Krystyna K. Matusiak (University of Denver)

Using Large-Scale Digital Libraries for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

Large-scale digital libraries, such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, or HathiTrust provide access to a wealth of resources that can potentially be used for educational purposes. They offer a single access point to curated digital resources and the ability to search across a multitude of scientific and cultural heritage collections. Large-scale distributed systems gather metadata from individual digital libraries or other metadata aggregators and offer a central portal for searching and linking to digital objects. Europeana assists users by organizing resources into collections or topics and offering exhibits on a variety of educational subjects. The DPLA features exhibits as well but also provides sets of primary source materials on topics in history, literature, and culture. The primary source collections are developed by educators and supplemented by teaching guides. However, very little is known about user interaction with large-scale digital libraries, especially in the context of academic work.

Using the Digital Public Library of America as case, this paper explores the use of large-scale digital libraries for teaching and learning in an academic environment. It reports the findings of a user study conducted with university students and faculty. The purpose of the study was to examine user navigation and the potential of using the DPLA in the context of teaching and learning activities in higher education. Twenty one participants were recruited from a variety of social sciences and humanities programs and included two faculty members, six undergraduates, and 13 graduate students. The study was exploratory in nature and adopted a qualitative research strategy with direct observations and interviews. During observation sessions, the participants were presented with two pre-defined scenarios and were asked to search for images, maps, and sound recordings that they could potentially use in class projects and papers. The participants also had an option of conducting two additional searches on the topics related to their academic interests. The observation sessions were video recorded with software capturing user navigation pathways. Interviews were conducted after observation sessions to record participants’ reactions about the nature of their experience with the DPLA and to explore the potential of using the DPLA for teaching and learning activities.

Most study participants were new users of the DPLA. Four participants had heard about the site, but only two had actually used it prior to the study. The majority of participants had a very positive experience searching the DPLA and found the site relevant to their academic needs. Most study participants were able to search the DPLA system effectively and took advantage of the format and subject refinements as well as the map visualization tool. A few students experienced difficulties navigating through the layers to locate digital objects provided by service hubs. The participants were impressed with the amount of aggregated resources and ability to search for a variety of objects from one portal. They liked the fact that resources were not only curated by libraries with readily available citation information, but also publicly available. There were some differences in the ways faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students would use the DPLA for their academic work. Faculty highlighted the abundance of images and other primary source that they could use in teaching. Graduate students commented on the potential of the DPLA for interdisciplinary research and ability to discover a wide range of digital libraries they were not aware of and would not think about searching. Undergraduate students viewed the DPLA as a good starting point for research and liked the exhibits as means of learning about the topic quickly and finding additional resources.

This paper also discusses some challenges of using large-scale digital libraries for teaching and learning. Although the participants like the exhibits in the DPLA, they also commented about the lack of diverse topics and limited bibliographic documentation. The lack of advanced search function in the DPLA was found as a limiting factor by graduate students and faculty used to constructing more complex queries for their academic research. In addition, inconsistent or unclear copyright statements were identified as a barrier to reuse of digital objects for publications and conference presentations.