Understanding the Response of Readers in the Digital Library

Chip Bruce
College of Education, MC 708
University of Illinois
Champaign, IL 61820
C&I office 217-244-4572 fax

In The Second Self, Sherry Turkle puts forth the idea of the computer as Rorshach ink blot, as an evocative medium in which "what people make of computers speaks of their larger concerns, speaks of who they are as individual personalities." She shows how the variety of projections individuals make as they work with computers undermines the very meaning of a phrase such as "the same computer".

This power to evoke radically different meanings for people is often obscured in discussions of the new capabilities and transformative properties of information technologies. It is more convenient to focus the analysis on characteristics of the system: How much information can be stored? What are the features of the interface? Who has access? This, what I would call a "text-based analysis," is quite appropriate at times, and cannot be ignored within the larger frame of understanding the meaning and potential of new technologies. But it risks being, not just incomplete, but seriously misguided if it is not coupled with consideration of what I would call the "reader response."

A reader-response perspective asks us to begin, not with our preconceptions about the features of the system, but rather with a question such as, "What sort of meaning has the user (as reader) constructed out of this interaction with the new technology?" Or even, "What sort of technology has the user constructed?" Questions such as these can be frustrating for a system designer, because they often reveal that users not only have understandings of the system and its features that diverge from those of the designer, but that they conceive of it and its purpose in incommensurate ways. Further exploration down the path of reader response reveals another disturbing notion--the user's conception can override virtually anything the developer or designer can do. One does not have to stay long on the path to begin viewing the user as the ultimate designer, the one who constructs the system in the way it is actually used.

This line of thinking takes me to a number of difficult questions: What language can we use to discuss the process whereby an information resource is realized through the actions of not only a publisher or programmer, but the intended user? The very term "user" is problematic here since it suggests a process that is completed before the user appears on the scene. How can we best see the world from the perspective of a user? What are we to do about the fact that digital libraries are so complex that no single user can explore more than a small portion, and that the underlying technologies change more rapidly than we can do in-depth analyses of user responses?

In addition to larger epistemological and methodological issues, I am also interested in concerns of practice, especially as they relate to teaching and learning through the use of digital libraries. For example, at a recent workshop, I led a discussion on equity issues that arise in the development and use of World Wide Web documents. One teacher discussed how she had developed web pages for teaching science with her own students in mind. Because many of the students were African American, she had paid special attention to meeting their backgrounds and interests. But she said she had simply not thought of gender as an issue, as it happens to be along several dimensions of science learning. She realized that how male or female students "constructed" the web pages that they read would differentially shape their learning experiences, and accordingly, planned to re-view her web pages, especially from the perspective of her female students. Practical concerns I see here include: What is the impact of different organizations of information on different kinds of students? How can we learn what those impacts might be? What can be done to foreground the issue of student user response amidst the massive development efforts now underway?

In the institute, I would like to discuss ideas along these lines with others, both those who share this or similar perspectives, and those who see problems with this approach. I would be happy to contribute from my own work with _situated evaluation_, an approach to account for the realization process for new technologies, which starts with the view that the user is the constructor, not the passive recipient of the system.


Bruce, B. C., Peyton, J. K., & Batson, T. W. (Eds.) (1993). Network-based classrooms: Promises and realities. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Turkle, S. (1984). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster.