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Author: Suzanne R. Graham
Title: Historians and Electronic Resources: Patterns and Use
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2002

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Source: Historians and Electronic Resources: Patterns and Use
Suzanne R. Graham

vol. 5, no. 2, September 2002
Article Type: Article

Historians and Electronic Resources: Patterns and Use

Suzanne R. Graham


The University of Southern Mississippi

.01. Introduction

University libraries and other research facilities increasingly feel a push from students to provide information resources beyond their physical space. As a result, librarians and archivists have invested in online databases, subscriptions, and in-house digitization projects in efforts to satisfy the vocal proponents of convenient access to scholarly information.

This ongoing study, however, focuses on the responses to these initiatives by a community that uses primary materials in serious scholarly investigations and that–unlike their students–did not ask for digitized surrogates: professional historians. The importance of this investigation is underscored because the community of academic historians has been a major target audience of librarianship's traditional efforts to build and maintain research collections. The study will gauge whether online documents meet historians needs or if the demands of other groups have given archivists and librarians misperceptions of the universal desirability of these digitization programs.

The working hypothesis was that historians use secondary electronic resources (for example online indexes, databases, finding aids, and bibliographies) to find their real evidence, but ignore online primary sources in favor of handling the originals, wherever they are. When this research began in 1999, little had been written on use of online tools in research in specific academic communities, and only a few concentrated on American scholars in Humanities disciplines.  [1]

.02. Methodology

The research focuses on finding answers to four questions: do historians cite electronic resources in publications, what is their current level of usage in formal research, how useful do historians find these items, and what perceived limitations do they have? The methodology consists of several small studies devised to address these specific questions. First, the footnotes and reference lists of published articles were scanned in a series of citation analyses of the history literature. Those findings provided insights to construct a questionnaire to elicit responses from historians for the remaining three subjective questions.

In the spring of 1999, two citation analyses sought to address the straightforward yes-no question: do historians cite electronic resources? These separate studies reviewed the citations in all research article publications of ten pages or more published between 1997 and 2000 in English language journals by full-time faculty members at four-year history programs in United States. For the purpose of this research, electronic resources are defined broadly as all computer-mediated resources to include CD-ROMs, Internet sites, electronic databases, and digitized collections.

The first citation analysis sampled articles written by faculty from programs that are presumed most likely to have professors who are familiar with online research opportunities because of the presence of active electronic text centers on their campuses. Schools included were: Cornell University (Making of America archive), Rutgers University (Center for Electronic Texts in Humanities), University of California at Berkeley (Sunsite archive), University of Virginia (Electronic Text Center), and Yale University (Avalon archive).

To expand the research to a larger group, a random sample of thirty institutions selected from the 2000 Peterson's Guide of Academic Programs in the United States followed the initial study. This second sample included departments ranging in size from two to thirty-five full-time faculty members, in twenty-four states, and with a broad representation of research interests among the professors.

A third study considered the impact of editorial boards of prominent journals on the kinds of material being published. This investigation reviewed the citations in articles appearing in nine prominent journals selected to represent eight different areas of specialization (British history, diplomatic history, military history, Black history, Southern history, colonial history, and women's history, along with the two seminal journals of American history: Journal of American History and American Historical Review). In order to keep the analysis of what historians are writing and what journals are publishing as comparable as possible, the same criteria for inclusion apply: the article had to be a research publication of ten pages or longer written by a faculty member at a college or university in the United States.

To follow up this series of citation analyses, historians, who had published in one of the nine journals used in the bibliometric study between January 1998 and December 2000, received questionnaires designed to provide quantifiable data in the three remaining questions: level of use, perceived usefulness, and perceived limitations.

.03. Results

In answer to the first question–do historians cite electronic materials?–the citation analyses provide consistent findings. Predictably, the number of references to electronic resources is low when compared with other types of print resources such as monographs, journals, and newspapers. Of the 128 articles identified in the study of 111 historians, only six cite any electronic items, and these references generally comprise less than 2% of citations in a given article. Only a single citation to an electronic resource appears in most articles that do cite online tools.

Figure 1

The results from the journal analyses provide statistically fewer but numerically more articles with electronic citations. Of the 584 articles examined, twenty-one cite at least one computer resource. Again these articles appear clustered in 1999 and drop off slightly in 2000. At the peak in 1999 only 3.6% of the journal articles included e-citations, a figure comparable to the analysis targeting the historians. Thus, it is still unlikely that a given issue of a History journal will contain any citations to electronic resource. Of the nine journals, two (Albion and Journal of Military History) have no electronic citations during this four-year period, and the Journal of the Early Republic listed an e-resource only in an appendix.

Figure 2

These low numbers and the short span of years of the study do not substantiate any generalizations, but some interesting occurrences merit attention. When the studies are combined, twelve of the citations occur in 1999, with the number 2000 dropping sharply to just over one-half the level of the previous year. Further data collection from 2001 and 2002 should be illustrative of the fate of electronic resources as scholarly citations in this field. Also, the historians who cite electronic items work (or worked at the time of the research) at three of the larger institutions in the study: Florida State University, Yale University, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, each with more than 30 faculty members. This result suggests one of two trends. Perhaps any evidence of a preference for e-resources–small though it may be–originates with larger institutions, rather than constituting any kind of grass roots change coming out of the rank-and-file of history departments. A second explanation is, simply, that the law of averages is at play. When examining eleven articles, one is more likely to find any given criterion than when there is a pool of one article.

The types of Internet resources cited refute the expectation that historians prefer to cite .edu and .gov extensions because of the superior level of credibility and permanence of these items. However, .com and .org sites each outnumber both .edu and .gov references combined. The extensive archives of journals, online GPO publications, and digitized primary resources of academic institutions are not well-represented in the reference lists of the professional literature. Instead, organizational Web pages, graphic representations of art, and newspaper archives appear more commonly.

For the survey portion of the study, in the Spring of 2000, historians who had published articles between 1998 and 2000 received surveys of 21 Likert-scale questions. The first set of questions on the survey address the second stated research question: what is the current level of usage of online tools? These scores are fairly high with the marks in the favorable range. Many historians in the study use email to contact colleagues about research-related questions, and most of the respondents indicate that they perform more research online in 2000 than they did in 1997. When asked if they always use electronic databases to find potential sources, historians respond generally in the affirmative with about 19% saying they do not always use them. It is important to note that the survey instructs respondents to exclude their local library catalog as an electronic database when answering this question.

Figure 3

In response to the statement, "I would rather search an electronic version of a bibliographic tool even if the print version were available," historians in this survey clearly have no strong preference to use the electronic versions, despite the convenience and the ability to construct complicated searches in the electronic format. But the number of "neutral" or "sometimes" responses could indicate that historians use these resources but balk at implying they always do.

Figure 4

The number of historians, who marked that they have investigated primary sources online, is fewer than anticipated. Over 40% of respondents have never accessed digitized archives of an academic institution, despite the fact that the instrument provided a URL. Furthermore, this question does not address whether or not that they approve of the quality or utility of these items, only that they have seen them.

In an attempt to understand historians' usage of these items, the survey solicits responses on perceptions of electronic resources. These overall scores are a little lower than the usage figures but are still in the favorable to neutral range. Most historians find electronic mailing lists useful, and the response to H-Net is warm. Of the respondents, 72% indicate a general satisfaction with the quality of information available on the Web, and many of the historians encourage their students to cite electronic resources in their term papers.

Figure 5

When asked to speculate on whether digitization projects, specifically, would have a positive impact on their research, most respondents answered favorably, but 36% remain undecided. This large number of neutral votes could be explained by the finding that over 40% have never seen a digitized collection of primary source materials. Despite the large number that have not used these items, only seven historians express that they are opposed to learning more about digitization projects, and a full 50% agree that they are interested or very interested.

Figure 6

The final focus of the survey targets historians' concerns about the shortcomings of the digital medium. The low figures in the citation analyses foreshadowed that historians have strong and uniform objections to electronic resources. Despite an expectation that historians would express a distrust of virtual documentation because of its ephemeral qualities, this study indicates greater acceptance among a sizable membership of the community. The respondents are most concerned by the loss of meaningful contextual detail in the digitization process.

Historians express a surprising level of confidence that Internet resources have adequate permanence to be cited in scholarly research. Earlier research stresses that a document must have "fixity" to be of use, and these items can be changed or removed entirely with no notice. [2] Instead of being universally concerned by the mutability of electronic resources, historians are evenly split over the issue with 46% of historians disagreeing that e-resources lack adequate permanence to be cited.

Figure 7

Responses to the statement equating the digitized version to the original item indicate serious challenges to the format. Fifty percent of historians in this sample do not believe that a digitized document is equivalent to the original. This result may be explained, in part, by the associated loss of contextual information. Although pdf files allow for better representation of the printed page, the complete artifact cannot be transferred into bytes. In response to another question, historians indicate that their colleagues do not respect citations to electronic items as much as they do print sources. These admissions (not equivalent and not respected) provide insight into why an overwhelming majority of historians agree that they would cite the print version even if an electronic surrogate were available.

Figure 8
Figure 9

.04. Conclusions

This study found few citations to electronic resources in history literature. It appears, however, that online resources fulfill a need among elements within the history community even if historians do not cite them in reference lists. The survey responses indicate interest and the beginnings of usage by a community that still has some serious concerns about the digital format and that has a preference for print. However, these concerns over the limits of the medium are less prevalent than the findings from the citation analyses suggest. The lack of knowledge of the kinds of resources offered electronically and the perception that colleagues have greater respect for print resources make the number of actual citations a poor gauge of real use.

This work raised a great variety of questions. As noted earlier, increasing the number of years in the study will be an ongoing project to determine the long-term impact of digitization projects. Other researchers should follow-up on the types of resources cited in publications and the relationship between a faculty members' usage of electronic references and the size or reputation of their home department in order to develop a fuller picture of the patterns of use of electronic resources by historians.

.05. Notes

1. Roberto Delgadillo and Beverly P. Lynch, "Future Historians: Their Quest for Information." College & Research Libraries, 60, no. 3 (May 1999): 245-59. Matthew B. Gilmore and Donald O. Case., "Historians, Books, Computers, and the Library. Library Trends, 40 (Spring 1992): 667-686. Stuart F. Grisnell, "Reference Service, Online Bibliographic Databases, and Historians: A Review of the Literature, RQ, 27, no. 1 (1987): 106-111. Joseph Raben, "Databases for the Humanities." Scholarly Publishing, 18, no. 1 (1986): 23-28.

2. Gilmore and Case, P. 675.

.06. References

  1. Delgadillo, Roberto and Beverly P. Lynch. "Future Historians: Their Quest for Information." College & Research Libraries, 60, no. 3 (May 1999): 245-59.
  2. Gilmore, Matthew B. and Donald O. Case. "Historians, Books, Computers, and the Library." Library Trends, 40 (Spring 1992): 667-86.
  3. Grisnell, Stuart F. "Reference Service, Online Bibliographic Databases, and Historians: A Review of the Literature." RQ, 27, no. 1 (1987): 106-11.
  4. Raben, Joseph. "Databases for the Humanities." Scholarly Publishing, 18, no. 1 (1986): 23-8.