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Humanities Information Practices

Humanities Information Practices


Humanities Information Practices is a RIN funded study which aims to develop a sense of the range of information behaviours in the humanities. Through case studies, observations and interviews, this study will aim to understand how humanities scholars appropriate both analogue and digital resources in their work. It will highlight issues in the current information environment which affect user information seeking behaviour in the humanities.

Barriers to Digital Resource Use by Humanities Scholars

Many humanities scholars are enthusiastic users of a variety of information resources. They require a wide range of both analogue and digital resources for their research, encompassing various ages and types of materials, including both traditional materials such as printed matter and manuscripts as well as materials in newer formats such as visual materials, sounds, 3D scans of artefacts, and other new forms of information. Previous research has indicated, however, that:

  • They still tend to prefer generic informational resources such as library and archive web pages, or online reference collections of digital objects that are comparable to scholarly books.
  • Many humanities researchers build personal knowledge collections using face-to-face information gathering, often reinterpreting ideas rather than creating or discovering new data.
  • Scholars use technologies if they fit well with what they do (especially if they save time or effort), and prefer not to have to acquire new skills to use them.
  • Humanities scholars typically use browsing and ‘chaining’ rather than keywords and follow references found in other literature. Yet information systems, including those for cataloguing and finding analogue materials, tend to be designed with the assumption that users will conduct research using keyword queries.

There is therefore a potential mismatch between what current resources offer and the way that humanities scholars might prefer to interrogate them. As new types and forms of information become available to humanities researchers, it is vital that these resources are designed to be used intuitively and effectively. We must also identify those analogue resources that have not been eclipsed by digital materials.

Understanding Information Use By Humanities Scholars

We know that humanities researchers have sophisticated information skills and mental models of their physical library environment (although they may find these difficult to apply to the digital domain), are aware of the potential and problems of digital resources (being concerned with accuracy, selection methods, and ease of use), require information about the original item when materials are digitised, and expect high quality content. However, anything that makes a resource difficult to understand – a confusing name, a challenging interface, or data that must be downloaded – may deter them from using it.

If the right resources, containing useful content and with a usable interface, can be produced, this can result in a significant improvement in uptake. However, it is first vital that we understand user behaviours, needs and preferences in the humanities field. In particular, we need to find out how scholars mix digital and analogue resources, and how information practices in the humanities are changing.

Factors that we plan to take into account in our case studies are:

  • Modalities of information. Differences between, for instance, text- and image-based information have profound consequences for the methods and manners of information seeking and use. Differences between analogue, digitized and born-digital materials will also be a key focus.
  • Digital information objects as resources versus digital information as an object of study. There are humanities researchers specifically interested in digital information as an object of study itself, eg the field of new media studies, and researchers studying the narrativity of online games.
  • Formal and informal information resources: ranging from formal institutional archives to informal Web 2.0 sites.
  • Infrastructure availability. Defining information infrastructure in the broadest sense – availability of hardware, software, and technical support. This will likely vary by country, university, department, and individual.

Case Studies on Information Behaviour in the Humanities

Our six cases will aim to develop a rich sense of the range of information behaviours in the humanities. They have been designed to recruit the broadest possible range of types of humanities researchers, from a broad geographic distribution, and from a variety of institutions.

  • Users of Old Bailey Online. The materials in this (digitized but traditional) resource relate to the criminal proceedings of London’s central criminal court, and are of interest to historians (particularly C18 and C19), as well as legal historians.
  • Users of the Enlightenment Letters Project. This case examines the practices of humanities scholars who work together across international borders. It focuses on a community of UK and Dutch researchers who collaborate on the history of science, particularly focusing on letters.
  • Researchers in a computationally complex field: text-mining and corpus linguistics historians.
  • Researchers in a traditional humanities department: This case examines the practices of humanities scholars who work together within a single department.
  • Users of Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM), and more generally the field of musicology. This case pays particular attention to image-based resources.

Research Methodology

This project involves automatic and manual data collection on information behaviours, personal interviews, focus groups, and webmetrics. Diaries, web-use logs and sketches of participants’ ‘information worlds’ will be analysed to identify patterns of behaviour, problems and areas that might be improved by the adoption of new working practices or technologies. Semi-structured interviews with participants will capture information about the whole cycle of information behaviours and their uses of information resources. The interviews will be done using the STIN research strategy, which allows one to examine new technologies as they enter regular use, and to understand the relationship between people and their technologies without a priori privileging either the social or the technological influences. Focus groups for each case will be convened to elicit opinions on the conclusions of the draft case studies, as well as to elicit additional information about uses of information in research. We will also integrate additional data using techniques such as webmetrics.

Results and Dissemination

The study results will provide the Research Information Network (RIN) with evidence on which to develop advice and guidance for a range of stakeholders, particularly focusing on research funders and institutions, to aid them in the formulation of their research policy, strategy and practice.

The final project report will be available in November 2010. Interim findings will be presented at events at each collaborating partner, and at other relevant conferences and workshops.

Partners and Support

This project, funded by the Research Information Network (RIN), is a collaboration of the Oxford Internet Institute, the Oxford e-Research Centre, University College London, and the Virtual Knowledge Studio in the Netherlands. The RIN is a policy unit funded by the UK higher education councils, the seven research councils and the three national libraries. The work undertaken by the RIN is designed to identify and assess the needs and views of researchers from different subject areas, different institutional settings and at different stages of the researcher’s career, thereby enhancing the knowledge and understanding of the research information landscape. The project reports provide evidence to ensure that technical changes as well as the needs, wants and expectations of researchers are reflected in current and future policy developments.

Key Information

  • Research Information Network (RIN)
  • Project dates:
    February 2010 - November 2010

    All Publications





    Dr Tim Webmoor

    Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford