The study employed three general lines of questioning:
- How do humanities scholars think about, organize, and perform their research?
- How are information sources used throughout the research process?
- How do electronic information sources affect work practices?
In addition, we were interested in two specific questions related to research library collections and services:
- What functions and characteristics make one resource better than another?
- How can the traditional role of the library as a repository for printed works be reconciled with the provision of virtual, unlocated resources?
We designed the study to explore the perspectives and information behaviors of scholars in the humanities. Qualitative methods are the most appropriate means for gathering this type of information about individuals or groups, but the demands of collecting and analyzing such data limit the number of participants that can be included in the sample. Although the study did not aim to fit the criteria of statistical generalizability, we believe that the sample is not unique to the particular time and place in which the research was performed. The scholars and the departments in which they work are typical of those found in large research-oriented universities. The library collections at their home institutions are rich in current and retrospective materials, and the electronic resources available to them are similar to those at most peer universities. To ensure breadth and depth in the study, we employed several methods of data collection, and this triangulation allowed us to base our assertions on a broad and varied set of data. For these reasons, we believe that our results are representative of the research practices of scholars in similar situations.
To assemble a pool of participants, we sent letters of invitation to full-time faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the departments of Classics; English; Comparative Literature; Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese; French; German; and Music. From these departments we secured the participation of 29 volunteers. Some participants held joint appointments in Women’s Studies and African-American Studies, or had administrative appointments in addition to their faculty responsibilities. We diversified the group of participants by adding four humanities scholars from similar departments at the University of Chicago. The final sample of 33 scholars consisted of 16 full professors, 9 associate professors, and 8 assistant professors. Among their wide-ranging interests were nineteenth-century English poetry and painting; ancient Greek poetry and modern opera production; ancient language translation; madness in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century drama and culture; feminism and German cinema; linguistic analysis and feminist theory; plagiarism and influence during the Renaissance; knowledge production in the ancient world; and early twentieth-century African-American poetry. Among our participants we found little overlap in subject area concentration but much consistency in approaches to research and information seeking and use. It is possible that the individuals who volunteered for the study tended to be more engaged with libraries and electronic resources than is the typical humanities scholar; however, we do not view this as a shortcoming, because our goal was to learn about the variety and importance of information activities in relation to libraries and information systems, not to characterize humanities scholarship as a whole or to profile an ideal scholar.
One of the significant accomplishments of this project was the development and testing of new combinations of qualitative methods for studying scholarly work. Data collection was conducted at two levels. First, we carried out two rounds of semi-structured interviews with all 33 participants. The interviews centered on scholarly activities and the information practices and resources associated with these activities. Second, we conducted more extensive case studies of five of the scholars. The interviews from the larger sample provided a broad perspective from scholars across disciplines. The case studies allowed us to explore finer aspects of work process and technology use. The sequence of data collection techniques applied was as follows:
- project-based semi-structured interviews
- selected case studies
- search session observation
- document analysis and interview
- workspace observation
- follow-up semi-structured interviews
The data gathered included more than 70 separate incidents, each of which lasted at least one hour. The observation sessions usually lasted two hours. Further discussion of our data collection and analysis techniques is provided in the Appendix.