Digital praxis and online identity

The below is modified from a reflective piece written for CILIP Chartership. As I was writing, I was interested in and thinking about motivation for engagement in online or digital spaces, and particularly social media. I began with framing in the CILIP Professional Knowledge and Skills Base (PKSB), which presents social media as tools relating to IT and communication technologies. I wanted to think beyond this framing and consider the aspects of connectedness and formation of online identity which social media can develop and foster.

Recently, Lawrie Phipps, Donna Lanclos, and Zac Gribble released the experimental Digital Perceptions reflective tool which allows for a critical reflective exploration of one’s own perception of online identity compared with others’ perceptions. I absolutely recommend trying this out to help develop a critical perspective on your practice of being online—or for some of us, Extremely Online.

In a brief discussion with Lawrie I noted Paulo Freire’s definition of praxis as, “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” which he worked into a piece ‘Toward digital praxis: just thinking out loud’, as:

I want to engage people with their practice, encourage reflection and action on both their existing practices, and the digital structures and background against which their digital self (Identity?) is perceived by themselves and by those with which they engage.

I feel it is this awareness of structure and context, and moreover a critical understanding of power, political structures, and ownership within those digital contexts that is essential to such reflection and action. To inform this, I draw on a model of reflection from heath and social care in which practitioners and academics have worked to create a body of knowledge and theory that combines reflection with critical theory, reflexivity, and social theory. This use of social theory has all the interesting implications one might expect:

This is literally the best thing about social theory though ❤️

— Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste) August 8, 2018

This model for reflection appeals to me because of its appreciation of uncertainty and ambiguity in praxis, and a central concept of, “finding better ways to practice based clearly on different ways of thinking” (Fook and Gardner, 2007 p.67). This goes beyond the idea of corrective actions or ‘lessons learned’ of project contexts, and provides a critically-aware lens that offers deeper understanding of classic models of reflection such as Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s (1974) single-loop and double-loop learning.

Digital Perceptions Johari window showing my ‘Arena’ and ‘Blind Spot’ quadrants.

Ahead of using the Digital Perceptions tool I had considered power and ownership at some length, which is one reason I use a self-hosted WordPress blog and free culture licenses for longer form writing. I consider a “domain of one’s own” an important form of online presence for developing not so much a personal brand, but a digital identity that reflects who I am professionally and also a way of verifying identify using services such as One reflective element informed by my use of the Digital Perceptions tool is any ‘curation’ of online identity is transparent to others, in both positive and negative ways. This leads me to question how this presentation of identity can ever be authentic, and how subjective others’ perceptions of one’s identity are. For this reason I find suggestions that one is just being one’s authentic self online reward a more critical examination; ultimately I see this contraction as an example of mediation of structure and agency.

Personally, I have found critical frames drawn from sociology and cultural studies helpful in understanding social media and have been particularly informed by Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration (1984). Returning to an IT or tool-focused interpretation of social media, I argue this is a limited and limiting view. Social media can be understood not just as ‘a technology’ or ‘a medium’ but always a social system, constituting networks formed by an interplay of social and technological structures and human agency which shape each other co-constitutively. Without initially planning to, I saw how social media can be employed to develop interconnected networks of both “strong ties”, that is the professionals I know well, and “weak ties”, that is the acquaintances who I know a little or who are connected to people I know. My experience of introducing myself to someone at an event or conference that I follow on Twitter, or as a reader of their blogging, is now long established. I discovered this has some theoretical underpinning in Mark Granovetter’s (1973) argument that networks of weak ties better transmit ideas and innovation:

…whatever is to be diffused can reach a larger number of people, and traverse greater social distance […] when passed through weak ties rather than strong.

Granovetter feels this important in the spread and uptake of new ideas that challenge the status quo or are otherwise ‘risky’ and discomforting. Considering social media as networks and social systems, my interest lies in the potential for connection with these new ideas—in terms of both positive benefits such as innovation but also negatives which might be understood as risks to be managed. My understanding of the uncertainty and risk in social media communication draws on Stuart Hall’s (1980) encoding/decoding model of communication—wherein an ‘audience’ is not a passive receiver, but play an active role in decoding messages based on their experience and social contexts and is moreover in an intensified situation of immediate and unmediated communication.

I find this potential for transmission of ideas most effective in two professional contexts. First, when participating in conferences where Twitter can represent a back-channel of what delegates are really thinking about the issues under discussion, and more simply in getting practitioners’ immediate reactions and views from events I am not attending. Related to this, perspectives on conference presentations and discussion can be broadcast outside of the auditorium, reaching wider network and amplifying key points. It’s an open question to me as if those reactions and perspectives are more authentic and more honest than those offered in-person—or just hotter takes. Second, I have found participation in Twitter chats an effective way of bridging connections between disparate social groups, engaging new people, and experiencing new ideas in a relatively serendipitous way. I put much of these positives, and associated negatives, down to a network effect among a self-selected group of participants; and have seen these chats provide an initial spark for new professional relationships and working collaborations.

Reflectively, I am aware of the role of privilege in social media use and consider this in my digital practice. It is easy to breezily state that as I have not known professional life without at least early forms of social media being present, opting out would be unnecessarily limiting and self-defeating. This is one area the Digital Perceptions tool can’t help with; as it is not intended as a diagnostic tool it is down to us to ask critically reflective questions. For example, I have both the time, space and technical knowledge to make effective use of social media in a relatively safe and secure way and remain connected enough with different social media networks that I have been able to leave networks such as Facebook. Though I may consider social media in its broadest sense as essential to information work as the earlier generations of technology I use, we also have to look around and consider who is not represented and present in these networks—and why.


Argyris, C. and Schön, D.A. (1974) Theory in practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fook, J. and Gardner, F. (2007) Practising critical reflection: a resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Giddens, A. (1984) The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity.

Granovetter, M.S. (1973) ‘The strength of weak ties’, American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360–1380. doi:10.1086/225469.

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding/decoding’, in Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A., and Willis, P. (eds.), Culture, Media, Language, pp. 128–38. London: Hutchinson.

The anti-social catalogue – at Library Camp Leeds

On Saturday 26th May I attended Library Camp Leeds (libcampLS), a regional library unconference hosted by Leeds City Libraries. The conference took place on a beautiful sunny day at Horsforth library.

In a masterful move by the organizers we decamped to nearby Hall Park for the afternoon sessions which meant the session I had pitched on library catalogues took place ‘en plein air’. The unconference style made this easy to accomodate though there were some downsides, notably a dog that turned up and dug into Dace‘s salty cheese sticks just as the session was getting started…

Dog joining in with ‘cake camp’, photographed by Dace Udre, license CC-BY-NC.

The anti-social catalogue

Session underway, photographed by Kev Campbell-Wright, license CC-BY-NC-SA.

What is the next-gen library catalogue?

I opened by outlining what we mean by a “discovery interface” or “next-generation library catalogue” to give us some grounding. Then I gave a quick outline of the failure of current library systems to be “social”, that is, how they don’t facilitate social interactions.

I paraphrased from Sharon Yang and Melissa Hoffman’s article (2011) surveying library catalogues. I’ll repeat this below as I know it’ll come in handy in future. What makes something a next-generation catalogue isn’t very well-defined but we can say such a system will have many of these features, whereas traditional catalogues have few:

  • They provide a single point of searching across multiple library resources including the local bibliographic database, journal articles, and other materials.
  • The Web interface is modern and its design reflects that that found in Web search and ecommerce sites rather than traditional bibliographic retrieval systems.
  • They favour keyword searching via a single search box.
  • They feature faceted navigation to rework or limit search results.
  • They are tolerant of user error and provide “Did you mean…?” suggestions.
  • They feature enriched content drawn from sources outside the library such as book jackets, reviews, and summaries.
  • They feature user-generated content such as reviews and tagging.
  • They feature recommendations or suggestions for related material, which may be based on information held in the library system (e.g. circulation data) or elsewhere.
  • They feature some kind of social networking integration to allow for easier sharing and reuse of library records and data on these Web sites.
  • To facilitate this sharing, records have stable persistent links or permalinks.

What are the problems?

Some of the features mentioned above are social in nature, including user-generated content such as tagging and reviews, recommenders built from using circulation data, and integration of social networking sites. So “next-generation” implies a suite of features that include some social features, but not everything next-generation is such a social feature. Furthermore the underlying library management system and metadata are not likely to be too supportive of these features.

In practise social features like tagging and reviews haven’t really taken off in libraries and those of us using these tend to find low use among our customers. This is certainly my experience with tagging, enabled on our Encore catalogue at Senate House Libraries. It is not enough to have a reasonably large bibliographic database and a reasonably large membership then turn on tagging and expect something – the magic – to happen.

I do not think library catalogues are perceived as a social destination by our readers. However I think what prevents this is not that there is no wish by readers to interact in this way using our systems, but that we’re only just starting to make a serious effort to build features that encourage genuine social interaction.

This is what I mean by current catalogues being anti-social. However, I did like this alternative definition from Gaz:


Note: attributions below are based on my notes from the day. If I’ve made a mistake please let me know.

The conversation was lively and varied and I was really pleased to facilitate a session where so many present wanted to contribute.

There was a general feeling the current technology isn’t there yet and implementation of social features on our catalogues do not encourage social interaction.

Luke explained catalogues built by vendors reflect the small marketplace offered by libraries and that technology in libraries tends to be quite far behind leading edge. He described the development of VuFind for discovery based on frustration with software supplier offerings – but one that required a willingness to invest in staff resource to develop and implement VuFind. This was done at Swansea University, Swansea Metropolitan University, and Trinity Saint David as a project – SWWHEP.

Luke mentioned something I have heard as a common objection to user-generated content in catalogues, the fear that students will abuse it and tag books with swearwords and so on. There was a similar concern raised that books written by academic staff might be rated down by students (with a cheeky suggestion added – “They should write better books”). Luke pointed out this has not proved a problem on the Swansea iFind implementation of VuFind (as it hasn’t at Senate House Libraries) because the feature is simply not being used. I thought that in some ways the feature being ignored is worse than readers actively disliking it…

Sarah gave an example of a ‘paper-based Web 2.0’ (my term) implementation where library members were given a paper slip to rate or review an item – which would then be keyed into the catalogue by staff!

Several campers made the point bringing in user-generated content from outside – such as Librarything for Libraries – could make a big difference as then there’s clearly something there to start with.

It was generally agreed building features that create good social interaction requires effort, it’s not something we can easily bolt on to existing systems that aren’t designed for this from the ground up.

There was agreement with Iman‘s point that for social features to become popular there should be an incentive for the customer. The customer should get value from the interaction, or what’s the point of doing it? Alongside this it shouldn’t take huge effort or require a great deal of work to be social. The concept of gamification as a way of providing that incentive was raised here.

Several campers gave example of where libraries know great a deal of information about our readers habits and actions, and could re-use this to enhance their experience of the physical or online library. The approach to social features on the catalogue that requires least effort are those interactions that happen by you doing what you would normally do anyway. For example borrowing and returning books to generate recommendations based on circulation information.

One problem was raised about emphasising top loaning items from the collection in that this could become self-sustaining: an item remaining popular because it is on that list. (At this point I wondered that I probably couldn’t make our top-loaning author Michel Foucault any more popular if I tried…)

Liz made a thoughtful point that the use of technology is important, that is how it enables us to fulfil the mission of the organization (the library, the university). We should concentrate on what’s relevant for our organizations. So: we need to be clear what we’re trying to achieve with these features and what the point of it all is. Technology used poorly for its own sake had already been raised, an example given being linking to an ebook record from the catalogue using a QR code: if you’re already online looking at the catalogue, why not just a normal hyperlink?

Rather than limiting ourselves to what other libraries are doing we should be thinking along the lines of features employed in ecommerce systems. Spencer made the interesting point that ecommerce systems he has worked with can build a much more complete picture of user needs and wishes with a view to offering them a tailored online experience. This is years ahead of anything libraries currently do.

Some more fundamental problems were raised about technology and libraries.

Linsey raised the idea of ’embarrassing IT’, that is IT provision that’s so bad we as information professionals are ashamed to offer it. Alison said the technology needs to be there to support new catalogues, or our staff and customers simply can’t make the best use of them. An example given by the group was of an older catalogue remaining popular versus a next-generation system because it’s faster to use on outdated computers provided by the library.

These problems aren’t minor. Feedback from the group was that our Web presence and user experience of our Web sites really influences users’ perception of our organizations. There’s a real need for us to do this well, not half-heartedly.


My thanks to Natalie Pollecutt at the Wellcome Library for helpful discussion about the concept of the ‘social catalogue’ ahead of libcampLS.


Yang, S.Q. and Hofmann, M.A. (2011). ‘Next generation or current generation?: a study of the OPACs of 260 academic libraries in the USA and Canada’, Library Hi Tech, 29 (2), pp. 266-300. doi:10.1108/07378831111138170

The Mnemosyne-Atlas: adding Pinterest to the library catalogue.

Why pinterest?

Last week I attended a talk by Phil Bradley at the Cilip in London AGM (a podcast of this talk Around the World on a Library Degree is available). Phil pointed out Pinterest as a particularly useful and interesting site to watch. I had not heard of this before so registered an account. Shortly after I noticed the Pinterest implementation at Darien Library.

Pinterest is a social networking site for sharing photos. Users organise items of media on boards – typically thematically or for a particular event.

I was immediately struck by the appearance of a full pinboard, it made me think of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne-Atlas. The Mnemosyne-Atlas was Warburg’s unfinished work, a series of plates (or boards) showing images from the classical period to Warburg’s present time. Alongside classical and renaissance images it included photographs, maps, woodcuts, advertisements, fragments of text, posters, and so on – all kinds of visual media. Warburg intended the boards to be accompanied by commentaries, but these were incomplete on his death in 1929 and only fragments exist.

Taken as a whole it is a summary of all of Warburg’s various interests. It has been compared with avant-garde photo montages in form but is something more, perhaps even a “visual archive of European cultural history” (Rampley, 1999). A photograph from an exhibition of Mnemosyne-Atlas plates is shown above. This is from a set on Flickr called aby warburg – the mnemosyne atlas.

Without expecting every user to be a scholar and cultural theorist of Warburg’s stature, I think there is value in supporting linking our catalogue records to Pinterest as it will allow users to relate them to other images and construct different meanings from them.  I feel it’s especially appropriate for Senate House Libraries which includes the library of the The Warburg Institute.

What is different about Pinterest is it makes creation of ‘vision boards’ easy – many sites now support pinning an image to Pinterest, and there are smartphone apps allowing you to pin anything you can photograph.

How to do this in Encore

At Senate House Libraries we have testing a beta version of the next release of our next-generation catalogue (or discovery interface), Encore. Caution! Everything described below links to a beta version of our catalogue that is not yet finished.

Adding a “Pin It” button is made possible by the ability to insert your own Javascript on the bibliographic record display of the new version of the catalogue. To be able to pin a catalogue record to a Pinterest board at minimum we need an image and a link to associate with it; a description of the image is optional. In this case the image is of the book jacket.

Here’s the Javascript to accomplish this, mind any line wrapping and WordPress oddness if you copy and paste it – file also available on Pastebin.

<script src="//" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script type="text/javascript">
(function() {
var azImageDiv = document.getElementById("imageAnyComponent_0");
if (azImageDiv) {
if (azImageDiv.width>1 && azImageDiv.height>1) {
// key is a variable Encore uses for checking Google Books. It contains 'ISBN:' plus an ISBN10.
var azAsin = key.substring(5);
var pinterestDiv=document.createElement('div');
pinterestDiv.innerHTML = '<span class="bibInfoHeader">Pinterest</span><div class="addthis_toolbox addthis_default_style" ><p>' + '<a class="addthis_button_pinterest" pi:pinit:url="' + recordid + '" pi:pinit:media="' + '' + azAsin + '.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg"' + ' pi:pinit:layout="horizontal"</a></div>';


The challenge is to ensure we only render the Pin It button when we’re confident we have a book jacket image.

First step is to get the imageAnyComponent_0 div and check the size. This div contains the jacket image on Encore and is put there by the catalogue. Amazon returns a 1×1 pixel GIF if it has no jacket to offer, so if the image is larger than this it is probably a jacket image. Having the image is key: if we don’t have it we render nothing.

Assuming we have a jacket image I use the Add This to insert a Pinterest button which will pin a larger version of the jacket image and a link to the catalogue. Add This makes it very easy to deal with various social media buttons with minimal effort, plus it includes analytics information allowing us to judge use of these services on the catalogue. I recommend it.

Getting the ISBN turned out to be easy as the vendor’s Javascript for checking for Google Books previews already declares a variable key containing ‘ISBN:’ plus the ISBN-10 of the book.


Here is how the the Pin It button appears in Encore:

If you use the Pin It button, it results in the creation of a pin like this, which can be found on my (testing!) board Catalog records from@SenateHouseLib:


I think this is a satisfactory start: comments, improvements and criticism welcome (but especially improvements).

First problem is Add This doesn’t seem to support passing a description for the pinned item. To make sharing as “frictionless” as possible I wanted to the add part of the page title as a description, for example: Senate House Libraries — Love is a dog from hell : poems, 1974-1977 / Charles Bukowski would be fine, and the Pinterest user can edit this during pinning. I added this manually to my pin above. Based on the syntax for the other options above it should be: pi:pinit:description=”description” but that doesn’t work.

Second problem is Amazon images doesn’t support ISBN-13, only ISBN-10. However the Encore catalogue will use the first ISBN that appears in the catalogue record which might be an ISBN-13. Converting from ISBN-13 to ISBN-10 is not a complete solution as although you could pin the item, you won’t see the jacket image in the catalogue in the first place.

Photo credit

Mnemosyne-Atlas boards photographed by Flirck user dzsil, license CC BY-SA.


Rampley, M. (1999). ‘Archives of memory: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas’, in Coles, A. (ed.) The optic of Walter Benjamin. London: Black Dog, pp. 94-119.