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cover : Scholarly Work in the Humanities

by William S. Brockman, Laura Neumann,
Carole L. Palmer, Tonyia J. Tidline
December 2001

Copyright 2001 by the Council on Library and Information Resources. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transcribed in any form without permission of the publisher. Requests for reproduction should be submitted to the Director of Communications at the Council on Library and Information Resources.

About the Authors




Present State of Knowledge on Information Use in the Humanities

Project Approach

Project Findings

Ways of Reading

Chaining to Enable Reading
Collaborative Networking
Researching and Searching

Collections as Capital
Many States of Primary Materials
Multitude of Sources
Access Tools for Speed and Scope
Diverse Skills and Strategies
Generic Searching Problems
Browsing across Collections and Tools

Ways of Writing

Information Management, Accretion, and Refinement
Oscillating and Overlapping Synthesis Work

Trends: The Evolving Information Environment for Humanists



Appendix: Methods

About the Authors

William S. Brockman is Paterno Family Librarian for Literature at Pennsylvania State University. Previously he had held the positions of English librarian and coordinator of the Arts and Humanities Division at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and reference librarian at Drew University. His research has examined the publication of reference works in the humanities, specifically within the areas of literature and music. Recent research has centered on textual studies and reception studies of James Joyce, on the role of libraries in literary censorship, and on twentieth-century publishing history and literary collecting. Presently he is engaged in a study of the publication history of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and is working on a primary bibliography of the works of Joyce. Since 1990, he has been bibliographer for the James Joyce Quarterly, for which he compiles the “Current James Joyce Checklist.”

Laura Neumann is a usability engineer at Microsoft Corporation. She has a Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has a background in sociology and cultural anthropology. Her research examines how people use, organize, find, and gather information. As part of the Illinois Digital Library Initiative (1994-1998), she studied how scientists and engineers use journal literature in their work. She also studied how scientists and scholars create and organize their personal collections and work space. Her recent research focuses on how humanities scholars accomplish their work through a number of specific practices. Her dissertation is an analysis of humanities scholars’ community of practice and how the community works as an information system. She is interested in finding ways to apply field research and library and information science research to real-world problems in the information technology industry.

Carole L. Palmer, the principal investigator on this research project, is assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her background is in academic librarianship, and she teaches in the areas of information seeking and use, information services, and library collections. Her research explores how information systems and services can best support the work of researchers. In addition to her studies of the information environments of humanities scholars, she is investigating how information practices and knowledge structures affect researchers’ ability to find and integrate information from multiple fields of study. She is also engaged in projects to develop digital libraries and knowledge discovery systems that support and promote diverse research collaborations. Her recent publications include a series of articles on the information work of interdisciplinary scientists and humanities scholars. Her book, Work at the Boundaries of Science: Information and the Interdisciplinary Research Process, will be published in 2002.

Tonyia J. Tidline received her MLS from Kent State University and is now a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has a background in public relations in the arts. Her research interests include information seeking and use in context, with emphasis on the information processes involved in making and viewing art. She has published papers on the topics of information overload and community information networks.


We extend our gratitude first to the scholars whose participation formed the foundation of this project. Without their generous donations of time and their insights into their own work, the project could never have proceeded. We thank the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Campus Research Board, whose funding carried our work through the initial phases of data collection, and the Digital Library Federation, whose funding allowed the research team to continue with data collection and analysis. We are also grateful to those who provided constructive criticism of earlier drafts of the report. In particular, Dan Greenstein’s close reading of several drafts and patient encouragement enabled us to explore implications of our findings. Allen Renear offered valuable comments, and Kathlin Smith’s careful reading clarified numerous points.


Academic libraries support and promote research, learning, and cultural engagement. In carrying out this role, they are inherently Janus-faced. Their gaze in one direction is focused on assembling, curating, and supporting the use of scholarly information; in another, it is fixed on tracking what information faculty, students, and lifelong learners actually need and on how and where they prefer to discover, locate, and use it.

In recent years, the rapid development of new technologies and the proliferation of new information services and sources have changed the information environment dramatically. Internet search services such as those offered by Google and Amazon have joined library catalogs, archival finding aids, and online databases as vital guides to scholarly information. Reference linking services that are enabled by organizations such as CrossRef promise to revolutionize again the means by which scholars and students discover and locate the information they need.

Faculty and students now have more outlets for scholarly material than ever before. Books, journal articles, scientific data, sound and video recordings, and even some surrogates for archival and rare materials are available online through numerous services, only some of which are offered by or through academic libraries. Online booksellers offer alternatives to brick-and-mortar outlets and to Interlibrary Loan services, and we may soon see much greater use of print-on-demand services. Scholars and students are now able to draw upon an expanding range of reference services, as Internet gateways and “Ask-a” services supplement formal library reference desks and the less formal peer networks upon which faculty and students continue to draw so heavily.

As the scholarly information environment changes, so do the needs, expectations, and behaviors of users. Assessing and responding to those changes is essential for the academic library so that it may continue in support of the scholarly mission. The authors of this report have formally examined how humanities scholars conduct and collate their research. The study was based on a small sample of scholars; nonetheless, the results are powerfully suggestive of ways in which academic libraries can adapt to and develop in a rapidly changing environment. In particular, the findings emphasize how important it is for libraries to chart their evolutionary course in close consultation with scholarly user communities.

The study leaves little doubt that humanities scholars have adapted well to rapid technical change. It demonstrates the extent to which scholars are able to harness information technologies to tried, tested, and somewhat traditional research functions. Such functions include, for example, keeping abreast of a broad secondary literature that surrounds their fields of inquiry; locating, acquiring access to, and using primary resources that are relevant to a particular area of investigation; and developing personal libraries that enrich and reinforce their scholarship. This finding may have profound implications for the academic library that feels its own efforts to adapt to new technologies are sometimes constrained by faculty who appear to resist change. Working with research faculty, libraries have an opportunity to learn how better to support scholarship with new technologies while encouraging scholarly adoption and use of those technologies.

Another set of findings is equally potent, even if its precise significance for the library is more difficult to predict. Humanities scholars are used to, and in some cases even prefer, information that is delivered to their desktops. This is especially true with finding aids; humanists expressed a common desire for online material that reveals the holdings of research collections and archives worldwide. Humanists are equally enamored of abstract, indexing, and citation services, and perhaps only slightly less so of online journals. Where primary research materials are concerned, however, the scholars have yet to be convinced by digital editions. The scholar’s purview is so typically broad that it defies the narrow boundaries that surround the current generation of digitally reformatted collections.

What lessons might the library draw from this? “Catalog first” might be one. Another lesson might be to emphasize the importance of developing virtually integrated services that allow scholars to search across and use geographically disparate digitally reformatted materials as if they made up a single online collection. Of course, such services require widespread adherence to community-agreed benchmarks that ensure that disparate online collections each attain a minimum degree of persistence and interoperability. Consequently, the study encourages libraries to develop and adopt such common standards as a matter of urgent priority. A third lesson might point to digital collections-or virtual uniform collections-that are developed to support specific research aims and thus are formed in close consultation with the scholars who share these aims.

The study is methodologically innovative in ways that should inform supplemental and follow-up investigation. The authors have drawn conclusions about the research process through extensive observation of selected humanities scholars at work. By encouraging their subjects to think aloud, the authors have developed a rich profile of the research process. They have also developed indications of scholars’ behaviors and preferences as these research processes are conducted in a complex information environment. The prose, peppered liberally with quotations that reflect the subjects’ trains of thought, provides insight into the excitement, frustrations, complexities, and rewards associated with humanities research today.

This study results from the fruitful cross-fertilization between the scholar concerned with aspects of information science and the librarian concerned with delivering operational information services. Clearly the two parties, as well as the professional communities they represent, benefit substantially from this collaboration.

Daniel Greenstein
Director, Digital Library Federation

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