5 Days, 5 Facts: Essential Information for Info Pros, relating to User Behaviour


Welcome to the first 5 Days, 5 Facts. The idea is to take 5 totally awesome facts and bring them to your attention over the period of a week, all on a certain theme. If this works well, I’ll repeat it with different themes in the future (feel free to suggest stuff). The idea is that if you’re interested in any of these facts, which I will reference with proper academic rigour, you can go away and read the original documents I got them from and learn more. WARNING: for those outside the Information Profession, these facts may not seem awesome. But they are.

User behaviour is an absolutely vital area to keep track of, because in the current information environment it is vital to respond to what people are doing, rather than just provide a bunch of resources and have the users respond to that. Uniquely in the digital age, we know exactly what the behaviour of our users is with regard to their use of digital resources, because what they do leaves an electronic trail. We don’t need to observe, survey, monitor or even question our users; we can just check the log of their activities. (This is not to say that we shouldn’t question our users etc, as context is important. Just that we know how long they spend in a particular database, for example, without having to ask them to make an note of it.) This last aspect will be particularly pertinent to Facts 2 and 3 which follow tomorrow and Wednesday, so look out for them.

Fact 1: The digital universe will double in size every 18 months

This is some of the actual Universe; digital Universe may look less fabulous

The amount of data in the world expands exponentially, we all know that. There is a mammoth amount of digital information in the world as 2009 draws to an end – by mid-2011, there will be twice as much [1] (or even more, according to some estimates which say the data increases five-or-six-fold each year). Various attempts to put this into context seem rather futile to me – apparently if you converted all the current data into text it would stretch to Pluto and back 10 times [2] but really, that’s no easier to get one’s head around. What matters to us is that we are Information Professionals, and our domain (which is to say, information) is expanding at a rate far beyond what we are capable of keeping on top of, and this will influence the behaviour of our users.

I’ve long thought that too much of something can be as problematic as too little. From the profound (academic research when there’s abundant literature on your topic) to the everyday (trying to decide what to listen to from, to all intents and purposes, a limitless selection via Spotify) I’ve actually struggled when faced with too much choice. I’ve recently tried to exert some control over this, by putting all my favourite clips of my favourite drummer onto a DVD, where previously they’d been on youtube – youtube has so much on it, that the chalice I’d’ve given my right arm for as a kid (endless clips of fantastic music, yuss!) becomes poisoned. Uprooting the clips and putting them on a DVD which is very obviously limited has helped enormously – with a level of control and ownership I can relax and enjoy the music, rather than restlessly wondering what other gems are out there which I may be missing. It turns out this isn’t (just) some idiosyncratic spurning of multimedia gift-horses  on my part – as long ago as 1971, Herbert Simon presciently noted: “…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…” [3]

This applies on a couple of levels – first of all, our users are easily distracted, their attentions being caught by ‘competing’ enterprises online. As the Internet is the gateway to the digital resources we libraries provide, we are in a small way in competition with everything else the web provides as well. So it isn’t just that Amazon provides more information than our own library catalogues in most cases (look up a common book on both – be honest, from an academic perspective, which gives you a more useful platform from which to judge the volume’s potential relevance to your research? That’s a whole other blog post for another time…) but that consumer or leisure websites are eating into our users’ time online and people are checking Facebook etc instead of the library website.

This is the rationale behind many libraries’ forays into social networking, with plenty of tail-wagging-the-dog library MySpace sites and other horrors of that nature, but, as the UCL investigation into the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future suggests, there is a big difference between ‘being where our users are’ and ‘and being useful to our users where they are’. [4]  As web 2.0 is so much about personalised content areas, there is strong possibility of alienating users by invading their space – particularly if the ‘concept’ for your library’s Facebook page consists entirely of simply having a Facebook page in the name of your library. I suspect that Twitter (to which I am now a convert, worn down by its continued and annoying ability to be relevant and useful) may be better from this point of view, in that one doesn’t have to be ‘friends’ with a library but one might welcome the odd 140 characters or less update as to Christmas opening times etc. It’s a good platform for a library to maintain a 2.0 presence without crowding its users, and without desperately having to think up content to justify the presence in the first place.

The second aspect in which the poverty of attention / wealth of information conundrum applies to us is actually in the form of an opportunity. We’re all aware of the very real danger that libraries could become redundant, with users being able to do their own research, unassisted, and entirely online (hence the phrase you often hear bandied about, that ‘we’re all librarians now’). Who needs a library when you can find everything yourself? The answer to that may be that you need a library as a gateway to information with integrity. The current information-seeking behaviour of our users is simply not fit for purpose for searching on the kind of staggering scale we’ll be dealing with in the near future. You can easily type a key word into a search engine and get a million hits – what we professionals of information can do for you is sort the wheat from the chaff on an epic scale. We can rule out the majority of those hits on the basis of dubious authorship, or validity, or context, or even just quality. And we can provide access to those materials which are legitimate (and the battle of branding ourselves successfully as the providers of that access will be looked at in Fact 4, on Thursday), for our users. These are roles which will become more and more important as the amount of digital information becomes more and more vast. Imagine the available data as an almost random stream of sentences, arranged without rhyme or reason across a hundred pages. You might find a sentence or two which is really useful, but overall the effort required to search through it all would be overwhelming. What the Information Professional can do, is arrange the sentences into paragraphs, the paragraphs into chapters, and provide you with a Contents page, an introduction and an index. More and more, that will become an invaluable service in the Information Economy in which we live.  

This may be how we need to position ourselves in the years to come. Because, returning to the fact at the heart of this piece, we have to remember that the increase in data over time will be absolutely mind-blowing. In 18 months there’ll be twice as much digital information – in three years, once it’s doubled again, there’ll be four times as much as now. On the eve of 2020, there may be over thirty-two times the amount of digital information than there is today!

Step forward the professionals. 


[1] IDC’s Multimedia White Paper, “As the Economy Contracts, the Digital Universe Expands,” May 2009, available via: http://www.emc.com/collateral/demos/microsites/idc-digital-universe/iview.htm
[2]as above
 [3] Simon, Herbert (1971) Computers, Communications and Public Interest cited in Barbara McDonald’s “From “Building Library Systems” To “Designing UX”,” November 2009, available via:  http://works.bepress.com/barbara_mcdonald/15/
 [4] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.16. Available via www.bl.uk/news/pdf/googlegen.pdf