American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 37

Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship:
Achievements, Prospects, and Challenges—
The United States Focus


Computerized tools and digital resources are increasingly used in the creation, collection, storage, and dissemination of scholarly information. This phenomenon is having a pronounced effect on patterns of information use and communication. Significant improvements in technology—faster processors, large capacity storage devices, higher resolution screens, improved networks, more powerful and flexible software—have allowed humanists to use computers more effectively in their work. The speed and scope of such developments make it imperative that institutions and information professions serving the humanities become aware of the changing needs of their clientele. Libraries, museums, archives, publishers, information providers, and computer services all have a role to play.

A variety of organizations, including the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Getty Information Institute (GII), the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), national endowments, federal commissions, and a cross-section of scholarly societies, have met to examine the generation, storage and use of information in the humanities, and to look especially at new methods of manipulating information provided by the use of computers and associated technologies. Their aim has been to help information providers reassess and improve their services. They all emphasize the need for adequate funding not only for providers but also for the community of users, who must be equipped, motivated, and trained to take advantage of the opportunities offered by information technology.

These deliberations have taken place during a period of major structural change in the funding of higher education: a general background of declining resources, along with increasing pressure on the funds available for the maintenance and development of the collections, archives, and artifacts which are the principal resources for scholarly research in the humanities.

Humanists are becoming increasingly aware of the need to change information and communication practices as a positive reaction to the potential of technology. As more scholars learn about the benefits computers bring to the work of their colleagues, the demand for equipment, training, and support will grow. The financial pressures on higher education and on repositories of books, artifacts, and manuscripts also make change essential. This situation presents an opportunity for humanities scholars, information providers, and funders of research to take a positive role in the creation of improved and more widely available resources.

The following sections outline the impact of new technology on scholarship. They may give the impression of a high level of activity, but in reality the projects we describe are undertaken by only a small percentage of humanists. Many difficulties still confront scholars: problems of access to resources; shortage of equipment, skills, and support; difficulties of networking; and the challenges of converting materials into electronic form. All these areas require greater funding and coordination in order to bring about an overall improvement in humanities scholarship.

Other challenges to a more productive use of technology in the humanistic disciplines include the general insularity of the humanities community vis-à-vis technological advances in other disciplines; the reluctance of institutions to recognize computer-based work in the granting of tenure; the tendency to employ computers for projects in stylistics and word counts rather than in ways that might engage current theoretical approaches; the opaque jargon in which computer applications are often clothed; the significant costs of equipment and software development; and the tendency of humanities projects to rely on individuals rather than institutions, and thus become vulnerable to a person's departure or change of status.

Within the humanities disciplines the overall picture is not one of widespread use of new technology, but rather a landscape with high levels of activity in some areas and low levels in others. Some of these difficulties are detailed in Section IV. Section V suggests follow-up activities which might have a global impact on humanities scholarship.

Preface | I. Background
II. Information Technology and Scholarship | III. New Developments and Change
IV. To Challenge and Invigorate Future Scholarship | V. Principal Recommendations and Follow-up Activities
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