What tools do humanities scholars need?

This week my colleague and I met with some of the leading philologists at Rice to discuss how they do their research and what tools would help make them more productive and innovative. I was primed to talk about text analysis and visualization tools, collaboration tools, collection-building tools, etc., but instead the conversation focused on much more bread-and-butter stuff. These scholars want:

  1. an easy way to convert from one file format to another. A religious studies scholar described the frustrating hours she put into converting files from Nota Bene to Word, hours that could have been spent doing research or writing. Others said that they have valuable files in obsolete formats and acknowledged printing out important documents so they would have at least some means of accessing them. Given the desperate need for an easy way to migrate file formats forward, I think scholars would embrace an easy-to-use batch conversion tool that would work with the sometimes-obscure file formats academics use. Bonus points for free, secure, long-term online storage of data. I think libraries have a real opportunity here to assist scholars in archiving and preserving their data, although scholars may understandably wish to retain custody over it.
  2. a reliable, commonly adopted word processor that handles Unicode well. As an Americanist, I’m blissfully unaware of the challenges of working with character sets such as Coptic, Ethiopic, Greek, Hebrew, etc., but these philologists struggle with font issues every day. Inputting characters is a pain, and exchanging files with publishers and others is even more of a hassle. Scholars said that they had to re-do work because their publishers didn’t have the right fonts installed on their systems. They also seemed to dislike Word, which is designed more for business applications. I started to wonder if Open Office could be adapted to meet scholars’ needs…
  3. a virtual reference desk of key texts in their field. Many foundational philology texts from the nineteenth century have not yet been digitized. Scholars said they would love to able to consult these texts quickly, particularly dictionaries, lexicons, and other tools. Somewhat surprisingly (at least to a text encoder like me), they said that they wouldn’t require full text, just page images. (Interestingly, two of the three grants that were recently awarded through the NEH/IMLS’s Advancing Knowledge program focus on building reference/contextual tools: “Tufts will develop a digital reference tool allowing researchers and librarians to conduct context-based ‘smart searches’ of un-indexed words from existing databases in the Tufts Digital Library,” while “The University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with the Queen’s University, Belfast, will develop a digital database of Irish studies materials to test three open-source digital tools. The Context Finder, Context Builder, and Context Provider tools will be aimed at establishing scholarly context.”)

Given that scholars’ most precious commodity is probably time, it makes perfect sense that they most desire tools that help them to be more efficient and avoid getting caught up in frustrating, tedious activities such as converting files, wrestling with word processing programs, and finding books in the library. This conversation echoed the results of a survey my colleague Jane Segal and I conducted in the spring investigating the impact of digital resources on humanities scholarship. Not surprisingly, scholars most commonly use technologies that serve their regular research practices. Of our 85 respondents, 100% use word processing progams, but only 36% use bibliographic software, and only 5% use text analysis tools. Our respondents most desired tools that would help them find resources more quickly: 88% wanted “Search tools that are powerful and easy to use” and “Search tools that go across multiple scholarly web sites,” but only 28% wanted text visualization tools, and only 13% ranked dynamic mapping/GIS tools as a priority.

I should emphasize that scholars are by no means hostile to cutting-edge visualization and analysis tools; they’re just not aware of them or aren’t sure that they would support their research practices. When we asked Whitman and Dickinson scholars what they thought of tools such as text visualization applications, they generally seemed intrigued, but they indicated that they would need to be persuaded that such tools would advance their research projects. That makes sense: except for a handful of “innovators” and “early adopters” eager to try something new (estimated by Rogers to be about 16% of the population), most folks are pretty pragmatic in their adoption of technologies. They need to be frustrated with current tools and convinced that investing time and money in adopting a new one will pay off in increased productivity. They will first adopt tools that help them do what they’ve always done, just better. According to a very interesting 2001 CLIR report on Scholarly Work in the Humanities and the Evolving Information Environment, humanities scholars are adopting technologies “that are enhancing many of their traditional work practices” (28). As Jerome McGann argues in Radiant Textuality, transformations in humanities research must be rooted in the core values and methods of the discipline: “the general field of humanities and education and scholarship will not take the use of digital technology seriously until one demonstrates how its tools improve the ways we explore and explain aesthetic works–until, that is, they expand our interpretational procedures” (xii).

So what drives humanities scholars to adopt new tools? Well, the research on this topic (one that I need to investigate further) seems to suggest that the tool needs to be easy to find and use, that people need to receive incentives and support, etc. Rather than get into all of that, though, let me offer two quick anecdotes:

  • “Research not re-search.” One of my job responsibilities is to run tech training workshops for faculty. Generally even not the promise of the opportunity learn Really Useful Tools or feast on free lunch can lure people to these workshops, but a good number of humanities faculty and grad students showed up for my sessions on the wonderful, free, open source bibliographic tool Zotero. When I demonstrated how you could automatically download bibliographic information and articles from supported web sites, their faces lit up; they actually oohed and aahed. I felt like David Copperfield. The usefulness of such a tool was immediately apparent: “ohmygosh, I don’t have to copy and paste or type out citations; I can organize (and find!) my research much more easily. Hallelujah!” It was a little more difficult for the participants to grasp how they might use Zotero’s tagging functions, which resemble the schemas they use to organize their notes, but are different enough to prompt some confusion.
  • This summer I attended Ed Ayers’ keynote address at the Geography and the Humanities Symposium and was blown away by his presentation on visualizing dynamic temporal and geographical process. The audience’s excitement was palatable–I heard a lot of “oh, wows.” The dazzle was due in part to Ed Ayers’ exceptional presentation skills, but also to the power of the visualization tools to illustrate change. I was impressed by how he made the unfamiliar familiar by comparing the dynamic visualizations he was showing to weather maps. As he demonstrated the applications, people could see patterns that would otherwise be hard to detect and thus understand the usefulness of such tools. (You can see Ed Ayers and Will Thomas’ fascinating presentation on “Time, Space and History” at the 2006 Educause conference here)

I guess what I conclude from all of this is pretty obvious: humanities scholars need tools that help them to be more productive– and more innovative, although it’s harder for many folks to imagine what’s possible until they see concrete demonstrations. These tools can seem somewhat magical until scholars start incorporating them into their regular practices. One scholar that I interviewed this summer suggested that digital humanists run workshops on new tools and digital collections at conferences such as the MLA and American Literature Association conference. She said she and her colleagues are curious about new digital tools and collections, but they aren’t necessarily aware of them and don’t always know how to use them. Of course, the conversation needs to be two-way– tool developers need to understand the needs of scholars. With projects such as NINES, MONK, etc., we can find great models for scholar/developer collaborations (in many cases, digital humanists themselves are both scholars and developers.) And I’ve been impressed by the ways that projects such as Zotero and TAPOR have produced handy tutorials and actively promoted themselves.

One response to “What tools do humanities scholars need?

  1. Pingback: Imagining new tools for humanities scholars « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

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