'Humanities scholars, research and reading, in physical and digital environments'

  1. 1. Claire Warwick

    University College London

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It may initially seem strange to suggest that research on what
seems to be such a traditional activity as reading might be
a vital underpinning to the study of digital resources for the
humanities. Yet, to design digital resources fi t for research
purposes, we must understand what scholars do in digital
environments, what kind of resources they need, and what
makes some scholars, particularly in the humanities, decline
to use existing digital resources. One of the most important
things that humanities scholars undertake in any environment
is to read. Reading is the fundamental activity of humanities
researchers, and yet we have little knowledge of how reading
processes are modifi ed or extended in new media environments.
In the early to mid 1990s, many humanities scholars expressed
excitement about the possibilities of electronic text, predicting
that the experience of reading would change fundamentally
(e.g., Bolter, 1991; Landow, 1992; Nunberg, 1996; Sutherland,
1997). Such prophetic writings, however, were not based on and
rarely followed up by studies with readers, particularly readers
in humanities settings. Through the last fi fteen years critical
interest within humanities circles with respect to reading has
waned and little progress has been made in understanding
how electronic textuality may affect reading practices, both of
academic and non-academic readers.
We are, however, beginning to understand the relationship
between reading in print and online, and how connections may
be made between the two (Blandford, Rimmer, & Warwick
2006), and how humanities scholars relate to information
environments, by reading and information seeking. In this
paper we will discuss our research to date, undertaken as part
of the UCIS project on the users of digital libraries, and on
the LAIRAH project, which studied levels of use of a variety
of digital humanities resources. (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slais/
Research has been based on a use-in- context approach,
in which participants have been interviewed about their
preferences for the use of digital resources in a setting which
is as naturalistic as possible. We also report on the results of
user workshops, and of one to one observations of the use of
digital resources.
As a result of these studies, we have found that humanities
researchers have advanced information skills and mental
models of their physical information environment, although
they may differ in that they fi nd these skills and models difficult
to apply to the digital domain (Makri et al. 2007). Humanities
researchers are aware of the available functions as well as
the problems of digital environments, and are concerned
with accuracy, selection methods, and ease of use (Warwick
et al. 2007). They require information about the original item
when materials are digitized and expect high-quality content:
anything that makes a resource diffi cult to understand – a
confusing name, a challenging interface, or data that must be
downloaded – will deter them from using it (Warwick et al.
It is therefore vital that such insights into the information
behaviour of humanities scholars should be used to inform
future studies of reading. It is also vital that this research is
informed by the insights from other members of the wider
research group, who work on textual studies and interface
and resource design. The paper will therefore end with a short
discussion of future plans for such collaboration.
Bolter, J. David. (1991). Writing space: the computer, hypertext,
and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.
Blandford, A., Rimmer, J., & Warwick, C. (2006). Experiences
of the library in the digital age. Paper presented at 3rd
International Conference on Cultural Covergence and Digital
Technology, Athens, Greece.
Landow, G. P. (1992). Hypertext: the convergence of
contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Makri, S., Blandford, A., Buchanan, G., Gow, J., Rimmer, J., &
Warwick, C. (2007). A library or just another information
resource? A case study of users’ mental models of traditional
and digital libraries. Journal of the American Society of
Information Science and Technology, 58(3), 433-445.
Nunberg, G (ed.) (1996) The Future of the Book. Berkeley,
University of California Press.
Sutherland, K. (Ed) (1997) Electronic Text: Investigations in
Method and Theory. Oxford, Clarendon Press
Warwick, C., Terras, M., Huntington, P., & Pappa, N. (2007) “If
you build it will they come?” The LAIRAH study: Quantifying
the use of online resources in the Arts and Humanities
through statistical analysis of user log data. Literary and
Linguistic Computing, forthcoming

Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website: http://www.ekl.oulu.fi/dh2008/

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None