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Digital Scholarship Support in ARL Member Libraries: An Overview

Until relatively recently scholarly communications were grounded in printed articles and monographs. The phrase meant the authoring, publishing, curation, and use of scholarship through the formal channels of peer-reviewed publications and informal invited essays, articles, and book reviews. The Internet greatly increased access to this text-based scholarship, especially after the public release of the graphical user interface Mosaic in 1993 led to the popularization and rapid uptake of the World Wide Web. Broadening access to scholarship by adding it to the web as content became an immediate priority, and by the late 1990s efforts to digitize back issues of academic journals and out-of-print books, in particular projects such as JSTOR and Project Muse, had proven wildly successful. Today electronic formats are the standard for a wide array of journal articles and monographs, a number of which also incorporate features to enhance accessibility for print disabled readers. Many scholarly publications are born digital, produced to be consumed in computer- and device-readable formats, with an option for print-on-demand. Yet at their core most of these remain linear narratives and texts in the tradition of print—they tend not to integrate innovations in multimedia, interactivity, linked data, or data visualization, just a few of the strengths of emerging forms of digital scholarship (DS).

Digital scholarship is not new and its panoply has evolved over time. DS is a shifting range of scholarly endeavor that can incorporate a number of definitions, methods, tools, and research outputs. The earliest use of computer analysis was limited to letters and numbers until personal computers, in particular the Apple Macintosh, offered a graphical user interface to users in the 1980s. Even then it took substantial increases in processor speed and power and in screen resolution in the early 1990s to move humanities computing, as it was called then, past the limits of digitizing and analyzing print sources.

Humanities computing began with Father Roberto Busa’s Index Thomisticus in 1946, moving into compendia and lexicons in the 1960s, such as the University of Toronto’s LEME: Lexicons of Early Modern English in 1969. Susan Hockey explains that the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), formed in 1987, was used to enhance the work of the Women Writers Project, started at Brown University in 1986, and other texts. By the late 1980s a number of DOS-based text-analysis programs, including WordCruncher, TACT (Text Analysis Computing Tools), and MicroOCP (the Micro Oxford Concordance Program), had also been developed, but these new tools remained limited to text and linguistic analysis.1 Even in the late 1990s the focus remained on texts, as suggested by the trend to develop e-text centers, which ranged across more than 20 institutions, including several ARL members such as Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and the University of Virginia. By the early 2000s this scholarship was extending beyond the bounds of traditional print, but the use of digital tools and technology remained alien to many in the humanities—so much so that work of this nature became characterized as “digital humanities” in 2001.2

Within 10 years the concept of digital humanities was not enough—it separated campus units and disciplines in what was increasingly becoming a collaborative research enterprise. Abby Smith Rumsey, former director of the Scholarly Communication Institute at the University of Virginia, describes digital scholarship as the “use of digital evidence and method, digital authoring, digital publishing, digital curation and preservation, and digital use and reuse of scholarship.”3 This is a very broad definition that can include, but is not limited to: data analysis and visualization, GIS and digital mapping, computational text analysis, text encoding, digitization and imaging, audio, 3-D modeling, digital collections and exhibits, and metadata creation. The affordances of such tools and data sets not only increase access, but also generate new possibilities for interactive use and reuse. They allow for hybrid scholarship that uses multiple channels to present research and that can combine print and web-based text, video, audio, and still image, annotation, and new modes of multithreaded, nonlinear discourse that can exist only online. The STEM fields integrated computers and data processing as a matter of course, but it is within the humanities and social sciences that the possibilities of big data, multimedia, interactivity, and data visualization are rapidly changing how research is envisioned and conducted, how data are presented, and how scholarship is integrated into teaching and the ongoing scholarly discourse in what historian Ed Ayers calls generative scholarship.4

Today a number of ARL member libraries continue these efforts with innovative programs that approach the collection and curation of digital images, text, and sound, and the creation of tools to work with these materials as core parts of the institution’s mission. Some host postdocs who spearhead these efforts, digital curation fellows supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), the Mellon Foundation, and other funders. Shaneka Morris, ARL survey coordinator and data analyst, analyzed the ARL Salary Survey responses from 2012 through 2015 and found that the percentage of professional staff in ARL libraries who have specific digital scholarship responsibilities has been steadily rising over that time period, to about 6.5%. In addition, the percentage of ARL university libraries with staff involved in digital scholarship had risen to 93% by 2015.5 To support digital scholarship a number of ARL institutions founded digital humanities and digital scholarship centers within their libraries as early as the mid-1990s, but since 2000 the number has increased, with more than 25 such centers founded since 2005—at least 8 opened their doors in 2014 alone. A survey of ARL members, conversations with library deans and directors, and the interest in the CNI/ARL Planning a Digital Scholarship Center Workshop make it clear that many of those institutions that do not yet have a center plan to create one within the next one to five years. Those that do not plan to create such a center already offer decentralized or distributed support for digital scholarship across their campuses that include work and staff within their libraries.

Digital scholarship is at its heart an iterative and collaborative process that increasingly turns to library resources, staff, and faculty to reach fruition. To highlight these efforts to support such collaboration and begin to offer insights into the challenges of such work, the Association of Research Libraries will be publishing a series of profiles of digital scholarship centers at ARL member institutions throughout this spring and summer.


1. Susan Hockey, “The History of Humanities Computing,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schriebman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

2. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, ”What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 57.

3. Abby Smith Rumsey, Scholarly Communication Institute 9: New-Model Scholarly Communication: Road Map for Change (Charlottesville, Virginia: Scholarly Communication Institute and University of Virginia Library, 2011), 2, http://www.uvasci.org/institutes-2003-2011/SCI-9-Road-Map-for-Change.pdf.

4. Edward L. Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” EDUCAUSE Review 48, no. 4 (July/August 2013): 34, http://er.educause.edu/articles/2013/8/does-digital-scholarship-have-a-future.

5. Shaneka Morris, e-mail message to author, January 19, 2016.


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