manuscripts, images, photos, and maps offers new, individual and collective ways of making sense of information and of creating digital content.

The implications of using, reusing and repurposing digital content and collections, in this open and information rich environment, are profound and multifaceted, cutting across many different institutional
contexts such as libraries, archives and museums, as well as numerous disciplines and a wide range of user communities and audience types. Access to digital libraries, in particular, has been closely associated with and discussed in regards to such measures of impact, value and usefulness. In fact, a cursory glance at many digital library evaluation models that have been developed in the past two decades, demonstrates the importance of impact assessment and usability of digital libraries. In today’s world, digital information users, academic as well as the general public, are able to make use of digital libraries to read, explore, entertain, write, research, create and contextualize. Users engage in a diverse range of information practices and tasks, including searching, retrieving, using, learning, conceptualizing, synthesizing, presenting and disseminating. The use and reuse of digital objects is at the centre of all these activities. Teachers use digital libraries to support learning and instruction. Researchers make use of digital information and digital research objects to support the production and dissemination of new knowledge. Digital humanists make use of digital objects both as learning and research artifacts.

In line with these developments, the area of digital public scholarship is emerging as many disciplines within the humanities and social sciences promote the creation and use of digital artifacts and objects, not only by researchers and scholars but also by the general public. Community archives and numerous digital humanities projects that generate digital data and artifacts open a new horizon for the general public to develop digital literacy and digital fluency skills. Thanks to the availability of a diverse range of tools for using and modifying digital objects, digital information users are now capable of creative, innovative and novel use of digital objects to support discovery and exploration.

Assessment of the value, impact and usability of digital objects requires a holistic and multidimensional framework that takes into account use, reuse and repurposing of digital objects. While user evaluation studies have contributed significantly to how we measure, assess and evaluate the value of digital libraries as a whole, we need to be able to demonstrate the value of digital libraries at the digital object level as well. There are quantitative measures associated with the use and reuse of digital objects such as the number of clicks, downloads, bookmarks, views, likes, and items shared and saved. However, these measures only provide a general indication of impact and value. We need measures that document and demonstrate the quality, extent and nature of the use and reuse of digital objects in relation to such facets as the context, discipline, collection that the object belongs to, geographic origin, time period and the nature of task or the information-bearing object that contains the used or reused item. This will call for a holistic assessment framework that addresses various aspects and components of use and reuse as well as techniques, tools and technologies that support digital object use and reuse. Development of such a framework should be evidence-based, empirically-supported and should be based on qualitative and quantitative data, use cases, and user evaluation studies that involve diverse user groups and target audiences. A typology of reuse cases may, for instance, include digital object reuse in the context of educational, cultural, linguistic, artistic, historical, chronological, geographical, and genealogical research and exploration. The value and impact of digital objects and their reuse should be conceptualized not only as part of the scholarly communication lifecycle but also as part of lifelong learning and recreational experiences and activities of digital information users and searchers. It is timely for the digital library community to ensure and promote the relevance and usefulness of digital libraries by providing new frameworks and measures that evaluate and assess the impact of use and reuse of digital objects in relation to intellectual and artistic creativity as well as to informed citizenry, social responsibility and democracy.

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