The Virtual Library and the Humanities: a report

by Graeme Johanson, Don Schauder, and Edward Lim

© all rights reserved

This article is accompanied by a comprehensive list of related sites.

“It is as well to bear in mind that digital is a medium, not a religion”.1
Professor Michael Greenhalgh, Art History, Australian National University.

1. Introduction

For ten years the economic duopoly of “efficiency and effectiveness” have gripped Australian universities. Libraries and humanities scholars together have been under pressure to answer the many questions which the theme of this report raises. For example, is the information infrastructure of the humanities undergoing gradual regeneration as always? Is the spread of information technology just an ephemeral disturbance to the serenity of traditional humanities research? More disturbingly, are libraries and the humanities about to be altered completely, maybe destroyed, by existing electronic technologies, harbingers of complete “democratization” in education, popularization of all scholarship, and the collapse of copyright? Will libraries or “the humanities” exist at all in the future world of devolved, self-directed learning where human contact is minimized and universities are replaced by fluid, impersonal, “voluntary electronic communities”? Is there evidence to support the dystopian view of a future which envisages the demise of the very idea of a “discipline” because of the integrative power of information technology and its inherent favouring of multidisciplinary scholarship above all other scholarship?

Scholars in the humanities — or in specific disciplines in the humanities — conform to Agre’s concept of a community, in that they “engage in some degree of collective cognition — the interactions through which they learn from one another’s experiences, set common strategies, develop a shared vocabulary, and evolve a distinctive way of thinking”. For reasons soon to be explored, libraries are essential collections of “genres” associated with scholarship in the humanities. Genres are defined for our purposes here as “expectable forms of communication” within scholarly communities.2

Digital technology and market-oriented economic doctrines form part of a complex and continually evolving social ecology that links research libraries and archives with the humanities disciplines. To reach conclusions about the future nature and role of libraries, predictions must be made to build strategies for change. If the predictions — or change strategies to deal with the future — are flawed then alternative genres are likely to supersede libraries, and probably the humanities. Without wishing to engage in demonstrative handwringing, this report seeks to weigh up advantages against problems yet to be overcome. It commends to humanities scholars the model of the virtual library, broadly conceived, as an essential mechanism to take advantage of current and future changes.

2.Characteristics of sources

All sources, that is, all groupings of information,3 whatever their location or origin, can be grist to the humanities scholar’s mill. Verification of events or trends by several different reporters or commentators in a range of forms of sources is regarded as desirable by scholars, and is not treated usually as superfluous repetition. This puts a heavy burden on institutions which attempted to collect the sources exhaustively (nowadays an impossible dream).4 The contents of key sources are often broad ideas, theories or ideologies, rather than specific facts or widely-accepted principles. “Ideas” are as important as “data”.

For a humanities scholar, the origin of a source may be a clue to important aspects of it — its authority, authorial intent, history of dissemination — which often require extraneous proof to help validate its authenticity. With computer networks, like the Internet, proof of origin is impossible to determine with many sources, because authors deliberately hide behind anonymity.5 How close a source is to its author may determine the level of respect given it by scholars, the breadth of its dissemination, and hence its chances of survival in the future. For the humanities scholar, an “original” source is often a unique item in an archive or manuscripts repository. The antiquity of sources in the humanities may be their virtue. Sources do not lose their currency as quickly as in the sciences.6

The originality of a source — in a creative sense — can affect its worth also.7 Some sources — for example, graphic images, or music — are not structured in a linear way, and are often deliberately ambiguous, to encourage browsing and intellectual grazing, to stimulate imagination, to induce personal interpretation.8 These qualities are seen as creative strengths in old and new texts.

Books are used more by humanities scholars than journals. Various studies of use between 1959 and 1990 suggest that on average 72% of the print sources of a humanities scholar are books, and 21% are journal articles.9 Libraries which use “remote” storage facilities for books tend to inhibit humanities scholarship.10 The pattern of book-journal use is replicated in the publication patterns of the scholars themselves: humanities scholars in Australia publish many more books and chapters in books, and far fewer journal articles, than scholars in other disciplines.11 If an ultimate side-effect of the current widespread adoption of information technology is the publication in print of fewer traditional books, then the university library service of the future will need to include access to an increasing number of electronic texts and downloaded, or off-line, print-out copies of them.12

3. Structure of knowledge

Being “close to the sources” is regarded by many humanities researchers as an essential stance: it assists with intuitive understanding.13 Personal interaction with evidence is essential, and humanities scholars have resisted surrogates in libraries accordingly, whether they be microforms or databases. Also there is sometimes reluctance to delegate searching sources to a librarian, or even to research assistants.14 A related habit is for humanities researchers to work alone, at least in the analysis and reporting stages.15

In the past, many humanities scholars have stood by the centrality of fixed, canonical texts; part of the authority of texts has derived from their longevity in print form, and their survival in large publicly-accessible libraries.16 Undoubtedly some information technologies radically threaten the sanctity of traditional text, causing some concern. At the same time, many of the key texts are being reproduced (in facsimile) and disseminated more widely on computer networks than they have ever been. Generally what causes concern is that texts are no longer fixed in printer’s ink on tangible paper, and that they are not presented with all the texture of their original physical embodiment, but in fact are no more than a string of bits, volatile, easily-altered, and infinitely-copyable on screen, and all at a keystroke.17

The chaos apparent at times in the new electronic forms of sources is paralleled by the intellectual process of deconstruction of the canons themselves. This intellectual reaction requires still an intimate understanding of the contexts of textual creation. Whether or not a humanities scholar today uses primary, traditional texts, all humanities scholars need large collections of symbolic artifacts in order to function. There is a tradition of textual referral, of checking back to prior knowledge, accepted wisdom, the key writings or icons of proponents of influential ideas.18 Summaries of texts are insufficient for the humanities scholar: the full text is revered in that it may contain hidden meanings for future generations of scholars to recover.19

Reconstruction of past reality is sometimes an aim of the humanities. Reconstruction demands many more sources, and more complete sources, than research in the physical sciences typically requires.20 Sources can be accessed by means of about 30 million copies of books and about 310,000 journal titles in university libraries in Australia, as well as many unique archives in dispersed repositories.21 The increasing dissemination of information on computer networks creates additional sources for the humanities, along with possible unnecessary duplication.22

The collective wisdom of the humanities, the sharing of high culture, the storage of key cultural symbols in libraries, used to be controlled strictly by a small number of scholars, who defined and maintained acceptable canons. The study of popular culture and popular literature has changed that: they are now large parts of accepted disciplines. Acceptance imparts an academic stamp of approval to a wide range of mass-produced “texts”, be they in words, pictures or sounds, and they have to be collected also.23

A permanent function of the humanities scholar is to teach about human experience, nature, achievement, history, aspirations, attitudes, and customs. Along with the extension of tertiary education goes the greater devolution of “control” of the humanities and its sources to the “marketplace”.24 This necessitates mass publication, distribution and collection in duplicate form of popular texts of all types, the publishers’ and distributors’ bread and butter. Part of the process of academic teaching in the humanities is to instill in students the requisite understanding of process, of analysis and investigation. Sources and published tools for instruction in method are required from the early stages of a course of study, adding to the accumulation of required publications.25

Importantly the virtual library will play its part here: the system will be so designed that it will assist students (and scholars) in the formulation of preliminary questions about gaps in their knowledge, and in the articulation of basic information needs. The proficiency of this type of guidance as to how to search on the computer screen, of this “intelligent front end,” will depend ultimately on funding further research and development of “knowledge management” systems.

“Having something to say” is an attribute in the humanities. To articulate a coherent argument, to construct a broad synthesis, to posit a thesis in an original manner and to present it with style are desirable skills. In the view of the humanities scholar ideally each incident of high-quality expression should be preserved in perpetuity.26

4. Unstructured discovery

The apparent freedom of the humanities researcher is often contrasted with the seemingly well-structured paths of the scientist. The role of serendipity, browsing, chancing on sources and ideas, is important in all disciplines, but it is well-nigh impossible to determine the extent of these activities. Humanities scholars rely on each other heavily for stimulation and research ideas: they report that they consult a colleague before browsing published sources of information 55% of the time.27 The overall value of browsing is under-researched, except by market researchers in retail businesses. From consulting colleagues regularly, humanities scholars know what research is about to be published, what is “in the pipeline”, well before the research reaches a printer or a database.28 Some suggest that communication of information on the worldwide web is just another example of the tried-and-true benefits of informal collegiality.29

5. A model for change

There is a strong element of emotional attachment to the physical structure and atmosphere of scholarly libraries, and to the role of libraries as storehouses of inherited knowledge.30 In principle the bulk of the community supports the value of library systems. Yet in the next 20 years humanities scholars will need to use digital media increasingly, while their dependence on analogue media (print) clearly will remain substantial. The feasibility of achieving comprehensive, research-level print collections in more than a few locations is likely to continue to decline, unfortunately, because of funding constraints. The development of the virtual library offers a solution for storing the necessary information genres for the humanities research community in the medium to long term.

Little is known about the suitability of new formats of “publication” and communication. How acceptable to the humanities scholar are hypertext, simulations, preprint servers, newsgroups, listservers, Multi-User Dimension groups, to mention but a few of the range of new formats? We need to know who will pay for their development and use by scholars, and how payment will be organized. This raises many issues for management of virtual library services, viz., the physical and notional design of the new knowledge environment; the continuity of collected, printed publications; problems of intellectual property in the future library of electronic acquisition and dissemination; principles of future preservation and archiving; creation of intellectual tools for bibliographic description of the new formats of information (controlling the development of “metadata31 and management of efficient document delivery. Along these paths humanities scholars, publishers and librarians are on a common journey of discovery.

Graeme Johanson is a postdoctoral research fellow at Monash University;
Don Schauder is Head of the Department of Librarianship, Archives and Records, Faculty of Computing and Information Technology, Monash University;
and Edward Lim is the University Librarian, Monash University.

See below for a list of related links.
Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.

1. Greenhalgh, M. – ‘Setting up and exploiting humanities research resources on the World Wide Web’, Australian academic and research libraries, 27(2), June 1996, p.102
2. Agre, P. – ‘Designing genres for new media: social, economic, and political contexts’, The network observer, 2 (11) November 1995, passim.
3. Grabar, O. – ‘The Intellectual implications of electronic information’ in, 17 January 1997, pp.4 -8
4. Benaud, C.L. and S. Bordeianu – ‘Electronic resources in the humanities’, Reference services review, 23(2), Summer 1995, p.42
5. Clarke, R. – ‘Virtual chewing gum on virtual library seats? Human behaviour in electronic communities’, in, p.6
6. Watson-Boone, R. – ‘The Information needs and habits of humanities scholars’, RQ, Winter 1994, p.204
7. Ibid. – pp.203, 212
8. Greenstein, D.I. – ‘Connecting scholarly communities and networked resources. The Arts and Humanities Data Service and the urgency of collaborative endeavour’ in, p.2
9. Watson-Boone, R. – op.cit. – p.206
10. Yerbury, D. – ‘Issues for the humanities’ in J. Mulvaney and C. Steele (eds), Changes in scholarly communication patterns: Australia and the electronic library, Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1993, p.181. University of Melbourne, Faculty of Arts, Toward a library for the twenty-first century, December 1996, pp.7-8
11. Bourke, P. – ‘Issues for scholars’ in J. Mulvaney and C. Steele (eds), Changes in scholarly communication patterns: Australia and the electronic library, Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1993, pp.152-153
12. Greenberg, D. – ‘Technology and its discontents: some problems and possibilities for the humanist in the virtual university’ in ibid. – p.143
13. Hooton, J. – ‘The Australian Research Council and the independent scholar in the humanities and social sciences’, Prometheus, 13(2), December 1995, p.245
14. Ryckmans, P. – ‘Perplexities of an electronically illiterate old man’, Quadrant, September 1996, p.13
15. Watson-Boone, R. – op.cit. – pp.209-210
16. Benaud, C.L. and S. Bordeianu – op.cit. – p.42. Ryckmans, P. – ‘Are books useless?’ in, p.1
17. Lanham, R.A. – ‘The implications of electronic information for the sociology of knowledge’ in, 17 January 1997, p.3
18. Covi, L. – ‘How academic researchers use digital libraries for scholarly communication’ in, p.2. 19. Yerbury, D. – op.cit. – p.180
20. Atkinson, R. – ‘Humanities scholarship and the research library’, Library resources and technical services, 39(1), January 1995, pp.80-81 21. N.B.E.E.T. – Library provision in higher education institutions, commissioned report no. 7, Canberra: A.G.P.S., 1990, p.5
22. Greenhalgh, M. – op.cit. – p.104
23. Yerbury, D. – op.cit. – p.181
24. Greenberg, D. – op.cit. – p.137
25. Meadows, A.J. – ‘Authors and knowledge’ in A.J. Meadows (ed.), Knowledge and communication: essays on the information chain, London: Library Association, 1991, pp.47, 53
26. Bourke, P. – op.cit. – p.150
27. Fulton, C. – ‘Humanists as information users: a review of the literature’, Australian academic and research libraries, 22(3), September 1991, p.190 mentions what little is known about browsing in the humanities. R. Watson-Boone – op.cit. – p.206 on consultation with colleagues.
28. Covi, L. – op.cit. – p.4
29. Wark, McK. – ‘Virtual scholars in the Library of Babel’, in The Australian, 8 May 1996, p.39
30. Mercer, C. and T. Bennett, Navigating the economy of knowledge; a national survey of users and non-users of state and public libraries; final report, Brisbane: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University, 1995, p. 46. Like others before it, this study reveals people’s very strong commitment to the social value of libraries even from regular non-users of libraries.
31. “Metadata” often refers to information that is placed deliberately on source html documents to try to assist search engines to find documents to match user’s keywords appropriately. It is used also to describe or “label” the generic characteristics of groupings or pieces of data in electronic form”.

A List of Sites Related to “The Virtual Library and the Humanities: a report”.
List compiled by Graeme Johanson, Don Schauder, and Edward Lim. ‘About SCAN’, University of California in 8080/scan/about.html

Arms, W.Y. – ‘The Institutional implications of electronic information’ in, 17 January 1997

‘CETH: Centre for electronic texts in the humanities’ in

‘Computing and the humanities’ in

Dawe, Robert T. and J.H. Baird – ‘WWW, researchers and research services’ in

Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Managing the introduction of technology in the delivery and administration of higher education, in, 30 July 1997

Fletcher, Gordon and Anita Greenhill – ‘Australian studies beyond Gutenberg’, in, 12 February 1997

Greenstein, D.I. – ‘Connecting scholarly communities and networked resources. The Arts and Humanities Data Service and the urgency of collaborative endeavour’ in, 1 November 1996. ‘Related readings’, University of Virginia,

Iannella, Renata – ‘Australian digital library initiatives’ in, 10 January 1997

‘IATH: Institute for advanced technology in the humanities’, University of Virginia in

Lancaster, F.W. – ‘Networked scholarly publishing’, Library trends, 43(4), Spring 1995, promoted in

Low, Brian – ‘Information infrastructure: the future for learning and teaching’ in

‘Welcome to the SCAN project’, University of California: [Paper delivered to Round Table No.5 “Information, Innovation and Scholarly communication”, Canberra, 21-22 October 1996]

McEldowney, Philip – ‘Scholarly electronic journals – trends and academic attitudes: a research proposal’ in, 14 January 1997

McPherson, Madeleine – ‘Major challenges facing higher education and the provision of access to information to support research, teaching and learning: current issues’ in [Paper delivered at the National Scholarly Communications Forum Roundtable No. 5, Canberra, 21-22 October 1996]

Nichols, David M., Michael B. Twidale and Chris D. Paice – ‘Recommendation and usage in the digital library’ in…cseg/projects/ariadne/docs/recommend.html, pp.1 – 17, 17 February 1997

‘The On-line books page’ in, 10 February 1997

Ryckmans, Pierre – ‘Are books useless? An extract from the 1996 Boyer lectures’, 3 pp., Australian Humanities Review, in

Treloar, Andrew and Don Schauder – ‘Psyche: case study of atttitudes and access to an ejournal’, in
mailbox:/C%7C/Program%20Files/Netscape/Na…211072906.0068ef00@vicnet.n, pp.3-5

Turnbull, Paul – ‘New information technologies and scholarly publishing in history: developments and problems’ in, 12 January 1997

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email