Data bodies in the library

The 2017 Library Edition of the New Media Consortium Horizon report identifies trends, challenges, and technologies impacting on the library sector, in which a tension is evident between the essential integration of new technologies, and a defence of professional values concerning information privacy. While organisations such as JISC in the UK support project work on the library as ‘data lab’, there is a clear need for research which takes a broader view of the ‘datafication’ of library use.  The research combines an ethnographic approach with current methods in data science to examine the relationship between library data, the day-to-day use of libraries, and policy developments in the cultural sector.

The project focuses on two key research libraries as field sites: the University of Edinburgh Library and the National Library of Scotland. Considering ‘what makes a library?’, the research will work with theories of ‘Code/Space’ (Kitchin and Dodge 2011), exploring the relationships between software, data, physical space, and the library user.  The research addresses issues of making ‘good’ use of library data and considers the wider implications of the code/space for the cultural industries.

Many university students and researchers make extensive use of one or more research library spaces and services.  These library users are often physically visible, as bodies at desks, but they also leave data traces through interactions with digital services and resources.  These data traces include data on searching, borrowing and downloading a range of digital and physical materials.  Library users also leave digital traces of entrances and exits through security gates, and interact with library buildings through connections to Wi-Fi hotspots, book check-out machines, automated book returns, and digital questionnaire points, as well as moving through buildings which responds to such movement - or lack of it - through triggered lighting systems and automatic door openers.  The building audibly responds to inappropriate movement with alarm sounders, as tagged and unchecked material inadvertently leaves its approved boundaries.

Other library users, in increasing numbers, who study and undertake research at a distance from academic institutions, may never enter library buildings at all.  Yet they also leave data traces in library systems, through a series of data requests for digital resources and online services.  They are ‘borrowers’ of a different kind, and appear as ‘data doubles’ of their physical, information-seeking selves.

Taking into account a long history of privacy concerns and data protection issues in relation to library use, this project will consider these concerns in a contemporary digital context, in which learning analytics and data science methods are being developed to generate potentially useful service development data for libraries.  The project aims to understand better the potential implications of the ‘datafication’ of library users, and to question the tensions which may arise between the promise of data science and the perceived value and values of libraries and their users.

The proposed research builds on a pilot project - Library of Our Time - funded by the University of Edinburgh Library in 2016/17, led by Philippa Sheail at the Centre for Research in Digital Education.  An ethnographic study with a focus on organising practices revealed some key themes for developing an understanding of the changing library, including themes of atmosphere; translation and navigation; the ‘disembodied librarian’; and the concept of ‘being organized’.  As a core concept at the heart of library and information work, the current research develops the key theme of ‘being organized’ further, as essential to understanding better the relationship between library buildings, staff, software, data and library users.  The clear next step for exploring this theme is to examine the available data on library use, drawing on expertise in computation and analytics, digital education, and library service development.  It is anticipated that work in this area will be of potential benefit to the library and information sector, both locally and internationally, but also in identifying the wider implications of the code/space for the cultural sector.

Drawing on Kitchin and Dodge’s (2011) work on Code/Space and Bauman and Lyon’s (2013) work on Liquid Surveillance, particular attention will be paid to the tensions between the ethics of working with library user data and the production of potentially generative data, of the kind that can address practical issues, such as ‘space management’.  The research will address critical questions, of significance to universities, libraries, and the wider cultural sector, about the practical and problematic issues that might be associated with making ‘good’ use of user data while addressing concerns around the increase in user ‘datafication’.

Advisory group

The research will supported by an advisory group with expertise in digital education, computation and analytics, and the development of digital library services and collections: 

Professor Siân Bayne, Professor of Digital Education, UoE

Professor Dragan Gasevic, Professor of Learning Analytics, UoE

Stuart Lewis, Head of Digital, National Library of Scotland

Kirsty Lingstadt, Head of Digital Library & Deputy Head of Library and University Collections, UoE


Kitchin, R. and Dodge, M. (2011). Code/Space: Software and everyday life. MIT Press

Bauman, Z. and Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance Polity Press

Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Giesinger Hall, C., Ananthanarayanan, V., Langley, K., and Wolfson, N. (2017). NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Library Edition. The New Media Consortium. 

Research areas
Digital Cultures
Key contact
Dr Philippa Sheail

Challenge Investment Fund, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Edinburgh


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