Interactional Digital Libraries: introduction to a special issue on Interactivity in Digital Libraries

Anita Coleman and Maliaca Oxnam*
Special issue editors, School of Information Resources & Library Science, University of Arizona,
Tucson, AZ, USA
*Science-Engineering Library

Advances in Internet technologies have made it seemingly possible and easy to create digital collections, repositories and libraries. However, supporting diverse information uses that facilitate interaction beyond searching and browsing is in the early stages. Interactive digital libraries, or interactional digital libraries as we prefer to call them, are still evolving. This special issue tries to bring together work that is being done to incorporate interactivity in digital libraries.

The issue evolved in cooperation with some of the successful recipients of the 2002 National Science Digital Library (NSDL) program solicitation sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In fall 2001, a few months after the NSDL awards were announced, we browsed through the list of currently active awards and read 64 abstracts. We selected 13 NSF-NSDL projects that highlighted interactivity as a key feature of their research and development efforts. We sent the principal investigators an invitation to write for this special issue and also posted a public call for papers. Experts from Europe and the US, with academic and practice affiliations, many of whom refereed two papers apiece, provided invaluable feedback. After peer review and revisions we are pleased to share nine of these papers (six NSDL-related and three others).

The NSDL program "aims to establish a national digital library that will constitute an online network of learning environments and resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels" (NSF-NSDL 2002). Reports and background material on the NSF-NSDL program are available from the NSF Web site.

As noted, not all papers in this issue are from the NSDL initiative. Nevertheless, the common subthemes for all papers are the technologies, information uses and theories driving content development for interactional digital libraries. The NSDL papers have an additional component in that they address the process of interactivity in the context of formal undergraduate learning. They make clear that interactivity is more than just a point and click approach to learning. Interactivty can stimulate, through reciprocal action, feedback, immersion, play, flow and other designed attributes, user acquisition of abstract concepts and skills besides discipline-based, content learnng outcomes. Further, the reports of interfaces, services, tools and collections provide a view of information use behaviors in disciplines such as astronomy, earth sciences and mathematics. Some of the focus is on actual information use: what do the technologies enable the user to do with documents once they've found the information?

We hope that bringing these papers together in a special issue is useful. Additionally, we would like to issue a challenge to JoDI readers, authors and researchers in the realm of interactional digital libraries.

The Challenge

Interactional digital libraries can and should draw from research in several areas such as Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Information Retrieval, Educational Technology, and Instructional Design. In tracing the history of HCI development, Dillon (2002, p. 463) notes that "HCI has always sought to be more than just about user interface design but about interaction". He outlines three stages of HCI development. In the first stage, the focus was on interface design with a strong methodological tradition that believed in user testing as the best means of improving user-interface design (Shackel 1959, Schneiderman 1980). In the second stage, attempts were made to model interaction. Modeling interaction was grounded in a theoretical tradition that tried to develop an all-embracing theory of interaction (generalized laws and principles of interaction) based on specific interactive phenomena. Interactive phenomena such as differences in reading speed for digital and paper media (Gould et al. 1987), expert performance speeds for routine cognitive tasks (Card et al. 1983), and user performance in menu-based navigation tasks (Norman 1992) were studied. The theories developed, however, still do not have sufficient predictive power about user issues that are important to usable systems design. On the positive side, user testing is no longer the only way to design usable systems. The third stage in HCI, still unattained, is to support the design of more humanly acceptable information technologies that will enhance and augment human capabilities in all spheres.

The problematic situation facing digital library design and use can be stated as a set of basic research questions: What is an interactional digital library? How will people use interactional digital libraries? How can interactional digital libraries enhance and augment human capabilities? These questions can also be reframed as three challenges for further digital library development:

1. Information Spaces. McKnight (2000, p. 730) uses information space to mean "objects (real or virtual) to which the individual turns to acquire information". Information spaces will increasingly be made up of heterogeneous formats. Dillon (2002) calls this the multimedia mix-and-match. The challenge is the "smooth blending of multimedia" in interfaces (ibid., p. 469). How can information displays in digital libraries enable users to extract meanings by mixing multimedia (sound, graphics, video, text, all seamlessly linked) for an interactive experience? Furthermore, new technologies will result in "wholly new forms", possibly new genres of information that will only exist digitally; genres may also be consciously designed. In fact Winograd (1996) argues for this. Tools are needed to support the transformation and derivations of new genres from underlying information units by readers of documents and the users of digital libaries. The first challenge is to build information spaces that are heterogeneous and include support tools for shaping them.

2. Learning Spaces. Coleman et al. (2001) define learning spaces in digital libraries as information spaces that are based on knowledge organization and instructional design principles. Learning spaces display the best information for learning in an optimal manner; they incorporate intelligent, interactive information retrieval, customized for or controlled by users' learning styles. They use instructional technology, which is concerned with information layout and sequencing for user understanding and improvement of learning. They offer the promise of improving the learning of difficult, abstract concepts and skills such as scientific reasoning by incorporating the notion of information work (Sundaram 1996a, 1996b). Taxonomies of tasks and user behaviors in the context of disciplinary and general learning are developed; scientific classifications and general knowledge representation schemes are merged with tasks and learning outcomes to develop ontologies and information-use maps. The second challenge is to build learning spaces that go beyond the ability to retrieve information, and include the facility to customize and filter information, to get only relevant documents, to adjust sequencing and presentation of information according to learning theories, information-seeking and disciplinary use behaviors. Thus, knowledge representation techniques that facilitate information use for learning tasks, information visualizations that transcend human processing limitations, and user evaluation that is woven into design, play key roles in building learning spaces.

3. Interaction Spaces. Winograd (2002, p. 260) questions the current model of interaction architecture and device communication - based on the standard figure of a user in front of a screen with a keyboard/pointing device - and argues for the need to evolve towards a different architecture of multiple users in interactive spaces. Dillon (2002) refers to this as 'Ubiquity' or 'We Want Information Where We Are'. Ubiquitous computers may help reduce the problem of information overload (Weiser 2001). Information access is a question of whether users get information from a device, whether old devices may be modified to provide new functions, or whether we meet the real challenge of freeing human users from the multiplicity of physically located devices for information access. Therefore, the third challenge is to build such interaction spaces for digital libraries that both free the user from physical limitations as well as provide the benefits of virtual interactions (for example, asynchronous interactivity) and communities to digital libraries.

The information-learning-interaction spaces challenge provides a framework and directs digital library research and development to the human rather than just the technical problems. It is also grounded in the realization that libraries, whether they are digital or traditional, are socially constructed, and that the values of a society are embodied in the use of a library. Are these challenges realistic? Are such interactional digital libraries possible? Can they be built for successful use? We invite the community to discuss and explore. The papers in this issue show how current projects and initiatives are handling some of the challenges.

Hoban et al. in Virtual Telescopes in Education, present the philosophical and resulting technical approaches to the role of interactivity in digital libraries. They use interactivity to enable the participation of novices in the scientific process just as expert astronomers do on a daily basis. Designing a customizable virtual observatory is only one element in engaging learners in this process-driven environment. To encourage them to participate in the scientific inquiry process, learners are guided through developing a research proposal, gathering and analyzing data, drawing conclusions and developing a report on their findings.

In Thematic Real-time Environmental Distributed Data Services (THREDDS), Domenico et al. discuss the characteristics of earth systems data and illustrate specialized visualization and analysis tools being developed to allow the user to manipulate and interact with earth systems data. A related paper, Developments in the NSDL: Atmospheric Visualization Collection by Klaus et al., highlights the differences between public users and researchers in using their visualization database of atmospheric data. It illustrates how incorporating interactive assessment and development activities into the learning environments encourages participation and establishes an interactive user-provider community.

Clark et al. in Digital Archive Network for Anthropology highlight the opportunity for interactive digital collections in anthropology and discuss work being done to create an interactive virtual laboratory experience for people from all levels who have interests in anthropology. Capabilities for creating both two- and three-dimensional models of materials that can be manipulated, allowing the user to take precise measurements, all enhance the experience and detailed study of anthropological specimens. Further, they increase research accessibility as some of these specimens were previously not available for open study.

Designing the User Interface for the Fischlar Digital Video Library, by Lee and Smeaton, presents the design space concept and framework for designing a video browser. User interfaces and query mechanisms of current video libraries are discussed, as well as the design framework used in developing a keyframe-based video browser for this video library project in Ireland.

Yaron et al. detail the creation of interactive learning experiences through the CreateStudio development environment. Linked Active Content for Digital Libraries for Education demonstrates a principle that has long been recognized in systems development: the need to separate content from software. In an information use context this allows for easier repurposing of content to create new interactive learning experiences.

The concept of interactivity through inquiry-based education is discussed by Moore et al. Active Netlib: An Active Mathematical Software Collection for Inquiry-based Computational Science and Engineering Education discusses executable mathematical software that both guides users in selecting appropriate software based on the user's needs, and assists users in setting correct parameters and interpreting results.

In Federated Searching Interface Techniques for Heterogeneous OAI Repositories, Liu et al. highlight the importance of developing a rich unified search interface built on the metadata and controlled vocabularies used across heterogeneous digital library collections. They discuss problems that arise in creating a unified search interface in Arc, a fully implemented system providing access to content from 75 different data providers.

Salampasis and Diamantaras, in Experimental User-centered Evaluation of an Open Hypermedia System and Web Information-Seeking Environments, discuss information seeking strategies and environments. The use of a single search interface, such as the Web, for multiple search strategies is examined and compared with an interaction model based on multiple user interfaces and search strategies used in parallel.

We hope you enjoy the special issue and look forward to your responses to The Challenge of building interactional digital libraries.


We acknowledge and appreciate the services of the 15 reviewers who helped shape this special issue. Many of them are experts in their areas and the time commitments of refereeing could easily have dissuaded them from participating. Instead they were enthusiastic in their acceptance and provided thoughtful, timely feedback. Finally, thanks to Susan Irwin, graduate student at the School of Information Resources and Library Science, University of Arizona at Tucson, for her prompt help in matters related to editorship.


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