American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 37

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



The preceding overview of computer-based humanities projects may give the impression that computer-based research in the humanities is thriving. However, many of these projects are run on shoestring budgets. If the initiatives described in Section II are to become the norm in the humanities, then action must be undertaken to overcome a number of barriers: institutional, organizational, material, and personal. Information technology involves not only the provision of skills and equipment, but also changes in attitudes and working practices. Dramatic growth in funding, distribution of resources to assure broad coverage, and encouragement of an information-rich scholarly community are all essential.

Training and Support

Adequate training and support services are key to the successful implementation of new technology. Lack of understanding of available resources and shortcomings in the skills to exploit them are major factors preventing effective use of information among researchers, teachers, and students in the humanities. Some institutions have been unable to network their campus buildings, and many humanists still have considerable difficulties in gaining access to even the most basic computing resources.

Project Management

Traditional humanities scholarship relies largely on the work of an individual scholar, while successful projects in humanities computing often involve the collaborative efforts of scholars, librarians, and technologists from different fields and institutions, along with the support of national funding organizations. The future of humanities scholarship lies in such large-scale collaborative projects, which can draw on expertise from a variety of sources.

Furthermore, projects focusing on primary sources or scholarship in electronic formats are increasingly attractive to academic publishing houses. The University of Michigan Press actively seeks electronic publishing projects, while Johns Hopkins University Press delivers electronic versions of many print publications. This growing interest points to future projects between the university press and humanities departments, units that have traditionally had limited contact at most campuses.

Research Infrastructure

In articulating their needs on a national level, humanities scholars are hindered by the absence of a national agency for coordinating humanities technology, which has implications for both funding and promotion of research and research requirements. Cultural change within the humanities themselves is clearly needed. Electronic and network publication has not taken off in the humanities for a variety of complex reasons: problems with refereeing, lack of standards governing the citation of electronic publications, the ostensibly ephemeral nature of electronic documents, difficulty of access, and lack of consensus on what constitutes a publication and what it means to be published. Electronic journals have generally not achieved the academic credibility of their printed counterparts. On the other hand, it is already apparent that the barriers to acceptance of the CD-ROM medium of publication have begun to break down.

Digital Libraries and Archives

An important phenomenon of the electronic age is the building of large-scale digital libraries and archives. This activity received a major incentive when the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Commerce, and NASA announced a multi-million dollar program to fund competitive proposals for the creation of digital libraries of national significance. Participating institutions include the University of Michigan, working with Bedford Stuyvesant High School in Brooklyn and other libraries focusing on issues of information retrieval and usage in the earth sciences; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign, exploring applications of science and engineering journal articles; the University of California at Santa Barbara, whose Alexandria Digital Library project focuses in large part on graphical information such as maps; the University of California at Berkeley's Digital Library Project, investigating the fundamental transformations in traditional concepts of the library; and Stanford University's Digital Library Project, exploring ways to link a vast array of information, from personal data to large-scale information services employing meta-system retrieval software.

The Library of Congress recently teamed with about a dozen of the largest research universities in the United States to form the National Digital Library Federation (NDLF), a consortium that will explore the technical and methodological aspects of constructing a digital library of owned resources. A national digital library of sufficient size, scope, and complexity would support a meaningful test of the effect of distributed digital libraries on equitable access, learning and scholarship, and the economics and organization of libraries.

At the same time, large-scale archival projects are coming to the fore. These include Harvard's Israeli Posters project, which will eventually digitize over 70,000 religious posters in its collections; the Huntington Library's William Blake Works <>; Project Utopia at Cornell <>, which aims to digitize 150,000 images of Renaissance art and architecture; and the recently announced plans by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. for converting its archival holdings to digital format, making these materials accessible over the Internet for the first time.

Information Resources

Humanists depend to a very considerable extent on libraries in their own and remote institutions, and on a network of museums, galleries, and archives. Much evidence suggests that library resources are diminishing as a result of shrinking budgets; rising numbers and costs of traditional publications; the need to conserve books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the introduction of automated catalogs; and the need to purchase new electronic resources and the equipment to make them accessible to library users. At the same time, the growth of new ways of accessing information, from Online Public Access Catalogues (OPACs) to CD-ROMs and Internet search engines, has raised users' expectations, with the result that research libraries now find it difficult to strike a balance between expenditures on traditional and novel forms of providing information.

A review of libraries conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (Cummings et al.) examined the changing budget structures at universities. It concluded that libraries were continually losing ground as a percentage of expenditure by educational institutions, thereby exacerbating problems created by increasing costs of journals and exchange rate fluctuations. As noted earlier, Project Muse is a possible future application to address this problem, as is JSTOR , a large-scale project funded by the Mellon Foundation to digitize science serials for greater accessibility and preservation.

The growing number of projects creating electronic resources and the increase in demand for electronic information highlight the fact that no agency has taken an active role in fostering the growth of a national electronic archive for the humanities, analogous to the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) data archive for the social sciences. A national strategy is required for the holding, maintenance, and provision of access to such material. Funding is needed, as well, to secure the conversion of information into electronic form. Since many sources are of national and international significance, attempts should be made to support collaborative efforts to create electronic information sources and tools.

Regulatory Issues

The field of information technology is subject to rapid change. In the rush to exploit new ways of creating and accessing information, regulatory issues are often neglected or brushed aside. A case in point is the variety of coding systems devised by individual scholars for textual analysis of electronic texts, described earlier in this report. Standardization is always several steps behind innovation, but remains essential for information technology to yield real benefits. Cooperation is hindered by a lack of common standards. The Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) and similar systems, are, of course, relevant, but there are other areas more closely associated with humanities computing where humanists can have a direct influence. An example is SGML, described earlier; its acceptance will transform electronic texts and electronic publishing in general. The great changes underway in humanities information justify standards like SGML, which are extensible and have application across disciplines and data types.

Intellectual property and copyright are additional areas of concern. The advent of electronic information systems has created a host of problems not addressed by the 1976 Copyright Act. These demand urgent consideration if they are not to hinder the development of electronic publications and information resources. Two fundamental themes involve the determination of fair compensation based on ownership of object by the creator, and the issue of what constitutes fair use. Encryption, image fingerprinting, and other security measures have arisen from these concerns.

Preservation and Access

Research libraries have traditionally seen to the preservation of fragile books and rare materials. These activities are highly dependent on cooperation among institutions, and libraries have historically worked together to develop methodologies and standards for producing microfilm, which is the preferred preservation medium. A library participating in the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN), for example, has access to established procedures and mechanisms for signalling to the rest of the library community that it will take responsibility for the preservation of a particular item through microfilming. Other research libraries need not duplicate the effort and can use the product of the preservation work undertaken by the first institution. In addition, libraries with particular strengths have often worked together to preserve all materials in a particular field or subfield.

Digital technology is emerging as an effective and affordable preservation and access tool. In addition, libraries can add value to their collections by providing scholars with digital facsimiles of library materials supplemented by rich background and contextual information as well as text and image manipulation tools to which they might not otherwise have access. The Griffis Collection and the Early American Fiction Archive exemplify a new approach to preservation that not only captures some of the physical qualities of a text, but also provides additional means of access to the texts, via searchable textbases or archival finding aids.


Inevitably, many of our observations are concerned with funding. Additional resources are necessary for the humanities to play an expanded role in higher education and to continue to produce scholarly research. At the same time, scholars in the humanities can achieve much themselves, both individually and collectively, by making their needs known to those responsible for policy and funding at the institutional and national levels.

Both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts have seen their funding sharply reduced over the past two years. Humanists will therefore need to turn to private foundations—the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Ford, Wilson, Spencer, and Rockefeller Foundations—for support of projects that employ technology.

Still, the nation must confront an important public policy issue: How will the cultural heritage of the United States find its way into digital, networked form? How will this heritage become available, and in what forms, for education, for support of a democratic ethos, and for other civic purposes? Should public funding play a role in this process?

Humanities Support Services

Several research universities have established support units specifically for humanities computing endeavors. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities was established at the University of Virginia in 1992, with a major grant from IBM and a multi-year commitment of support from the university. The Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities, founded in 1991 as a joint project of Rutgers and Princeton Universities, has received substantial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Center serves as a clearinghouse for information about computer-based research in the humanities and sponsors several projects for developing access to electronic texts. The University of Michigan sponsors a Collaboratory for the Humanities: several scholars are given a computer workspace at the Humanities Text Initiative where they create multimedia projects for research on teaching with computing consultants.

These services bring together staff with expertise in computing languages, textual encoding, digital imaging, organization, and access issues to facilitate the development of humanities electronic scholarship and publishing. Support, however, is often limited to scholars on their home campuses. Since many colleges and universities do not sponsor humanities computing services, their faculties may suffer a disadvantage which will ultimately have an impact on humanities scholarship as a whole.

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