First Monday

Socially Grounded User Studies in Digital Library Development

In order for public libraries to ameliorate the "digital divide" in their local communities, this paper presents a socially grounded and participative process for facilitating access to networked digital information for marginalized groups. Through the Afya Project, a participatory action research approach to digital library design is taken that targets the barriers in access to health information and services experienced by African American women in the community. SisterNet, a local grassroots social network of African American women committed to addressing physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health issues, is a partner for the Afya Project. SisterNet has played a significant role in recruiting African American women as community action researchers to participate in data collection and analysis related to the development, implementation, and assessment of Web-based resources. Use scenarios in socially grounded user studies are being employed as a key methodological technique to design culturally appropriate and usable Web-based health information services that will help African American women in the community achieve their vision of better health.


Public Libraries and the Digital Divide
Socially Grounded Design and Evaluation of Digital Libraries
The Afya Project
Implications for the Development of a Community-Based Digital Library

Public Libraries and the Digital Divide

"If you want to open the library's doors and be inviting to Black women, that means transforming the whole organization and how you do things. If the library wants to make sure it reaches members of that community, it needs to alter its relationships with them. Libraries should not just serve information; they should help build the community's capacity to create information."
Imani Bazzell, SisterNet Founder & Director, 1999

National studies of the "digital divide" reveal disparities in information technology access and use along socioeconomic lines. Computer ownership and Internet use are less prevalent among marginalized groups, such as minorities, and those with low incomes or less education (NTIA, 1999; Novak and Hoffman, 1998; Novak, Hoffman, and Venkatesh, 1998). Recent reports from the Benton Foundation (1996, 1998) and Libraries for the Future (1999) call for public libraries to face the challenge of ameliorating the digital divide in their local communities.

But lack of technology access does not tell the whole story. It has been realized that creating "useful content on the Internet, material and applications that serve the needs and interests of millions of low-income and underserved Internet users" is as important as providing members of these marginalized groups with computers and Internet connections (The Children's Partnership, 2000). Further, "creative ways will have to be found to make computer networking more a part of the social lives" of traditionally underserved audiences (Benton Foundation, 1998, p. 12). Libraries truly need to reinvent themselves if they hope to play a meaningful role in developing and facilitating access to networked digital information for marginalized groups. Active participation with community organizations that represent those on the fringes is a critical part of the reinvention process.

Socially Grounded Design and Evaluation of Digital Libraries

Clearly, going digital has as much to do with social transformation as technical conversion (Levy and Marshall, 1995). Thus, crossing the digital divide demands an approach to the design and evaluation of digital libraries that is both socially grounded and participative, that includes close attention to:

Recent years have seen a burgeoning of research that emphasizes social aspects of the design, use, and impact of information systems (Bishop, Van House, and Buttenfield, in press; Bowker, et al., 1997; Kling, in press; Nardi and O'Day, 1999; Twidale, Nichols, and Paice, 1997).

Combining this line of work with participatory action research (Park, 1993; Whyte, 1991) focuses digital library design and evaluation directly on the digital divide. Participatory action research demands relevant outcomes for marginalized members of society. It seeks to enhance the problem-solving capacities of local community members by actively involving them in every phase of research - from setting the problem to deciding how project outcomes will be assessed. In this approach, the intended users of a digital library participate as researchers, not subjects (Reardon, 1998):

Participatory action research focuses on the information and analytical needs of society's most economically, politically, and socially marginalized groups and communities, and pursues research on issues determined by the leaders of these groups. It actively involves local residents as co-investigators on a equal basis with university-trained scholars in each step of the research process, and is expected to follow a nonlinear course throughout the investigation as the problem being studied is 'reframed' to accommodate new knowledge that emerges.

We see examples of participatory action research in projects involving geographical information systems in South Africa (Harris, et al., 1995), the introduction of computers in poor neighborhoods (Tardieu, 1999), and the development of community indicators by people associated with the Seattle Community Network (Schuler, 1996).

The Afya Project

Through the Afya Project, we are taking a participatory action research approach to digital library design and evaluation that targets the barriers in access to health information and services experienced by African American women in our community. Not only does this focus reflect a serious local need, it addresses the nationwide problem of inequitable health services to minorities and women that has recently received attention in the press (White, 1999). SisterNet - a local grassroots social network of African American women committed to addressing physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health issues at the community level - is the primary community-based organizational partner for the Afya Project. SisterNet nurtures the lifestyle and behavior, support systems, and networks that will lead to better health. Through the Afya Project, we are exploring ways to build community-wide social practices and support systems that foster the active participation of marginalized groups in creating digital library collections and services. Project partners also include local healthcare institutions and libraries as well as Prairienet (, the community network serving the Champaign-Urbana region.

Through SisterNet, we are recruiting African American women as community action researchers to participate in data collection and analysis related to the development, implementation, and assessment of Web-based resources. SisterNet women are responsible for articulating digital divide and health service outcomes they want to achieve. They are also active participants in developing the content - as well as outreach and training services - associated with the exchange of health information through their Web site. The Afya Project fosters the symmetrical enhancement of community members' problem-solving capacities. For example, University of Illinois faculty, students, and staff transfer technical expertise to SisterNet women who, in turn, assist health information and service providers in learning how to develop more culturally appropriate resources and practices. We are working toward a common ground in SisterNet's Web site where interested community members can collaborate to achieve the desired outcome of improved health services for local African American women.

In the Afya Project, we are employing use scenarios as a key methodological technique to design Web-based health information services that African American women will find usable, valuable, and congenial. In contrast to many other system development methods, use scenarios provide concrete descriptions of the activities of intended users, focus on particular instances, are more open and informal, and aim at envisioned outcomes (Carroll, 1995, p. 4). They identify what outcomes from use are desired and why - not the specifics of how to achieve them - and can be used to guide digital library design, assess usability, and evaluate outcomes (Hill, et al., 2000). Scenarios empower potential users as initiators in the analysis of information about their expectations and requirements, rather than treating them as mere informants in the design process (Mehra, et al., 2000). This is especially important in developing a more complete picture of the social context of information-seeking and technology use for those marginalized groups who are often on the fringes of system design and evaluation, such as the African American women in our community who are collaborating with us on the Afya Project.

We are in the early stages of developing a set of use scenarios for local African American women in the domain of health. Our first step was to review discussion group data related to women's health concerns that derived from earlier SisterNet activities. We also reexamined relevant data from interviews and focus groups conducted as part of the Community Networking Initiative, which brought together the University of Illinois, Prairienet, and the Urban League of Champaign County in order to provide computers and training to low-income neighbohoods (Bishop et al., 1999).

Currently, we are eliciting narratives that depict typical problematic health situations and elaborating them in terms of community health information needs, practices, gaps, and uses. Women participating in the Afya Project discussion groups relate their vision of a healthy Black woman; important health concerns or situations they recently experienced; where and how they typically get and use health information; barriers they experience and what works well in using health resources; their use of computers; and actions that they or other Project participants can take to improve health information resources and services. In a separate discussion group, local health information and service providers addressed similar issues, but from their own perspectives. These topics are integral to developing use scenarios for a Web-based community health information service for African American women, since they holistically bring together essential needs, goals, expectations, and practices related to the use of health services, information, and technology.

We are using the set of scenarios collected in Afya Project discussion groups to guide the design and evaluation of Web-based health information services for African American women. Below are examples of use scenarios derived from the comments of different community health stakeholders:

In the second stage of the Afya Project, SisterNet women will participate in workshops that introduce them to Web services related to African American women's health. They will use our initial set of scenarios, and contribute their own, to critique the usability and usefulness of existing services (both local and global) and develop recommendations for the design of SisterNet's own Web site.

Implications for the Development of a Community-Based Digital Library

Our initial formulation of use scenarios has helped us articulate the barriers to achieving good health that African American women in our community face. These include poor patient/provider relationships due to racial stereotypes and discrimination, as well as the lack of consistent African American role models for disease awareness and prevention. Also frequently noted in our discussion groups was women's perception that they needed more confidence and self-esteem in demanding good service from health providers. Several African American women believed the history of chronic illness in the Black community leads to a high level of tolerance of disease as a part of life. Another major barrier was the perceived lack of information that was conveniently available, jargon-free, relevant, and culturally appropriate.

Our use scenarios are also helping us define the content and functionality that should be provided in SisterNet's Web site. Bazzell is creating a digital collection of SisterNet "profiles" - consumer-oriented health brochures that provide information specifically targeted to African American women - on reproductive/sexual health, nutrition, disease awareness and prevention, fitness, and safety. The Web site will also provide information on the diseases most commonly named in our scenarios, such as breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, and lupus. In addition, home remedies, often ignored and considered inappropriate by professional health providers, were highlighted in several scenarios and so these will also be shared on the Web site. The use scenarios suggest that content addressing psychological and social barriers to good health would be helpful, for instance tips on how to improve doctor-patient communication and increase self-confidence when dealing with healthcare institutions.

Our set of use scenarios includes numerous reference to friends and family as primary resources that women count on in their efforts to achieve healthy lifestyles. In developing SisterNet's Web site, then, we will strive to provide means for women to extend and maintain their personal social networks. We will also explore possibilities for establishing links that cross personal and professional boundaries; SisterNet women have suggested that the Web site include communication features like online bulletin boards where role models and health providers from the local African American community would supply support and advice. The key role played by both social interaction and non-digital media in our use scenarios highlight the importance of "downstream" and offline use of the SisterNet Web site. Women often serve as intermediaries, looking for information on the Web that they then pass on to a friend or relative who either does not use computers or who requires their help in understanding the health information that was found.


The creation of community-based digital libraries demands an assessment of the information needs, situational attributes, and sociocultural contexts of the people who live in the local area served. This is all the more essential in the context of user groups from traditionally underserved segments of society, if we hope to bridge the digital divide that separates computer users in our communities along socioeconomic lines. By pursuing a socially grounded, participative approach to the design and evaluation of a digital library, we hope the Afya Project will develop Web-based services that help African American women in our community achieve their vision of better health. Direct collaboration with SisterNet and other community-based organizations, and the employment of use scenarios, has already led to a "reframing" (in Reardon's words above) of the problem we are trying to solve. We now see the SisterNet Web site not merely as a place where African American women can access health information contributed largely by medical experts, but as a place where they can, in turn, provide information and advice to health and information professionals interested in improving the cultural relevance and appropriateness of their services.

Bruce and Hogan (1998) argue that researchers need to undertake situated studies that closely examine how technologies are realized in given settings and how ideology operates within situations where technology and humans interact. It is only by exploring how technology becomes so embedded in the living process that, for some users, it "disappears" (i.e., is so easy and natural to use that its use becomes automatic) that we can understand how technologies either "promote or forestall equality." The Afya Project builds on the values and knowledge of SisterNet women in hopes of crafting a digital library that will disappear into their social world rather than hunker on its margins.

About the Authors

Ann Peterson Bishop is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. Her research focuses on socially-grounded research methods and the use of information systems by disenfranchised groups. Bishop teaches courses in community information systems, information needs and uses, knowledge organization and access, social informatics, and information policy. Bishop serves as Principal Investigator for "Community-Based Creation of Networked Information Services: Developing Tools and Guidelines for Public Libraries," a two-year project funded by the Institute for Library and Museum Services (IMLS). She was Principal Investigator for the "Community Networking Initiative" (sponsored by the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program in the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Kellogg Foundation), and co-PI for the University of Illinois' NSF/ARPA/NASA Digital Libraries Initiative project. Bishop is a co-founder - along with Greg Newby - of Prairienet, the community network that serves East Central Illinois.

Bharat Mehra is a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the domain of human-computer interactions, his major interest lies in evaluating user's needs and understanding the role of social, cultural, behavioral, and psychological factors in the design of information systems. His current interest in the design of computer-mediated information systems for minority and marginalized groups extends his earlier cross-disciplinary research in community development and information exchange. Mehra's prior work on the East St. Louis Action Research Project (ESLARP) involved a close working relationship with the community, and the collaborative analysis of their needs, and development of recommendations for re-building the physical and cultural landscape.

Imani Bazzell is the founder and director of SisterNet, a local organization committed to nuturing the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health of Black women. Professionally, she splits her time between SisterNet, the Center For Multicultural Education at Parkland College, and independent consultation with public schools, colleges and universities, unions, not-for-profit and state agencies, and community groups on racial justice, gender justice, healthcare access, and leadership development. Her commitment to institutional change in the area of public education includes serving as the coordinator of ACE (African Americans for Accountability in Education) as well as a member of the Champaign School District's Planning and Implementation Committee (charged with the development and implementation of programs and policies designed to address years of discrimination). Bazzell's other membership and organizing activities include: A Woman's Fund; NAACP; Women Against Racism; National Racial Justice Educators and Organizers; National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media; and, the Black Radical Congress.

Cynthia Smith is pursuing a Master's Degree in Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has worked for the Decatur School District for many years. Smith received her Bachelor's Degree in Child, Family and Community Services at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Her area of concentration is school social work and her future plans include pursuing a doctorate degree that will enable her to work with children and their families in both the school setting and the community.


The Afya Project is supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It extends the work of the Community Networking Initiative, which was sponsored by the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program in the U.S. Department of Commerce and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge the support of these organizations, as well as the participation and contributions made by SisterNet women, students in Ann Bishop's Spring 2000 Community Information Systems class, and health and information professionals in our community.


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Editorial history

Paper received 1 May 2000; accepted 10 May 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Socially Grounded User Studies in Digital Library Development by Ann Peterson Bishop, Bharat Mehra, Imani Bazzell, Cynthia Smith
First Monday, volume 5, number 6 (June 2000),