Technology has enhanced scholarship in a number of important ways. We have seen an acceleration of certain processes and an extension of inquiry into a larger base of resources. For instance, searching is now faster and easier and can cover larger bodies of text. Scholars can work with and consult more material and better verify ideas or claims. Writing, revising, and reworking texts, and getting feedback from colleagues throughout the various stages of a project, are standard rhythms of work that thrive on the ubiquity of computers and telecommunications.
At the same time, the digital shift has sometimes produced confusion. Scholars feel less in control of their searching, chaining, and browsing practices. They are not totally confident in their ability to make digital resources work for them. It is rarely clear to them what protocols exist across systems, what a particular database contains, or what it can do.
Each research library will need to weigh how it can respond to its constituencies, but we believe some concerted action is also due. As James Marchand, a technologically sophisticated humanist, has stated, “At present, the individual scholar who wishes to make use of the tremendous possibilities the computer offers him must collect his own base of CD-ROMs, electronic texts, bibliographical software, presentation software and hardware, font software, and OCR software. All of this is managed at present at most universities by a system of unorganized gurus. It ought to be done by the library” (1994, 145). Research libraries have generally not expanded their notion of service to respond to this position; as a result, they may be falling short of their mission. A blithe comment from one of our respondents is worth reflection: “I want everything at my fingertips.” This may seem like an unattainable goal; nonetheless, it is the job of researchers and information professionals to figure out the best ways to make progress toward this end. “Everything,” in this scholar’s words, does not really mean everything; it means those things that make a difference in the scholar’s ability to do work well. What it means to do work well can be studied, understood, and responded to in the information systems we develop.
Palmer (2000) has suggested that we should shift away from critical mass as a defining element of digital research libraries toward a principle of contextual mass-an approach that bases criteria for development on essential features of scholarly work. She replaces the word “critical” with “contextual” to de-emphasize the notion of size and to set priorities for what scholars use and do-the resources and activities that are central to a scholarly community. The application of the concept of contextual mass requires analysis of the layers of work and materials that surround the research process, which can then be followed by principled decisions on development based on the sources and tools that would be most likely to infuse research. For example, an effective contextual mass might consist of a small digital library collection of secondary and reference texts, services that support personal acquisition and markup of key primary texts, and sophisticated functions for recording and tracking the intellectual work involved in rereading the acquired texts. This study provides a foundation for developing preliminary high-level criteria for contextual mass in the humanities. Our ongoing research in this area will further articulate the concept of contextual mass and define attributes for creating context in digital libraries. On the basis of the results presented here, we will need to address how to provide proximity and collocation in the digital realm and to facilitate scholarly browsing. We will also need to determine how contextual mass differs for various intellectual communities. For example, there will be important differences between scholars such as those studied here, who rely heavily on primary source material, and social scientists, who collect and work with social indicator data or perform meta-analysis. For humanities scholars, we can now see how certain kinds of initiatives could make real headway in supporting research practices. Two starting points might be (1) the development of collection criteria that reflect scholars’ research strategies and paths of inquiry and that, in turn, attach less importance to opportunistic collection of large corpora, and (2) services that assist in the development and federation of scholars’ personal or localized collections and that tap and mobilize the communal expertise of users and collectors of texts.
This research was based on the premise that digital and hybrid libraries can improve their collections, systems, and services by learning more about the information environments of their most dedicated users. The actual patterns of research practice offer valid guidelines for research library development because they disclose the context of the scholarly process and the essential role of texts in that process. Humanities scholars understand the primacy of their interactions with texts. Their position is well stated by Jerome McGann (1998), a renowned scholar of romantic poetry and editorial theory who has recently become involved in text encoding. He writes, “Textual studies is ground zero of everything we do. We read, we write, we think in a textual condition. Because that is true, the new information and media technologies go to the core of our work. As humane scholars we should not leave the development of these tools, which includes their introduction into our institutions, to administrators, systems analysts, and electronic engineers” (609). Research libraries should be no less devoted to the development of new technologies that really work for scholars.