The comfortable stereotype of humanists as technophobic is no longer accurate. The availability of text and images in electronic form, coupled with the processing power of modern computers, allow the humanist to explore hypotheses and visualize relations that were previously lost in the mass of information sources (Wulf 1995, 48).
While digital resources are becoming more visible in the humanities, use of these resources by scholars remains limited. Humanists have come to rely on computers and electronic communication for some of their daily work, but the use of digital information resources has yet to become routine. Digitization projects are bringing texts, data sources, sound, and images to the scholar’s desktop; however, the functions on which research in the humanities depend are neither well understood nor well supported by librarians. Digital libraries are still evolving, and librarians and other information professionals are just beginning to understand and exploit the computer’s ability to assist in the humanities research process.
The Scholarly Work in the Humanities Project began in 1999 to examine in detail how humanists work, how they are integrating technology into their work, and how future technologies might offer new opportunities in line with the goals of humanities research. The project was based on the premise that future development of research libraries should be informed by the actual practices and needs of working scholars and that it should take into account the value and impact of the technologies that they have adopted thus far. Decisions about how to build collections and services in research libraries should be more responsive to the disciplines that have historically depended on library and archival resources, and they should take into account the many types of resources and activities involved in the scholarly process. As Okerson (2000, 690) notes, “Our profession should do what our commercial information suppliers are doing: focus on the users, their needs, their wants, and the practices of using information.” While we need to continue to collect data on the use and usability of the resources that libraries already own, it is important to recognize the limits of that type of evaluation. Use statistics and usability tests are important for judging the effectiveness of decisions that have already been made, but they are not good indicators of what is lacking in our current service and collection models. For that, we need a fuller understanding of the use environments of our clientele, particularly those whose work depends most on the future of research libraries.
This report provides a foundation for developing user-based criteria for guiding digital library development by articulating what scholars do in the course of their research and how they depend on information to follow their paths of inquiry and write new texts. Through the analysis of scholars’ practices we can conceptualize the type of information environment that would best support their activities and begin to clarify priorities for the development of rich information environments that are responsive to the context of scholarly work.
Present State of Knowledge on Information Use in the Humanities
The process of research in the humanities and the fruits of that research are closely intertwined. In fact, the results of research may be inseparable from the activity of research and the writing of its interpretation: “In the humanities, in a certain sense, the ‘discoveries’ of research inhere in the writing of the ultimate published document” [emphasis in original] (Bates 1996a, 698).
Stone’s (1982) foundational review of research on the information needs and uses of humanities scholars asserts that humanists tend to work alone, perform their own literature searches, and rely on browsing. They use a variety of research methods that may be drawn from other disciplines. Their research materials are also diverse and are drawn from a wide variety of types of resources. They rely on books more heavily than on journals. They need retrospective materials and often prefer to use original documents rather than facsimiles. Writing at the dawn of the adoption of computer technology into humanistic research, Stone noted a lack of adequate bibliographic tools and databases and cautioned that “it may be part of the humanistic tradition to be anti-machine” (300). She affirmed that libraries are of great importance to humanities scholars and they are likely to use a variety of libraries. “The links between the subjective views of humanists and librarians and the more objective knowledge provided by research and other forms of systematic analysis are weak,” she adds (304). “The literature on the whole does not provide librarians with clear guidelines as to how they should proceed in terms of meeting the needs of humanities scholars,” she concludes (306).
Wiberley and Jones (1989) followed the research of 11 scholars through the late 1980s and 1990s. Their findings confirmed the spirit of previous research: the scholars relied heavily on libraries, made particular use of special-collections librarians, and used bibliographic tools to varying degrees. They noted in particular that “because humanists have well-developed habits for finding information in their specializations, they have little need for current awareness services that inform them of the latest literature in their areas of expertise” (644), and felt that the scholars could have made greater use of the assistance of librarians. The authors’ 1994 follow-up noted the scholars’ sharply increased use of word processing and online catalogs and limited use of electronic mail. Wiberley and Jones attributed humanists’ slow adoption of technology to “the difficulty of analyzing their evidence with readily available software, the rarity of co-authorship, and the abundance of references to the secondary literature in the monographs they read” (506). By the time the third report was published in 2000, use of word processing, online catalogs, and electronic mail was taken for granted. The authors noted the growing importance of primary sources in electronic form but also emphasized humanists’ frequent use of obscure sources that are unlikely to be digitized, and concluded that this argues for the continuing importance of libraries’ maintenance of printed resources.
The Getty Online Searching Project gave a small group of scholars an opportunity to do an unlimited number of searches of the full-text and bibliographic databases in DIALOG over a two-year period in the early 1990s (Bates, Wilde, and Siegfried 1993; Siegfried, Bates, and Wilde 1993; Bates, Wilde, and Siegfried 1995; Bates 1994; Bates 1996a; Bates 1996b). Bates and her associates noted that the search terms used most heavily by humanists were names, places, titles of works, and other proper nouns; that scholars did not make frequent use of online searching; and that they saw online techniques as supplementing, but not replacing, their usual research methods. Perhaps most telling is Bates’s conclusion that scholars in the humanities continued to identify citations to secondary materials via books and articles, reviews, and recommendations from colleagues (1994, 334). She concluded that small, specialized electronic bibliographies would meet scholars’ needs better than would large, discipline-oriented databases.
More recent work tends to avoid overstating humanists’ use of electronic resources. Manoff (1997) criticizes the Getty study because it focused on DIALOG, and few of its databases were relevant to the needs of humanists at that time. In interviews with humanities faculty members at a major university, Massey-Burzio (1999) found a strong ambivalence among humanists toward technology in general. She found that frustrations with equipment were mingled with complaints that resources available on the Web or through other electronic means were poorly organized. Humanists also reportedly found fault with the instability of electronic texts and were uncomfortable reading long passages on a monitor. Antipathy toward electronic materials focused on the inferior quality of reproduction of printed and visual materials on the screen and on the absence of context that would be readily apparent in a printed publication. The scholars did, however, appreciate the ability to perform word searches.
Weintraub’s comments of two decades ago may continue to hold true: “Humanists are probably the most book-bound creatures in the world of scholarship. . . . Their most fundamental work depends on the availability of original texts” (1980, 25). However, Sweetland’s assertion that “humanities scholars tend to be uncomfortable with technology” (1992, 786) is no longer the case. Although some of the timidity reported by Bates and Wiberley in the use of electronic resources remains, much academic discourse and administrative communication take place electronically. Few writers prefer a typewriter to a computer, and virtually all library catalogs are at least partially available only electronically (Wiberley and Jones 2000). “Humanities scholars are beginning to make use of new information technologies while continuing to rely heavily on practices and materials that predate digital systems” (Palmer and Neumann forthcoming [b]).
The results presented here update our understanding of how humanities scholars conduct research. They provide a fresh look at the role of information in the practice of scholarship and new insights into how scholars are using technologies and the effect that they are having on their research. In contrast to many previous investigators, we have not focused on derivative elements of scholarly work, such as the types of search terms or information sources favored by scholars. Moreover, we have not aimed to analyze broadly the nature of research throughout the humanities. Instead, we examined scholarly work practices in relation to projects being carried out by a sample of humanities scholars and concentrated on the activities and resources required in their work. We found that this narrowing of scope reinforces the broader conceptions of humanities research, for the issue of context remains paramount. The processes of reading and searching, developing context, and rereading and researching are at the heart of humanities scholarship. They are the means by which we may also explore the role of libraries as providers of texts and other scholarly resources. By identifying salient features of the contemporary work of scholars, we provide benchmarks that research libraries can use to make informed judgments about how to support and enhance the process of scholarship.