Digital scholarship blog

12 April 2017

New technologies challenging author and reader roles

This a guest post is by Carol Butler introducing her PhD topic, you can follow her on twitter as @fantomascarol.

New technologies are challenging the traditional view of what it is to be an author or a reader. A range of digital tools are used by readers and authors to ask each other questions, share interpretations and knowledge, and to socialise.

I am a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student based at the British Library (BL) and City, University Of London, supervised by Ian Cooke at the BL, and Dr Stephann Makri at City. My research explores how online social networking technologies enable authors and readers to interact in ways that were previously not possible. I am interested in how this can impact understanding of a written work, and how it can shape an author’s ongoing or future work.

Authors and readers have always sought to better their understanding of a written work- and of each other- by exchanging questions and feedback. However, historically, their communications have been mediated through a hierarchical chain, for example through letters sent privately via an author’s agent. Constrained by process, available technology and geography, this has also largely only possible after a finished work has been published. Interaction has therefore been somewhat slow and limited.

There are now digital tools for reading-related activities used by authors and readers alike, for example GoodReads, which is for writing reviews and cataloguing books. With these tools, communities discuss their reading, partake in competitions and also share their writing. In some, an author may use reader feedback to develop writing in progress, which may be published as a working draft, rather than a final artefact. Authors can also field questions from their readers - either as an ongoing open communication channel, or in a timed Q&A session (an example of this can be seen here).

Other tools, such as Genius, support discussion about a text directly on top of it, through digital annotations. An example can be seen here, where a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been annotated line by line, with readers sharing their interpretations and providing links to external reading. Also here, the author has annotated his own work (in green), to offer deeper contextual understanding to the reader.

However, as well as purpose-made tools, communities also use ones that were intended for different purposes, such as social media sites, e.g. Twitter. People also do not always confine their behaviour to any one tool, and so an activity starting in one tool may often bleed into, repeat, or further develop in another.

A useful example of how readers meander between multiple tools can be found here, where a reader describes his process for reading a physical book- a task supported by checking in with a range of tools and social networks.

A symbiotic relationship between tools and behaviour means that technology evolves in response to how it is used. However, with reader and author activity dispersed across multiple tools, often contrary to a tools intended purpose, and over fluctuating periods of time, this usage cannot be readily observed or understood.

By ascertaining where, how and why readers and authors interact with each other and the tools, I hope to better understand their needs and behaviours. I will investigate how interaction behaviour is mediated, hindered by, and at times resultant of this technology. My intent is to develop theory to explain their behaviour which I can use to provide design guidelines for future tools, to help better support their needs. I will also be looking at what types of works, ways of working and publishing trends emerge from this use of technology, and the challenges posed for the British Library in collecting and preserving them.

I will shortly be conducting interviews with authors and readers to begin to unveil both their motivations for interacting in this manner, and their experiences with doing so.  

I would be happy to speak to anyone with an interest in this area, either by email or in person, so feel free to contact me (

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The traditional view of reader and author roles- where the reader only sees a finished artefact, isolated from the drafts and processes that formed it - is challenged by readers’ increasingly participatory involvement prior to publication.