Bonnie Nardi

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Bonnie Nardi
Nationality American
Education PhD
Occupation Professor, anthropologist
Employer University of California, Irvine
Known for Human–computer interaction

Bonnie Nardi is an American anthropologist whose most recent work concerns virtual worlds. Her book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2010. She is co-author (with Tom Boellstorff, Celia Pearce and T. L. Taylor) of the forthcoming Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press). Nardi is known as the lead author of Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart (Nardi & O'Day 1998). She is also well known for her work on activity theory. She is a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, where she leads the TechDec research lab.


Prior to teaching at the University of California, Nardi worked at AT&T Labs, Agilent, and Apple labs. She is among anthropologists who have been employed by high-tech companies to examine consumers' behavior in their homes and offices.[1]

Nardi collaborated with Victor Kaptelinin to write Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design (2009) and Activity Theory in HCI: Fundamentals and Reflections (2012) . These works discuss Activity Theory and offer a basis for understanding our relationship with technology.


Her interests are in the areas of Human-Computer Interaction, Computer supported cooperative work, more specifically in activity theory, computer-mediated communication, and interaction design. Prof. Nardi has researched CSCW applications and blogging, and has more recently pioneered the study of World of Warcraft in HCI. She has studied the use of technology in offices, hospitals, schools, libraries and laboratories. [1]

She is widely known among librarians - especially research, reference and digital librarians - for Chapter 7 of Information Ecologies, which focused on librarians as keystone species in information ecologies. Nardi's book inspired the title of a UK conference Information Ecologies: the impact of new information 'species' [2] hosted, inter alia, by the UK Office of Library Networking, now known by its acronym UKOLN, and led to a keynote address by Nardi at a 1998 Library of Congress Institute on Reference Service in a Digital Age.[3] She had written Information Ecologies while a researcher at ATT Labs Research.

Nardi's self-described theoretical orientation is "activity theory", a philosophical framework developed by the Russian psychologists Vygotsky, Luria, Leont'ev, and their students. "My interests are user interface design, collaborative work, computer-mediated communication, and theoretical approaches to technology design and evaluation." She is currently conducting an ethnographic study of World of Warcraft.


Nardi received her undergraduate degree from University of California at Berkeley and her PhD. from the School of Social Sciences at University of California, Irvine. Nardi also spent a year in Western Samoa doing postdoctoral research.

Nardi and library science[edit]

In her book Information Ecologies (Nardi & O’Day 1999) Nardi passionately argues that “Human expertise, judgment and creativity can be supported, but not replaced by computer-based tools.” She argues that we can not, either with technophilia or technophobia, view technological change as “inevitable.” Rather, she challenges us to be critical users of technology who actively engage in conversation on the social impacts of technology. We must then, guided by our moral values influence society’s institutions, libraries for example, to adopt responsible technology use.

While all of this has clear application to the Information Science field, one can also look to Bonnie Nardi for her explicit praise of librarians. In a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on technology, her writings clearly spell two words for librarians—job security. As a designer of software herself, she has asked the question, “Could an “intelligent software agent” replace librarians?” and decisively responded, “No.”

In Information Ecologies she clearly labels librarians a “keystone species.” In biological terms, a keystone species is one that is critical to the survival of an ecosystem. To follow the analogy, a librarian is indispensable in the information ecosystem. While information is increasingly available via digital resources, librarians are irreplaceable in their ability to speak the language of search systems and then to retrieve that information.

She further praises librarians beyond their understanding of the necessary language to produce desired search results. Rather, it is the imperceptible skill of a librarian, via the reference interview, to guide the researcher to exactly what they want in. It is through a dialog of clarifying questions and restatement of assumptions that librarian and patron develop a strategy to meet the patron’s need and produce the best results.

Through experience, librarians also think of sources patrons may have overlooked, know of additional print/online sources and have the ability to connect patrons with otherwise proprietary information. Unlike computers, librarians develop a rapport with their patrons, enabling them to cater searches to the needs and search style they already expect from the patron. They even have the omniscience to recognize “false drops” and the ingenuity to renegotiate searches with updated/outdated language based on the style of a database. In essence, a librarian is the intercessor “with heart” between the patron and the information—someone who actually cares and wants to help patrons meet their objective.


According to Senator Tom Coburn's Wastebook 2010, Nardi received $100,000 of federal money to "analyze and understand the ways in which players of World of Warcraft, a popular multiplayer game, engage in creative collaboration". In Coburn's list of 100 wasteful federal spending projects that squandered more than $11 billion, Nardi's project turned in at number 6.[4][5]

Nardi in her own words[edit]

Activity Theory

Main article: Activity theory
Citation: [2]

Activity theory proposes that consciousness is shaped by practice, that people and artifacts mediate our relationship with reality. Consciousness is produced in the enactment of activity with other people and things, rather than being something confined inside a human head. Activity theory began in Russia with the work of Lev Vygotsky in the 1920s, continuing through his student Aleksei N. Leontiev, and then through students of Leontiev. This work has been influential in education, organizational design, and interaction design. Activity theory works well with design because activity theorists have always tested their theories in practical ways and believe that application is an outcome of theory, not a separate activity. In some of my writings I have discussed how, as a psychological theory, activity theory can be scaled to collaborative settings without losing sight of individual participants in an activity.

Information Ecology

Main article: Information ecology
Citation: [3]

There is a strong need to find new ways to think about the social and cultural changes that come with new technologies. I have examined some such changes with respect to the work of librarians and others discussed in Information Ecologies. Our limited ability to predict change coupled with enormous human creativity has led to a situation of instability in which systemic effects of technological change can only be responded to after the fact. In the current global economy we have efficient ways of distributing technology but ineffectual means of addressing negative consequences (such as pollution from wireless devices). New political and social forms are needed. Movements such as green design, life cycle analysis, and cradle to cradle design address some problems and can be applied to digital technologies. Social changes are more difficult to characterize and require better theorizing. One of her interests is in what I call "placeless organizations" which are distributed groups dedicated to transforming practice. In the modern context they inevitably make use of computer-mediated communication as they attempt to "co-construct," in activity theory terms, the way things are done. Examples of placeless organizations are Open Source software development projects, Doctors without Borders, the World Trade Organization, and transformations in scientific disciplines from "small science" to "big science". Understanding how placeless organizations are effective with relatively few people is a current focus of my research.

Nardi blogs at

Nardi's publications[edit]

Selected Bibliography

  • Nardi, B., D. Schiano, and M. Gumbrecht (2004). Blogging as social activity, or, Would you let 900 million people read your diary? Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. New York: ACM Press, pp. 222–228.
  • Nardi, B., S. Whittaker, and E. Bradner (2000). Interaction and Outeraction: Instant messaging in action. Proceedings Conference on Computer-supported Cooperative Work. New York: ACM Press, pp. 79–88.
  • Gantt, M. and B. Nardi (1992). Gardeners and gurus: Patterns of collaboration among CAD users. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems, pp. 107–117.
  • Nardi, B., and J. Miller (1990). An ethnographic study of distributed problem solving in spreadsheet development. Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, pp. 197–208.

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