Humanities and the Research Library

I’ve been reading some of the reports that were released last month, especially Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education and CLIR’s No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century. Naturally I’ve been thinking about them in the context of the humanities and the research library. I’m not sure I have a thesis yet, but I do have some reflections. For the most part I suspect that research libraries will continue to be hybrids for perhaps decades to come, especially in the humanities. Just as we collect the past for future study, we’ll live with the past during the long transition to a different future.

As I’ve argued before, though perhaps not convincingly, some things about the humanities don’t change. We continue to ask the same basic questions and continue to study texts in a way that fundamentally has remained the same since the Renaissance. Some new trends are nevertheless emerging, though, the “digital humanities.” Some of the digital humanities seem to be just digital versions of previous physical items, like digitizing archives, which makes these items much more available, but doesn’t change the fundamental nature of our interaction with them. Nevertheless, new techniques are open to us.

But still a lot is the same. Studying texts, interpreting culture, making arguments about human things. Some of this will involve experimental methods and text mining and statistical analysis and specifically data driven techniques: from brain experiments to confirm epistemological hypotheses to using text mining to finally prove that Bacon or Oxford or Rutland or whomever really wrote the works of Shakespeare. But most of it will involve traditional analysis and arguments applied to digital entities. Central questions will remain: What does this cultural text or artifact mean? What does it tell us about ourselves and our world? What happened at such and such a time and what does it mean? And, it seems, for a long time to come traditional methods will also apply. Some people criticize libraries as slow to change, but the traditions of humanities scholarship might be even slower. There have been humanist scholars around a long time. Humanists think libraries, even traditional libraries, will still be important for their future.

The Ithaka report seems to confirm this, at least for the short run. It considers three roles the library plays: Gateway to, Archive of, and Buyer of information resources. The Ithaka folks surveyed scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, as well as librarians. The people who think the library is the most important are the librarians, naturally. But humanists were much more likely than their scientific or social scientific colleagues to continue to rate the library highly is all three functions, though the key function for all is Buyer.

Humanists are much less likely than anyone, including librarians, to want to do away with print journal collections even if electronic versions were available. Humanists are more likely to feel comfortable in the library, and less likely to think they’ll be more reliant upon electronic resources.

It’s possible that humanists are just going to have to be disappointed in the short run, especially with print journals, but the transition might take a very long time, and is unlikely to be complete in the foreseeable future. By then they will have adapted, or gone extinct, as will the libraries they love now.

Despite the heated change rhetoric from some quarters, libraries seem to be adapting to the future already. The CLIR report addressed all sorts of issues, and I liked it because it lacked heated rhetoric. My idiosyncratic take on it can be summarized by considering roles and techniques used by research libraries. What seems clear to me is not how much has or will change, but how much will stay the same even after huge changes.

Same Roles, Same Techniques: Collection, Organization, Preservation, Authority

Things we’ll continue to do and in more or less the same ways:

  • Buying books, organizing them, making them accessible in many of the same ways we do now, maybe using digital vendor slips instead of paper, but still more or less the same.
  • For scholarly works, we’ll continue to combine with scholarly presses to put our collective imprimatur on such works.
  • Building special collections and archives. If nothing else, they have to be built before they can be digitized.

Same Roles, Different Techniques: Collection, Organization, Preservation, Accessibility, Discovery

We’ll continue to collect, but with new techniques we can even make our traditional collections more discoverable and accessible.

  • Collection will increasingly be digital. Hardly a surprise. But even providing access to print collections should improve. Even with ebooks, will copyright and DRM allow us to treat ebooks as we now treat print books?
  • Organizing it, providing metadata, better web portals, better OPACs
  • Preserving the digital collection
  • Ensuring quality. this is something we can strive to do.
  • Making it accessible
  • Making it discoverable! Not just a sealed off archive, but easily findable (study on use of non easily accessible resources not being used as much). We know that not everything is online and easily accessible, even with the Google books project, but if we define everything as “everything anyone will actually use” then everything is increasingly online. Research libraries need to make their collections more discoverable and accessible. Digitization of copyrighted books at least lets them be found, and digitization of special collections and out of copyright books allows access for everyone.

Different Roles, New Techniques: Creation, Collaboration

These are a couple of roles some people are predicting for research libraries in the future, obviously based on activities at least of the fringe of a lot of library operations now.


  • Creators of Digital Content–digital libraries, institutional repositories, open access journals, academic publishers. Obviously we’re already doing some of this, but doing more of this will make the library more central to scholarship.
  • Creators of information tools: Zotero, Omeka, LibX toolbar
  • Helping scholars create digital content, like at the Center for History and New Media


  • Between libraries: Print repositories, keeping ready access to our own copies, but sharing in an organized fashion.
  • Between libraries and other campus units: Working with information technologists, for example.
  • Between librarians and faculty: collaborating with faculty or enabling faculty to collaborate

Some libraries are doing these things now, and more will probably have to to adapt, but nevertheless many of the traditional roles are likely to remain, especially in the humanities. Still not much of thesis, I’m afraid.

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