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Trends: The Evolving Information Environment for Humanists


In the preface of its catalog of emerging information technology resources in the humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies identified numerous obstacles to humanities scholars’ adoption of technologies (Pavliscak, Ross, and Henry 1997). Some of these obstacles are determined by institutional constraints (e.g., funding or physical plant design), and some are related to characteristics of the humanities that resist technological adaptation (e.g., a perceived “insularity of the humanities community vis-à-vis technological advances in other disciplines” [2]). We found this not to be the case; instead, we observed a wide adoption of technology by humanists in ways that are enhancing many of their traditional work practices. Their reservations regarding technology-and there are several-are specific and rooted in the inability of present technological capabilities to address research activities unique to the humanities. There are no equivalents in the humanities to the large, technology-driven advancements in the sciences; however, developments in text encoding and multimedia promise to change significantly the materials and methods of certain kinds of humanities research.

Following are some of the ways in which humanities scholars have incorporated technology into their work practices:

  • Electronic mail fosters collaboration among scholars. This phenomenon is not limited to the humanities, of course. What is noteworthy is the way in which this collaboration contradicts the stereotype of the solitary scholar. We have found a wide appreciation among humanists for the way in which electronic mail and, to a lesser degree, electronic discussion lists can foster a vibrant interchange that parallels the energy that can occur at professional conferences. Although some of the participants in our study expressed a disdain for discussion lists, all were at least familiar with them.
  • Bibliographic programs, MIDI, and voice-recognition devices provide new ways of organizing personal resources. Selected scholars had used particular applications to develop sophisticated systems for storing data and notes and for archiving personal files.
  • Remote access to library catalogs and finding aids integrates travel efficiently into scholars’ programs of research. Scholars are able to find out what is available-and not available-much more easily than in the past. The consultation of directories and exchange of letters of inquiry could take months as a scholar was planning a trip to other libraries. OPACs and Web-mounted finding aids to special collections can allow scholars to locate specific documents and identify unknown documents more easily.
  • Word processing has altered the technique of writing, simplifying the revision of drafts and the preparation of texts.
  • Views on the quality and utility of Web resources vary greatly. The Web is used more for teaching than for research.
  • Text markup allows texts to be treated as research tools in themselves. That is, digital texts lend themselves to much more than retrieval and reading; they can help scholars do other kinds of research work. The limited use that humanities scholars have made thus far of encoded texts is not due to an insularity in their point of view but to the unavailability of the needed texts and to unrealized possibilities of new opportunities for research offered through encoding.
  • Full-text resources offer three clear benefits: (1) the simple provision of otherwise scarce texts; (2) keyword or Boolean searches either to identify particular motifs or words or to establish their absence in certain texts; and (3) the ability to collate different editions of the same work for variants or to identify editorial changes.

There is a sense among humanities scholars, except for those who work almost exclusively with obscure primary sources, that use of technology makes the research process easier, faster, and more up-to-date. Although many scholars no longer have exclusive confidence in their “tried-and-trusted” methods, only a few are turning to libraries for assistance. Some scholars voiced criticism about present-day technologies:

  • The lack of uniformity among systems complicates the process of searching and the manipulation of results. Although some individuals have developed sufficient aptitude in online searching to move-either confidently, or at least experimentally-between systems, they found that keeping track of the variety of search protocols used by various online vendors for identical tasks was frustrating. The variety of ways in which operators and commands are used is difficult for experienced professionals to keep up with, let alone scholars who may search even a familiar system only sporadically and may be dissuaded from trying others because of the eccentricities in using the systems. Similarly, the variety of formats in which comparable results such as bibliographic citations are represented complicates what should be a simple task of copying results into a word processor or bibliographic program.
  • Choices of editions used in full-text databases may not be the best for particular scholars. Copyright laws have constrained publishers from making available recent editions of full-text works in favor of editions that, though of lesser accuracy, are in the public domain.
  • Features to which scholars have become accustomed in word processing programs are lacking in some databases. Needs identified by users of electronic text corpora included provision of a “note pad” in the program for taking one’s own notes or for temporary copying of text; “wildcard” searching to identify variant spellings (particularly important with older texts); and provision for side-by-side comparison of texts.
  • Concerns about the archival stability of digital resources have made scholars wary of electronic publication and of the maintenance of personal files in electronic form. The potential instability of electronic texts threatens humanists’ fundamental assumptions about the reliability of their resources.
  • A sense of the economy of scale is driving many of the full-text and indexing products that are available in the humanities. The encyclopedic point of view has its uses; nonetheless, in commercial products the marginal and the esoteric are frequently ignored in favor of the canonical and the influential. Research in the humanities, as shown in the projects cited by some of our participants, frequently focuses on lesser known primary documents or unusual approaches to secondary resources.

Looking at the various uses of references in the texts written by the scholars in our study reinforced our earlier observation concerning the difficulty of distinguishing primary from secondary texts. Primary documents are often defined as nonderivative documents, those that are analyzed in a study. However, our scholars were analyzing all sorts of derivative documents. In at least two situations, secondary texts could be considered as primary texts. In the first, the text being discussed could be unobtainable, either because of distance or because it had been destroyed or was missing. Substituted for the text itself would be other documentation about the text, analyses of similar or related texts, or even documentation of documentation. Second, the now-common “metacritical,” contextually rich studies of the meaning and understanding of texts over time uses the analysis of many kinds of “secondary” research about a text. This evidence of the multiple roles of texts was strengthened through the interviews based upon the document analyses.

Electronic texts are potentially the most radical element in the construction of the evolving technology environment in the humanities. The explosion of electronic texts promises to alter the way in which scholars conceive of the activity of research in a way paralleled only by similarly major developments in the history of printing-the paperback revolution of the post-World War II years, the development of mechanized printing in the nineteenth century, and the invention of moveable type in the fifteenth century. Opinions of the cultural significance of electronic texts vary widely, from the unfettered enthusiasm with which Lanham (1993) extols their virtues as a new rhetoric that could reenergize Western culture, to the pessimism of Birkerts (1994), who bemoans the dissolution of culture threatened by a decline in the reading of printed books. Humanities scholarship has only begun to integrate electronic text. One telling example showed up clearly in the uncertainty among scholars about how to cite electronic text corpora: is the user consulting a database or the primary text reproduced therein? Encoding is both a form of textual interpretation and a format of presentation of a text. This raises issues beyond those of establishing a standard citation format and cuts to the core of the assumed distinction between primary and secondary sources. Scholarly practice will continue to evolve in deliberate and interesting ways as software advances such as encoding develop in conjunction with new hardware such as handheld devices.


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