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  • Humanist Scholars' Use of Digital Materials

This wiki space contains archival documentation of Project Bamboo, April 2008 - March 2013.

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By: Harriett Green, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

As the Collections Interoperability group investigated how to prepare collections for the Bamboo platform, we considered how to identify the collections that should be ingested for the platform. What are the things that scholars need in a digital collection for research? This involved asking: How well are current digital collections meeting the research needs of scholars? How should digital collections be enhanced to sustain and strengthen their value to digital humanities research? 

To find answers to these questions that could guide us in the development of the collection interoperability tools for the Bamboo platform, a study was launched to study humanities scholars’ use of digital collections. 

Needs Assessment Study

The study consisted of two parts: A mass survey and individual interviews. The respondent pool for these study instruments were drawn from the faculty bodies at twelve research universities:

  • Indiana University

  • Northwestern University

  • Michigan State University

  • Pennsylvania State University

  • University of Chicago

  • University of Iowa

  • University of Illinois at Chicago

  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  • University of Minnesota

  • University of Maryland

  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln

  • University of Wisconsin-Madison

The survey was conducted from October 2011 through February 2012, and it was distributed to randomly selected one-third of the English and History faculty members at these institutions. Survey recruitment messages were emailed to 350 faculty members, and 75 responded for a response rate of 20 percent. Seventeen interviews also were conducted: Interviews were conducted from January 2012 through August 2012 via email and telephone, and a random one-third of faculty members from fine arts and performing arts departments at the same research universities were recruited for interviews. The faculty were identified and recruited for the study with the assistance of librarians and academic technologists at the institutions.

Both the survey and interviews asked respondents to describe their research work with digital collections, the benefits and disadvantages of digital materials, and functionalities that would improve digital collections for scholarly research.

Survey respondents were provided with a precise definition of digital collections as curated collections of thematic digital content, and asked if they used this type of digital resource. Respondents who answered “Yes” continued the survey, while those who answered “No” were taken to the end of the survey. The survey asked respondents about their uses of various types of digital collections (i.e., text, image, multimedia); what additional functionalities they thought digital collections needed for scholarly research; and how they currently use digital collections for their research.

The quantitative survey responses were analyzed in Excel for statistical percentages. The open-ended survey responses and qualitative interview data were coded by hand for themes and analyzed in Excel. In the analyses of these gathered responses from humanities scholars, our analysis explored what do digital collections do well and what functionalities are needed in them.

Two primary needs emerged in the scholars’ responses: sustained access and discovery of digital collections, and the ability to mix and reuse digital materials.

Curation

Among survey respondents, the most frequently used materials were texts at 100 percent and images at 94 percent, followed by maps at 58 percent, video at 42 percent, and audio at 39 percent. For all of these materials, curation was paramount.

The responses on the requirements for preparing these materials for scholarly use corresponded to varying processes within the Data Curation Lifecycle (JISC, 2010). Respondents were asked to identify the most needed functionalities for collections of types of digital objects: texts, images, and multi-format media materials. For text collections, detailed metadata and provenance information were the most desirable features. Respondents also strongly expressed the importance of annotating texts, and access to the text files for analyses. For collections of images, the most frequently identified functionality was the ability to download images, followed by the need for consistent, high quality images. Similarly strong responses were expressed for the availability of annotation and editing tools. One survey respondent noted, “The easier objects are to repurpose, remix, and reuse the better.”

The interviewed respondents had similar needs for curation, citing content of collections as the most critical need. This included the temporal coverage of content, transcriptions, the inclusion of non-textual sources in collections, and access to broader content. Such steps for curation enable the discovery of content, and reveal to scholars the ways in which they can synthesize the digital materials together for scholarship. Yet synthesis also requires interoperability.

Interoperability

Users also need digital collections that contain interoperable content that functionally facilitates the synthesis conducted by humanities scholars in their comparative examinations of digital materials. As noted in a study by Brockman et al. (2001), the research practices of humanities scholars prominently includes the gathering of sources from multiple collections, in order to create a customized corpus that enables them to explore particular research questions. As such digital collections need effective interoperability between collections’ content and metadata to support scholarly research, and the respondents in this study clearly expressed this need.

In the survey and interviews, robust search tools across multiple digital collections were another strongly expressed need among interview and survey respondents. Search functionalities that were particularly valuable included keyword searching, faceted searching, previewing of files, and general browsing of all types of materials. Responses also identified the need for comprehensive metadata in digital collections to enable comparative analysis of collections’ content, particularly the identification of specific scholarly editions. The cross-collection use of digital materials results in remixing and reuse of materials for teaching and research, as one respondent explained that ideal digital collections allowed them to be “exporting files and creating my own text and visual files either for teaching or research purpose.”

Analysis and Conclusion

The most prominent needs identified through the survey and interviews were for digital curation and interoperability in digital collections. This analysis thus revealed that it was imperative for Bamboo’s Collections Interoperability working group to prepare collections to be highly curated with reliable metadata and interoperable between collection and tools. This type of preparation is defined by an active, user-centered perspective toward collections: As scholarly users demand greater functionality and reliability in digital collections, it is critical that the needs of users guide our work to shape the scope and functionality of digital collections.

Though this study was not able to be incorporated into future work of the Collections Interoperability group, it still highlights the rich potential for an e-research platform to enhance digital collections for viable e-research in the humanities. At the heart of this work is user-centered design: users must be integrated participants in the preparation of collections for future types of e-research platforms for the humanities.

Ultimately, we concluded that Bamboo must gather and enhance collections that can exist in a sustainable, networked and iterative environment, and that the content must be responsive to the evolving needs for digital humanities research. The study not only reinforced the need for content providers such as libraries and museums to collaborate with humanities scholars when making curatorial decisions about digital collections, it also emphasizes the essential nature of this partnership in shaping digital research tool development.

 

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