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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

What Leads to -ser Acceptance of Digital Libraries?

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Digital libraries have received much attention in research and practitioner literature. Indeed, Communications featured special sections on digital libraries in April 1995, April 1998, and May 2001, focusing on their development and potential applications.

In essence, digital libraries are electronic collections that are much richer in content and more capable in functionality than databases or information retrieval systems [2], and are increasingly accessible over the Internet. The major advantages of digital libraries include storing resources in an easy-to-track digital format; allowing remote, rapid, and fair access to digital library collections, and providing search techniques that offer users increased flexibility and power [10].

There have been significant advances in the technical development of digital libraries in areas such as information storage, information retrieval, and system integration [1], resulting in dramatic improvements in their performance. While many resources have been devoted to developing these systems, library researchers have observed that digital libraries remain underutilized [11]. If these systems are not used widely, then it will be difficult to defend their considerable investments and the potential benefits they offer will not accrue to users. Hence, there is a necessity to identify factors that can increase user acceptance of digital libraries.

Here, we report on findings from an extensive research program into user acceptance of an award-winning digital library in Hong Kong. An outcome of this research is the identification of nine important factors that may lead to greater user acceptance.

Figure 1 presents our model of digital library user acceptance based on the technology acceptance model [5]. The premise of the model is that acceptance is determined by users' perceptions of the system's usability, that is, its usefulness and ease of use. Usefulness has a direct influence on user acceptance because individuals will be more willing to use a system that provides helpful functions. And the easier it is for a person to interact with the system, the more likely that person will continue using it.

There are three categories of external factors that may impact user acceptance of digital libraries: interface characteristics, as the system interface is the door through which users access a digital library; organizational context in which the digital library operates [4]; and the individual differences users hold in the ultimate acceptance of a digital library.

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The E-Library

We investigated the Electronic Library (E-Library) of the Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK), an online library awarded the Stockholm Challenge Award for innovation in the development of distance learning. With an enrollment of 25,000 students, OUHK offers distance-learning education in Hong Kong on a part-time and off-campus basis only. The HK$40 million E-Library was intended to provide OUHK students with learning resources as well as better access to distance learning materials.

As the first and largest digital library among distance education institutions in Asia, the E-Library contains more than 1,400 electronic databases, covering over 12,000 titles of full-text e-books, e-journals, and a range of reference databases, e-newspapers, e-newsletters, monographs, proceedings, dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, bibliographies, directories, indexes, library catalogues of local and overseas higher education institutions, and links to 58 distance learning organizations throughout the world (see Figure 2). Using these bilingual (English and Chinese), Web-based, and full-text library services, the students have access to over 500,000 volumes of publications, wherever they are and whenever they want.

We conducted various surveys and interviews about the E-Library with more than 2,000 OUHK students over a two-year period. The insights gained from this data form the basis for our recommendations.

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Recommendations for Increasing User Acceptance

Both usefulness and ease of use were found to have considerable influence on user acceptance of the E-Library, thus confirming our model of user acceptance. Here, we focus our discussion on the factors we found to lead to increased usability of the E-Library. Table 1 provides definitions of the factors; Table 2 summarizes our recommendations to increase user acceptance.

Interface characteristics. The quality of the system interface plays a major role in influencing the usability of a digital library, and is frequently mentioned as a key reason for not using information retrieval systems [7]. As the intermediary between users and a digital library, the interface is the stage for user actions. A good interface can improve communication, reduce the effort required to find specific objects on the screen, and provide effortless navigation between screens.

Terminology refers to the words, sentences, and abbreviations used by a system [9]. A potential problem with digital libraries is the existence of a disparity between the language users speak and the terminology used by the digital libraries, which may contain technical or professional terms unfamiliar to them. In such situations, users' search efforts to retrieve desired information will be compromised. Simple terminology that clearly communicates instructions and responses to users will increase ease of use.

Improving the fit between the system context and users' informational needs will not only enhance the perception of usefulness, but also the ease of use.

Technical terms and jargon should be avoided, or if necessary, accompanied by lucid clarifications. The instructions and descriptions presented on a digital library's screens should be easily understandable to general users. Consistent terminology should also be used throughout the digital library to avoid confusion. Focus group feedback is helpful in determining terminology clarity.

Screen design [9] affects users how users communicate with digital libraries. For example, too many alignment points make scanning difficult, while poorly illustrated buttons and icons can be confusing. Having an organized and well-designed screen aids users in scanning and identifying relevant information more easily.

To improve screen design, digital library developers should concentrate on both the overall arrangement and the detailed design features when organizing information for the screen. For example, logical groups can be organized into frames, and screen layout (including color scheme and arrangement) should be consistent. Detailed design features consist of the format of paragraphs, icons, and buttons. Font size and line spacing should be appropriate and kept consistent across screens. Replacing text commands with properly designed graphical buttons and icons may increase the attractiveness of screens and attract user attention. Finally, feedback can be solicited from potential users to determine the effectiveness of the screen design.

Navigation. A common problem encountered by users as they try to locate information is disorientation [6]. As the quantity of information increases, the structure for storing the information becomes more complex. Users can easily become "lost" while attempting to retrieve library information.

In order to improve the navigational capabilities of digital libraries, aids can indicate where users are coming from and where they are going in a series of screens. Descriptive labels can also help users make more efficient navigational decisions when searching for information. To assist users in following the logical flow of the digital library, broad and shallow structures are generally favored over narrow and deep ones. A shallow structure will enable users to reach their destinations in fewer steps as compared to a deep structure, and therefore will require less effort on the part of users to track their navigation flow.

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Organizational Context

Here, we focus on the organizational context in which a digital library operates, as it pertains to the relevance of its content in meeting its targeted users' information needs, the accessibility of the digital library, and the visibility of the digital library. Context is critical to user acceptance of the digital library.

Relevance is the degree to which the system matches the tasks carried out in the current environment [9]. In the digital library context, it is the match between the system content and users' needs. Similar to information retrieval systems, the goal of digital libraries is to provide relevant information to users.

Improving the fit between the system content and users' informational needs will not only enhance the perception of usefulness, but also the ease of use. In order to increase the relevance of a digital library's content to users' needs, developers should concentrate on user requirements analysis to discover expectations and content demands to incorporate into a digital library.

System accessibility can also influence ease of use factors [8]. If it is difficult to access a digital library, due to a lack of computers or necessary software, potential users will perceive it as difficult to use. Conversely, if a digital library is easily accessible, potential users are more likely to perceive it as easy to use.

There are a few things that library administrators can do to improve accessibility. For example, they can promote computer ownership among their targeted users through discounted purchasing programs with computer vendors. If special software other than Internet browsers is needed, it should be provided to the potential users together with installation instructions. Technical support may also be provided to help users who face problems in accessing the digital libraries. All these efforts can assist users to access the digital library more easily, culminating in increased usage.

System visibility, or the degree to which an innovation is communicated or promoted to others, is also critical to system adoption. Potential users may not be aware of the benefits of using the digital library, or even its existence. This phenomenon is called mere exposure effect, as in mere exposure to an object is capable of changing an individual's attitude toward the object in a positive way [12]. Although system visibility will not increase the functionality of the digital library, it can help the users perceive these functions as more useful, and consequently, increase acceptance.

Library administrators must increase the visibility of digital libraries in their organizations. Our research supports the mere exposure effect where exposure to the digital library can change a user's attitude for the better. Therefore, besides having useful electronic collections and making the system easy to use, these benefits should be communicated to the users. Library administrators can publicize the existence of the digital library, and introduce orientation programs to promote the digital library among potential users.

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Individual Differences

Individual differences also play a major role in determining user acceptance of digital libraries. Here, we identify three major factors affecting user acceptance: computer self-efficacy, computer experience, and domain knowledge.

While library administrators do not have control over the amount of computer experience that potential users possess, they can influence users' exposure to technologies by organizing introductory computer courses for them.

Computer self-efficacy is defined as an individual judgment of one's capability to use new information systems [3]. It is a kind of internal control factor, which affects the usability of digital libraries. As a reflection of self-reported computer skill, computer self-efficacy measures the level of confidence a user has using an an unfamiliar digital library.

Computer self-efficacy can be increased through encouragement of use by others, others' actual use, and organizational support [3]. As individuals rely partly on the opinions of others in forming judgments on their own abilities, those individuals who are encouraged by their peers to use the digital libraries are more likely to have higher computer self-efficacy. Observations of actual use of the digital library by their peers can also increase computer self-efficacy of these individuals. Finally, library administrators can provide assistance, for example, a help desk or training programs, to assist potential users employ the digital libraries.

Computer experience reflects how long the user has been a computer user and his or her level of expertise. Individuals with more computer experience have more exposure to different kinds of applications and are familiar with more software packages. Although these experiences may not be directly related to digital libraries, they do lower the knowledge barrier to learning how to efficiently use one.

While library administrators do not have control over the amount of computer experience that potential users possess, they can influence users' exposure to technologies by organizing introductory computer courses for them. The earlier these potential users become familiar with hardware and software, the more likely they will find new applications, such as a digital library, appealing. Furthermore, various training courses can equip potential users with stronger computer skills, reduce computer anxiety, and increase their confidence in using unfamiliar digital libraries.

Users' knowledge of the subject domain is another individual factor that can influence user acceptance of digital libraries. Domain knowledge can help users separate relevant information from the irrelevant, thereby allowing them to conduct more effective searches. When users have better knowledge of the subject domain, they are more proficient in producing suitable queries, interpreting outputs of those queries, and adjusting their searches accordingly. Consequently, they will be more eager to use a digital library.

A successful digital library will accommodate the diversities in users' domain knowledge. To do so, these systems may implement various query interfaces designed for different kinds of users. A simple query interface will allow users with less domain knowledge to key in the term they are searching for without being baffled by a complex interface; while an advanced query interface will have more comprehensive options available to support users with more domain knowledge.

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This article offers recommendations for increasing user acceptance of digital libraries. Three categories of factorsinterface characteristics, organizational context, and individual differencesare identified as important predictors of increased usability of digital libraries. Interface characteristics include terminology clarity, screen design, and navigation clarity; while organizational context includes relevance, system accessibility, and system visibility.

Finally, individual differences include computer self-efficacy, computer experience, and domain knowledge. By following the recommendations here, we believe digital libraries will be able to entice more users to discover and adopt them.

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James Y.L. Thong ( is an associate professor in the Department of Information and Systems Management, School of Business and Management, at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong.

Weiyin Hong ( is an assistant professor in the Department of Management Information Systems at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV.

Kar Yan Tam ( is a professor in the Department of Information and Systems Management, School of Business and Management, at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong.

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F1Figure 1. Model of user acceptance of a digital library.

F2Figure 2. E-Library functions.

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T1Table 1. Factors leading to user acceptance.

T2Table 2. Recommendations to enhance user acceptance.

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©2004 ACM  0001-0782/04/1100  $5.00

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