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Socio-technical interaction networks as a tool for understanding digital libraries

Howard Rosenbaum
School of Library and Information Science and Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University
1320 East 10th Street

Bloomington, IN 47405-3907

KyoungHee Joung

Visiting Scholar, Center for Social Informatics, School of Library and Information Science

Indiana University

1320 East 10th Street

Bloomington, IN 47405-3907


In this paper, we propose that the Socio-Technical Interaction Network (STIN) model is a useful concept to use when studying digital libraries. We extend the model to bring people into the STIN by incorporating the concept of enrollment strategies. Three different types of enrollment strategies are described that differ according to the kinds of interaction they require. The STIN model is then used to analyze the Library of Congress' American Memory Project, which, by many measures, is a successful digital library. Three examples of enrollment strategies used in the American Memory Project are described. The paper concludes with an argument that this version of the STIN model can help us understand how successful digital libraries work.


As digital libraries near the end of their first decade, it seems reasonable to inquire about their current status. According to Bryan-Kinns and Blandford (2000; 1), "digital libraries are on-line collections of heterogeneous information which are usually maintained by some digital librarian." There is a growing literature on the digital library that is based on some variant of this definition that casts it as a technical accomplishment. When conceived as a collection of digital objects such as text, video, and audio (Witten and Bainbridge, 2003; Richavalsky and Watkins, 1998), the development of digital libraries focuses on the selection, organization, and maintenance of digital objects and the means of electronic storage and retrieval. Through the series of conferences held regularly around the world, a set of best practices is emerging for the design, implementation and management of the hardware and software needed to create and maintain digital libraries (Borgman, 2002; Marchionini and Hersh, 2002, Arms, 2000).

Since the turn of the century, digital libraries have become an increasingly taken-for-granted part of the networked information environment, becoming established in academic, private sector, not-for-profit, and governmental settings. According to Borgman (2002):

Digital libraries have become an essential foundation for areas as diverse as electronic publishing and strategic defense, and serve as a primary means to deliver content for scholarship, commerce, cultural heritage, and education (including the National Science Foundation’s NSDL program)."

There are ongoing efforts to develop methods and metrics for evaluating the effectiveness and use of digital libraries. Schiff et al. (1997) argue that the design and evaluation of digital libraries should account for their social contexts, users and their motivations for use, the expected and unexpected consequences of using them, and the complex relationships among human and non-human elements within them. Researchers are investigating the ways in which digital libraries support a wide range of social and work related activities in a variety of settings. Early on, Lesk (1997) described digital libraries as social institutions that are lodged in social structures. There since has been research that has conceptualized digital libraries as systems embedded within organizations (Covi and Kling, 1997), as social systems embedded in communities (Bishop et. al., 1999), and as sociotechnical networks (Van House and Bishop, 2003). Van House and Bishop’ study (2003) emphasizes the understanding of “cognitive or knowledge work” in the design of digital libraries, assuming that these libraries exist to support human knowledge work. In addition, they argues that the tools and practices to enable the work, the subject of the work, the institutions that support the work, and the interactions among all these factors are all important considerations in the design as well as the study of digital libraries. From this research, we are learning more about ways in which some people use them and reasons why others do not (Bishop et. al., 2000; Bryan-Kinns and Blandford, 2000; Bishop, 1998).

In keeping with the spirit of this trend, in this paper we raise the question of the status of digital libraries as complex social organizations. We believe that there are significant gaps on our knowledge about digital libraries when viewed at this level of analysis. Adopting a social informatics (SI) perspective, we think that we can address some of these gaps. We suggest that to understand digital libraries as complex social organizations, the concept of the sociotechnical interaction network (STIN), proposed by Kling et al. (2003), is particularly useful. We introduce the STIN model and argue that the model can be strengthened through the use of a related concept, enrollment, taken from actor-network theory (Callon and Law, 1982). The utility of the modified STIN model is then illustrated through the example of a successful digital library, the Library of Congress' American Memory project. The paper concludes with a discussion of some implications of using the STIN model to study digital libraries. This paper is a version of a lengthier and more detailed report that has been submitted for publication.

Socio-technical interaction networks

What is a socio-technical interaction network (STIN)? The concept, developed by Kling, McKim, and King (2003; 48), describes a

Network that includes people (including organizations), equipment, data, diverse resources (money, skill, status), documents and messages, legal arrangements and enforcement mechanisms, and resource flows. The elements of a STIN are heterogeneous. The network relationships between these elements include: social, economic, and political interactions.

This model allows us to understand what Kling and Scaachi (1988) call the "web of computing," or the social and organizational contexts surrounding information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the people who design, implement, use, and maintain them. The STIN model is a refinement of the insight that has characterized much work in social informatics: ICTs are embedded in dynamic configurations of human and non-human actors and organizational and social structures. According to Barab et al. (2001; 73)

We use the term sociotechnical interaction network to capture the complex sociotechnical arrangements involved in a technology-intensive project, emphasizing the reciprocal character of the interaction among people, among people and equipment, and even among sets of technical structures and political climates.

The STIN model incorporates insights and assumptions from the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach and social informatics. SCOT is an approach within Science and Technology Studies that uses a constructionist approach to explore the relationship between science, technology, and society (Jackson, 2001). It rejects technological determinism in favor of an assumption that social and technical components interact and are interdependent. SCOT holds that technology is not stable; ICTs are changeable and are reconstituted continuously in the process of their engagement with and use in communities. In this approach, importance is given to the social construction of ICTs rather than to ICTs as products, tools, or outcomes. The STIN model similarly assumes that a network can be best understood through the study of the social interactions among its heterogeneous components rather than focusing on the products of these interactions. Also, this model is based on the SI assumption that researchers can explain and understand ICTs through the study of their social and cultural contexts and bi-directional relationships.

Intended as a heuristic device, the STIN allows for a fine-grained analysis of the complex relationships among the various components of the socio-technical networks within which ICTs are designed, implemented, and used. It allows researchers to grasp the subtleties of the mutual shaping of ICTs and their social contexts and to understand the consequences of ICT design and use. This is useful because a “STIN analysis highlights how social relationships are inscribed into ICTs and how social practices and social forms interact with ICTs” (Eschelfelder, 2002). It can help us understand digital organizations from a variety of perspectives including the conditions, activities, and social behaviors supporting the development and use of the organization, and the working relationships that influence and shape its structures, processes, and operations.

Using the STIN model researchers can determine empirically network boundaries, typically a difficult task in socio-technical analysis (Kling, McKim, and King, 2003; 54). Within the network are actors, including individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions, ICTs, and the resources used to develop and maintain them. A key to constraining a network is to focus on two main types of social interactions, resource dependencies and account taking. Resource dependencies include the range of interactions and the resulting relationships linking those actors providing inputs into and receiving outputs from the network. In other words, the main actors in resource dependencies are producers, their suppliers, and users. For example, in their study of scholarly communication, Kling, McKim and King (2003; 54) found that “networks of funders and grantees, employers and employees, and journal publishers and authors" were linked through resource dependencies. Account taking includes interactions that develop as actors in the network use other social entities as reference groups to imitate, distinguish themselves from, or avoid.

There is a small and growing body of research that makes use of the STIN model. The concept has been used to study the IT support of research teams (Kling 1992), the nature of digital documents (Braa and Sandhahl, 1998), web-based information systems (Eschenfelder, 2002), the development of online community (Barab et al.; 2001), scientific collaboratories (Kling, 2000), and the development of internet infrastructure (Montiero; 1998). In this paper, we apply the STIN model to digital libraries.

STIN and enrollment processes

The STIN model, while useful in a variety of domains, does have a limitation, the mitigation of which would allow it to be more fruitfully used in the case of digital libraries. Social informatics research has demonstrated repeatedly that there is often much more socio-technical complexity to many digital domains than is often realized and digital libraries are no exception (Kling et. al, 2000). For example, the ICTs constituting the infrastructure of digital libraries are influenced by social and organizational contexts and used by a wide range of actors. One group of actors includes the people who use digital libraries. With heterogeneous socioeconomic backgrounds, intellectual histories and schemata, they use different types of technological configurations to access the digital library. Once there, they make use of different abilities to search for, find, evaluate, and make use of information. Their contexts influence how they search for information, how they use the information they find, the kinds of information they use, and their perceptions of the digital library.

As a STIN, the digital library's boundaries can be drawn around those individual, groups, and organizations that are involved in developing, supplying, operating, and using it. These resource dependency relationships quickly become clear when examining a given digital library. Tracing the relationships to the reference organizations used by people involved in the digital libraries is possible through account taking. However, understanding the means by which the digital library attracts people to its web site is not easily accounted for in the STIN model. It is clear that without people to make use of its resources, a digital library is a failure. It is also clear that successful digital libraries use more than word of mouth to find their patrons. Is there a reasonable way to extend the STIN model to incorporate some concept to account for the vital process of finding and building an audience?

The concept of enrollment strategies is derived from "enrollment," which is used in actor-network theory (Callon and Law, 1982). The latter refers to the moment when another actor accepts the interests defined by the focal actor, which in this case is the main actor in the STIN. The concept of enrollment strategies is here intended to describe the relationships that develop among actors inside the STIN and potential actors outside its boundaries. Successful enrollment strategies draw people into the STIN; unsuccessful strategies turn them away. For digital libraries to be successful, we argue, they must make use of enrollment strategies that draw people to them.

For our purposes, enrollment strategies can be decomposed into three types differentiated by the type of interactions that are involved: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary enrollment strategies are based on co-location and face-to-face communication among the actors in the STIN. This type of enrollment is physically palpable, immediate, and rich in communication content and cues. It is limited by space and time because the actors must either be in immediate proximity or in direct communication with each other. It is also the basis of the other two enrollment strategies. Secondary enrollment strategies overcome the limitations of primary enrollment strategies: physical distance and the limited number of participants. Especially in the case of digital libraries, they tend to be internet based; some variants are open to the general public and others are restricted to remote participants and make use of special application procedures. Tertiary enrollment strategies disseminate information about the other two strategies to much wider audiences and expand the participation in the STIN.

The American Memory project as a STIN

The ‘American Memory Historical Collections’ (American Memory) is an example of a successful digital library that can be studied using the STIN model. At least part of its success is due to its use of the three types of enrollment strategies described above. In this section of the paper, we will provide a brief history of this digital library and then describe examples of the strategies that are used to make the collections useful for teachers and students in K-12 education.

The data presented in this section were gathered through careful observation and content analysis of sections of the American Memory website between February and August 2003. There are statistics about visits to the American Memory website and about downloads of materials that are available on the website; these were important sources of data. In addition, as questions arose during the analysis, people working at American Memory were interviewed through email. Their responses were informative and another good source of data. The methodology used in the research is described more fully in Joung and Rosenbaum (under review).

American Memory is a core component of the Library of Congress' (LC) National Digital Library Program (NDLP). It contains “multimedia collections of digitized documents, photographs, recorded sound, moving pictures, and text from the Library's Americana collections.” (American Memory, 2003) Through the American Memory website, people can access, download and use a growing collection of more than 7 million digital items Even though LC's mission is to serve as an information resource center for its constituents, United States citizens, it is not easy for the people at great distances from Washington, D.C. to access and make use of its resources. In order to overcome this geographic barrier, the NDLP was inaugurated on October 13, 1994, with the opening of the Digital Library Visitor’s Center (Lamolinara, 1995). The purpose of this program was to digitize the LC’s historical collections and make them available online to users all over the world. The core of the National Digital Library was the American Memory Pilot (Fleishhauer, 1995).

The American Memory Pilot ran from 1990 to 1994 after the LC selected and digitized the materials that would be valuable for the study of American history and culture. Through the operation of the pilot program, the development team achieved the following: the identification of its main audiences, the establishment of technical procedures, the creation of solutions to intellectual property issues, and demonstrations of options for the distribution and the institutionalization of the LC’s digitization efforts (Fleishhauer, 1995). The American Memory User Evaluation survey, was run from fall 1991 to June 1993. Participants included 44 volunteer institutions (including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, public libraries, state libraries, special libraries). The survey data helped the project team identify issues relating to the use of the collections. This evaluation produced three main findings. The first was that the main audiences for the collections were teachers and students in secondary schools. The second was that photography collections were used more frequently than were textual collections. The third was that various supporting materials such as exhibits, collection information, online help files, and printed documentations were, in the minds of many patrons, complex as well as unsatisfactory.

The pilot program ended in June 1994, around the time that American Memory appeared on the web (Arms, 2000). Initially, there were two collections available, "Selected Civil War Photographs" and "Color Photographs from the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information." Since then, the American Memory Project team has tried to make the collections available to as many people as possible. Though the survey, the Project Team knew that a large percentage of their audience was not specialists in handling primary historical sources for their teaching or study and these people could not use the collections easily with the search functions available on the American Memory Website at that time. In response to these findings, stakeholders involved in the American Memory Project developed a range of enrollment strategies for accessing and using the American Memory collections in the classroom that have been successful in bringing teachers and students to the website and teachers into the various American Memory programs. For example, since the mid 1990s, the Project Team and teachers nominated to be American Memory Fellows have developed lesson plans based on their collections for the K-12 teachers and students who were identified as core audiences during the pilot program.

Applying the STIN model to American Memory, we believe that it is an ICT-based network within which heterogeneous human and non-human actors interact through resource dependencies, account taking, and enrollment strategies. In the same way as other networks, this digital library contains a mix of heterogeneous components, including human resources (participants including users, librarians, and organizers), non-human resources (technologies, funding, digital collections, status of organizations, norms, and rules), the contexts of each resource, and the social, political, and economic-relationships among these resources. The design, implementation, operation, and evaluation American Memory is affected by interactions among the heterogeneous components that constitute the STIN (Xie, 2002).

The data collected indicate that there are at least ten enrollment strategies in use in American Memory. Table 1 shows these strategies, their character, and their magnitude (see Table 1 Enrollment Strategies for the American Memory Project).

Enrollment strategies in the American Memory Project

Enrollment strategies in the American Memory Project are divided into three types as shown in Table 2, Division of enrollment strategies in the American Memory Project. They are in mutually complementary relationships, and each strategy is closely interconnected with the others. In this section, we explain primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollment strategies and offer one example of each drawn from the data. A full accounting of all ten strategies is beyond the scope of the current paper and is presented in Joung and Rosenbaum (under review).

Primary enrollment: American Memory Fellows Program

The American Memory Fellows Program (AMFP) was launched in 1997 with financial support from the Kellogg Foundation; it continued until 2001 and is an example of a primary enrollment strategy. The entire program depended on intensive face-to-face interaction that took place on site in Washington, DC. The staff of AMFP in 1999 was composed of 8 NDL staff members who were education resources specialists, curricular developers, library media specialists, a content developer, and educational instruction specialists and 12 other staff members who were web developers, a professor of English and American Studies, school teachers, a teaching administrator, a system director, and a school librarian. These people organized and presented the program (Bellin, 1999).

The AMFP produced a total of 250 competitively selected fellows during 5 years, 50 fellows in each year. Two-person teams composed of teachers, librarians, curriculum coordinators, media specialists, and other educational professionals from across the nation applied to the program with proposals describing plans for using the American Memory collections in their classrooms (Bellin, 1999). While attending the AMFP in Washington, DC, the Fellows worked with program staff and consultants to examine digitized primary source materials including photographs, documents, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and texts. They learned about how to work with these primary materials and then developed exemplary teaching units using the American Memory collections. During the following school year, the AMFs refined and tested their lesson plans with their students and colleagues, after which the lesson plans were published on the American Memory's Learning Page as lesson plans (Veccia, 2000).

Secondary enrollment: Web Discussion, and Live Chat

Web Discussion and Live Chat, both of which began in 2002, are examples of secondary enrollment strategies. They are virtual fora on the website where American Memory staff, AMFs, librarians, and educators participate and discuss the access to and use of the American Memory collections. The staff provides topics monthly, with descriptions and featured contents, for discussion and chat. In the discussions, participants can post articles at any time and Live Chat is opened once a month. Both give K-12 educators opportunities to communicate with Project staff and each other about American Memory’s programs, resources, and discuss how to teach these topics to their students. All results of discussions and chat are posted on the Learning Page, which means that non-participants in the program can access them.

In fact, the Web Discussion, and Live Chat facilities are open to all in the teaching community who might be interested in participating in the American Memory Project. These secondary enrollment strategies overcome the limitations of number and geography, increasing overall participation in the American Memory.

Tertiary enrollment: The Notification List

The Notification List is a tertiary enrollment strategy. It is an electronic mailing list that is targets the K-12 community involved or interested in the American Memory Project. In Nov. 2002, the LC created the List and as of May 2003, there were 780 subscribers (AMFs, K-12 teachers, librarians, education technologists, K-12 administrators…) News about programs on the Learning Page is disseminated via this List. When there are new articles in The Source, new lesson plans on the Learning Page, new workshop programs, new American Memory collections, and special events relating American Memory Project, the news is delivered through the List to the subscribers. The Notification List is a device that connects all enrollment strategies such as lesson plans, The Source, various workshops and discussion programs with K-12 community. It also is an important tool that brings people to the American Memory website, enrolling them in and making them part of the STIN.


In this paper, we have proposed that the STIN model is a useful approach to take for studying digital libraries. We extended the model to incorporate the concept of enrollment strategies to account for the need to bring people into the STIN. Three different types of enrollment strategies were described. The STIN model was then used to analyze the LC's American Memory Project which is a successful digital library. Three examples of enrollment strategies used in the American Memory Project were described.

We found that primary enrollment strategies are formal, controlled (geographically and in number of participants) and produce core interactors for the American Memory Project. They are enacted in physical space, in this case Washington DC, and are based on face-to-face communication. They serve as the basis for the other two types of enrollment strategies. Secondary enrollment strategies overcome and complement the controlled situation of primary enrollment strategies through the use of the internet. Tertiary enrollment strategies disseminate the results of the previous two processes thereby enlarging participation in the digital library. Together, these strategies draw users to the digital library through the Web as well as in physical space.

How well do these enrollment strategies work? Evidence indicates that the American Memory Project is a successful STIN. An analysis of the logs of the Learning Page, an estimate of the number of K-12 schools linking to the American Memory website, and a count of the number of articles that have studied the American Memory project all conclude that the number of people participating in and writing about the American Memory project has increased each year since the project began. For example, in 1996, there were approximately 12 million requests for files. Between 1997 and 1999, the requests for the files doubled. Since then, the frequency of the requests has increased continuously. In 1999, the number of links from K-12 schools to the American Memory website tripled and every year after that, the number of K-12 websites linking the American Memory has doubled. Since 1998, articles mentioning the American Memory Project published in journals aimed at the K-12 community average over a hundred per year, indicating a ripple effect in awareness about the American Memory website The circulation number of some of the journals1 searched runs between 1,500 and 75,000.


This paper is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Rob Kling without whose influence and guidance this work would not have been possible. The authors also acknowledge the useful comments from the anonymous referees.


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Joung, K.Y. and Rosenbaum, H. (under review). Digital libraries as socio-technical interaction networks: A study of the American Memory Project. Manuscript submitted to the Journal of the American Society for Information Science.

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Table . Enrollment Strategies for the American Memory Project




The Learning Page

Ideas/teaching materials for K-12 community

2002: accessed 2 million times (5,479/day).

Lesson Plans

AMFP created and classroom-tested lessons

Total 65 titles on the Learning Page

AM Fellows Program

Program to develop lesson plans

1997-2001: 250 fellows (50 each year)

The Source

Newsletter to share ideas for using AM collection

Sep. 2001 issue # 1. 27 articles written by AMFs (issue # 1 to # 5)

Web Discussion

(Learning Page Symposium)

Virtual forum for AM staff, AMFs, educators to share experiences with collections

Oct 2002-Jan 2003: 4 topics provided and 11 people participated

Live Chat

How to teach topics to students

July 2002 - Feb 2003: 6 held and 74 people participated

In-house workshops

Workshops at LC in Washington, DC.

Oct 1999 - Sep 2002, 2,152 attended 169 workshops

Video Conference

Distance learning program offered by LC

Aug 2001 – 2003: >150 workshops with ~3000 participants

Self-Serve programs

Workshop materials for self learning

Aug 2001: 19 titles provided for download

Notification List

Mailing list for sharing Learning Pages news

Total subscribers 780

Table 2. Division of enrollment strategies in the American Memory Project


Kinds of strategies


Primary enrollment

Lesson Plan, American Memory Fellowship Program, In-House workshop

Basis of other enrollment processes.

Progresses through face-to-face communication in Washington DC.

Secondary enrollment

Web Discussion, Live Chat,

Self-Serve programs, Video-Conference

Supports primary enrollment.

Progresses on the internet.

Tertiary enrollment

Learning Page, The Source,

Notification List

Processes for dissemination of other two enrollment strategies. Progresses on the internet.

1 Teacher Magazine: 14,000, The Book Report: 20,000, Community College Week: 60,000, The Social Studies: 1,600, History Teacher: 2,000, District Administration: 75,000, Gifted Child Today Magazine: 20,000, School Library Journal: 39,500, School Library Media Activities Monthly: 14,000, Knowledge Quest: 9,100 (Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory,


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