About joanftroyano

I am an historian interested in visual culture and public understandings of the past. Currently I'm an assistant professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, working on the PressForward project to improve the aggregation, curation, and publication of digital-first scholarship. I edit "Digital Humanities Now" and the "Journal of Digital Humanities," and I also teach public history courses.

Do Researchers Use the Available Digital Cultural Heritage Materials?

Last fall I suggested that I would investigate how well digital cultural heritage collections were being utilized by researchers. Turns out this was harder than I expected. But from my very initial research it seems that scholarly writing does not cite a lot of cultural material available online. This has led me to some questions for the group – some you’ve probably already considered, but maybe a few new ones worth thinking through together.

I started by searching for the use of the terms “digital archive,” “digital collection,” “online,” “http” and “www” in American History and American Studies dissertations and journal articles published between 2002-2011. But I was surprised by the small number of results – fewer than 10% using “digital archive” or “digital collection,” and less than 30% using “online,” “http” or “www.” American Studies led the way in usage or discussion of digital material, almost double the amount of references for each term. But either there were very few citations, or the terminology used varied enough that they required more detailed searches than Proquest’s interface (which requires a PDF download in order to review the full text) allows.

For example, out of roughly 21,000 dissertations from this period with the subject heading of American History or American Studies (unfortunately, there are duplicates here since many authors select more than one major subject heading), only 270 used “digital archive” and 240 used “digital collection” somewhere in the full text. A proximity search resulted in approximately 1,400 in American History and 2,500 in American Studies. Even the larger of these numbers is less than 10%, which is surprisingly low. For comparison, about 6,000 used “museum” and 1,800 used “material culture.”

Of course not all institutional materials available online are titled “digital archive” or “digital collection.” But broadening the terminology to “online,” or “http” or “www” also had surprisingly few results: about 2,700 and 4,700 for American History; 4,700 and 7,800 for American Studies. Do only about a half of the American History/Studies dissertations in the previous 10 years cite materials found online? [NB – published material that is also available on the web, in Proquest Historical Newspapers for example, does not necessarily need to include a URL, and that would undoubtedly increase the number of citations for material encountered digitally.]

A search in history and affiliated subjects in Project Muse and JSTOR also returned a small number of uses of “digital archive” or “digital collection” – only 30 in Muse and 240 in JSTOR. Even when searching for these terms in Library Science journals, there were only about 60 results.

This lack of citation of material encountered digitally was very surprising to me, and I wonder if you all have the same reaction?

We know that researchers encounter primary source material digitally and explore collections – or at least skim finding aids – online. So I have some questions, about institutions and researchers both.

  • Do institutions need or want to keep track of citations of their digital collections? If so, do they just search for their URL or DOI in these databases or use another method? Or are they more interested in general number of hits than number of references?
  • Would an increased number of citations in scholarship help justify the effort and expense of digitizing collections? Are the textual finding aids prepared cheaply and mainly for researchers, and the visual interface to the collections for the public and educators?
  • Overall, do cultural heritage organizations want or need to identify or cater to their scholarly users, or stay focused on a broader public? How does scarcity of resources influence this decision? And what would researchers want from digital cultural heritage collections?
  • Certainly researchers explore collections online, but do they also need to go to an institution to see the physical object? Would a researcher be comfortable citing a primary source object that they have seen only virtually, or will they need to see it in person as well?
  • And a related question – already raised by Sheila – would the ability to encounter digital versions of material culture objects increase the usage of this kind of evidence in scholarship? Most history dissertations and research articles privilege documents, photographs, and sometimes paintings and fine art objects. Is the lack of citation due to the difficulty of accessing physical collections and the only relatively recent availability of material culture online? Or because of larger biases in the discipline? Will some version of the Smithsonian Commons encourage historians to use the holdings of the institution because offers an easy-to-use interface to the institutions APIs? And will the professional gatekeepers allow it?

So in the end, I am bringing more questions than answers to the working group on Sunday. But I look forward to discussing with you these wide-ranging questions as well as the ones raised in each of your posts.