Published! @hazelh @spartakan @bruce_research @gemmaducat @librarygryphon @MetaskillsPhD @ilauramuir @FrancesRyanPhD

Tuesday 15 December was a bumper day for the Centre for Social Informatics (CSI), with the publication of six articles in Information Research. These were conference articles presented at ISIC2020 and a paper on ‘imagined citizens’. Together these showcase some of the work we undertake. 

  1. The first article (Cruickshank & Hall, 2020) continues research reported in (Hall et al., 2018, 2019) on the work of representatives in the most local tier of Scotland’s democratic structure. The article considers why such representatives might share information for no tangible reward. This is a question I often ask myself – I maintain websites for three Edinburgh community councils. It is very rare that anyone comments on the materials my colleagues and I post, in my experience. So why do we spend our time doing this?

The answer, according to interviews with community councillors I helped conduct in 2016, is basically duty. (I should admit that I get paid small amounts for my contributions. However, actual community councillors are unpaid.) As Peter Cruickshank and Hazel Hall write

Information sharing is regarded as an important duty of community councillors. It is largely practised as transmission or broadcast (rather than exchange) using a variety of channels, both online and face-to-face. Such efforts are, however, limited. This is due to restricted resources, a lack of familiarity with the information users (and non-users) that community councillors serve, and poor knowledge of tools for analysing online audiences. Attitudes towards online communities that largely comprise lurker audiences vary from frustration to resignation.

One of the possibilities is that people who view community council websites do use this information, but don’t acknowledge it on the websites. Instead they may engage with the information in other ways. So while this work may have not tangible rewards, I hope it contributes to society invisibly. Whatever eleo does happen, it appears that we can only conjecture the audiences for community council websites: the ‘imagined citizens’ in the article’s title.

  1. The second article (Cruickshank, Hall, et al., 2020) reports on further work in this theme. Building on the work reported in (Cruickshank & Hall, 2020; Hall et al., 2018, 2019), Peter and I built an online questionnaire to help survey aspects of community councillors work with information. Among other data, we obtained evidence that community councillors tend to be older (69% of respondents were over 55), quite possibly retired (48%), a slight majority educated to university level (56%) and overwhelmingly (95%) white. For me, this raises big issues – how do people who aren’t older and white navigate towards positions of formal social responsibility. How on earth is this representative? (I’m over 50, white, and very middle-class, so should I give way to someone younger and of different ethnicity? Then again, there are many community councils with numbers of vacancies (Ryan & Cruickshank, 2012), so perhaps my relevant task is to encourage others to join up.)

Surprising findings included workplace roles being very significant to helping community councillors’ development of information literacy (cited by 71% of respondents). Being a friend or neighbour and family roles were also significant (52% and 42% respectively). Being in a trade union or professional body was cited by only 29%, while being a student and being a child/at school were cited by 23% and 13% respectively.

So what is going on here? Is it true that work really teaches people how to work with information, while school and university contribute so little? (Or at least school and university at the time our respondents attended?) Do societal roles (perhaps helping people go through the complexities of buying houses or claiming benefits) increase information-handling skills? Is it even possible to separate these influences? As one of our respondents put it

All [the roles listed] have played a part in my life, and made me who I am – I do not subdivide experience like this. Having said that I was a teacher for 37 years … I am also heavily involved in church … I am a trustee of five different charities, music (3 choirs, in one of which I have held office), philately (4 different societies) … and in my time written countless minutes as well as still looking after 9 non-personal Bank accounts! I have gained experience from all of these and on top of that I did my teacher training [abroad] and taught there, living there for over three years. I have been married for over 40 years, have a daughter and a grand-daughter, so these all contribute!

I won’t give away the answers here – read the paper (authors Peter and Hazel and I)! However, perhaps our most important point is that information literacy is a very complex concept, steeped in intertwined societal factors.

  1. The next article (Salzano et al., 2020a) reports on the research question Where does the question of culture fit in the library and information science literature on the provision of services for newcomer library user populations? This is interesting to me because it takes a very different view of culture to the ones I espouse: ‘culture is that which the powers-that-be let you do’ and ‘culture is that which grows in a petri dish or under your toenails’. In this paper, based on Rachel Salzano’s PhD literature review, it’s found that

• Much more is known about how, but less about why, newcomer populations use public libraries.

• Much of this prior research is based on ‘black box’ case studies, so the application of their recommendations in contexts other than those described in the case studies presented is difficult to assess.

• A large portion of the research is focused on the perspective of librarians as service providers, rather than newcomers as service users.

Rachel, working with two of her supervisors (Hazel and Gemma Webster), finds that researchers tend to assume, without question, nor without defining the term, that culture has an influence on public library use. So Rachel looks forward to adding to the body of work on culture and information behaviours in general. On the second point, Rachel, Gemma and Hazel note that recommendations made in [the studies she reports on] are rarely supported by detailed analysis of the factors that generated them. So there’s room for more work there too! On the third point, they suggest that it’s important to examine the needs of service users. I suspect this is a classic case of If you build it, will they come? Er, no!

  1. Rachel, Gemma and Hazel’s second article (Salzano et al., 2020b) reports on Rachel’s pilot study of the cultural aspects of information needs, seeking, searching, use, and sharing for international students who are new-comers to another culture. Her research questions here are

• How do international students of non-Western background use public libraries during their period of study in a Western country?

• Which cultural factors influence use of public library resources?

• How do cultural factors that influence public library use vary by geographical region of country of origin of the international student?

It appears to me that Rachel aims to respond to the call for detail she noted in (Salzano et al., 2020a). There isn’t much detail in the publication because it was a poster rather than a paper, but Rachel spoke clearly about it at the conference. Also, if I recall correctly (never guaranteed) Rachel was still analysing her data when the poster was submitted. Let’s look forward to further papers giving detail and findings!

  1. The fifth article (Stephen et al., 2020) reports on initial work by another PhD colleague, Katherine Stephen with her former Director of Studies (Laura Muir – now retired) and current DoS (Hazel). They find that while ‘metaskills’ has become something of a buzzword in writing about work work-based learning, there are two separate but related definitions in relevant literature: a shorthand for ‘metacognitive skill’, and a broader ‘higher order’ technical skill type.

Katherine explains more in an award-winning Youtube video. If I’ve understood correctly, metaskills can be used to build on existing knowledge and skills in practical ways. This is important because the world is changing. It reminds me of some marking I’ve done recently: the most important piece is not simply learning a new computing or research technique, but being able to reflect on it to achieve better things next time. (Also, learning ‘soft’ skills – communication, time management, how to work with people effectively are crucial – at work and at play!)

Katherine looks forward to empirical work on metaskill measurement and development in the workplace, using the first definition of the term above. She plans to use sociological methods such as institutional ethnography, to analyse assessment of metaskills; intervention studies to investigate conscious metaskill development, among other techniques. Further work may include workplace development of the second definition of metaskills, as well as further discussion of boundary lines between technical and non- technical skill definitions.

  1. The final article (Cruickshank, Webster, et al., 2020) reports on two projects, one led by Gemma and the second by Peter. Frances V. C. Ryan (now a research fellow at Aberdeen University was the postdoctoral researcher on both. This work is rather close to some of my personal experience too. (I acted as digital proxy for my late mother. I continue to do this for my sister, whose special needs mean she would have a hell of a time doing it for herself. Here is a story about that, fortunately with a delayed but happy ending.)

I’m probably guilty of giving a wrong impression here: the travails in my story are about engagement with state bureaucracy, while this article is about proxies helping others with their social media presences. The article reports on results from focus groups, interviews and workshops on digital proxyship. Again, this article is a poster, rather than a paper, so there is little detail. I hope ISIC will publish videos of the presentations, so we can all see how the authors handled the following topics:

• A review of definitions contextualising digital proxy in relation to past research in the role of information intermediary and, accounts of human behaviour and everyday information practices. This includes the relationship between the terms service user, identity, trust, and proxy and the ways in which they are used in legal, social, and digital or online contexts.

• An overview of proxy practices in the context of people who assist individuals with limited capabilities or skills, and how they describe their work, from two general forms of proxy relationship:

• Family and friends who act as social media proxies for older adults and people with dementia

• Professionals and other trusted individuals working as proxies through their digital inclusion roles to assist in the creation or management of online accounts for members of the public

• An introduction to a discussion related to a new model of proxy as an everyday information practice, with reference to past literature on information intermediaries, personhood, privacy, identity, and trust.


A nod back to pre-lockdown happy events: Drs Ryan, Ryan and Ryan. (Eleanor – mathematics, 1991; Frances – social informatics, 2019; Bruce – chemistry, 1996). Eleanor wasn’t an author of the above papers, but without her none of my work would be possible. (photo-credit Adrian Lea)

Laura and Gemma, when they joined CSI (photo-credit Hazel Hall)

Hazel at RIVAL event 2 (photo-credit Tim Read)

Katherine at the time of RIVAL event 2 (photo credit Katherine Stephen)

Rachel at RIVAL event 2 (photo-credit Allan Shedlock)

Peter Cruickshank (left) with Laura, Hazel and visiting professor Brian Detlor, at #i3RGU (photo-credit Hazel Hall)


  1. Congratulations to Frances, Gemma, Hazel, Katherine, Laura, Peter, Rachel!
  2. CSI continues to produce valuable, relevant work critiquing how computing and social services are used, and pointing to possible ways to improve matters. (CSI’s ‘remit’ includes democratic digital engagement, e-Government, information policy, information seeking behaviour and use, knowledge management, the information society, online communities, open data and open government) There are many valid ways to continue these workstreams. I look forward to reporting on more of these, and working on some of them.
  3. Finally, look out for news of more great work on my colleagues’ news-streams. This week has seen a series of successes, so CSI is ending 2020 on an academic high!


Cruickshank, P., & Hall, H. (2020). Talking to imagined citizens ? Information sharing practices and proxies for e-participation in hyperlocal democratic settings. Information Research, 25(4).

Cruickshank, P., Hall, H., & Ryan, B. M. (2020). Information literacy as a joint competence shaped by everyday life and workplace roles amongst Scottish community councillors. Information Research, 25(4).

Cruickshank, P., Webster, G., & Ryan, F. V. C. (2020). Assisting information practice: from information intermediary to digital proxy. Information Research, 25(4).

Hall, H., Cruickshank, P., & Ryan, B. (2019). Practices of community representatives in exploiting information channels for citizen democratic engagement. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 51(4), 950–961.

Hall, H., Cruickshank, P., & Ryan, B. M. (2018). Exploring information literacy through the lens of Activity Theory. In S. Kurbanoğlu, J. Boustany, S. Špiranec, E. Grassian, D. Mizrachi, & L. Roy (Eds.), Information Literacy in the Workplace. ECIL 2017. Communications in Computer and Information Science (Vol. 810, pp. 803–812). Springer, Cham.

Ryan, B. M., & Cruickshank, P. (2012). Community Councils online 2012 (Issue October).

Salzano, R., Hall, H., & Webster, G. (2020a). Investigating the ‘Why?’ rather than the ‘How?’: current research priorities on the influence of culture on newcomer populations’ use of public libraries. Information Research, 25(4).

Salzano, R., Hall, H., & Webster, G. (2020b). The relationship between culture and public library use: non-Western students in Scotland. Information Research, 25(4).

Stephen, K., Muir, L., & Hall, H. (2020). Towards a definition of metaskills. Information Research, 25(4).


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