Engagement Not Enrichment. Imagination Not Incorporation.

In scholarly research, there are many differences between the practices of the Scientific Technical and Medical (STM) disciplines and the Social Science and Humanities (SS&H) disciplines. According to a report commissioned by the JSTOR, “Scholarly Communications in the Biosciences Discipline,” journal articles are the primary focus of literature searches during research in the STM disciplines. On the contrary, Historians rely on books, and in that matter, primary sources are more important than secondary sources (“Scholarly Communications in the History Discipline: A Report Commissioned by JSTOR.”) Since many of the books and primary literature in the SS&H are not yet digitized, historians have not yet had an incentive to participate in digitization projects. In fact, many have been against digital or virtual libraries sprouting at Universities. For example, when a plan arose to tear down the Meyer Library, holding Stanford’s East Asian Collection, objection came, “Too much of the renowned East Asian collection would be available only by sending a page for a book, critics said. Humanists objected that the model of the sciences did not fit their needs.” Just last week, I was speaking with a large Humanities association about using our Conference Management Services. The major sticking point was how we were to handle their hard copy paper submissions. And this past Spring, Open Access publishing, although widely accepted at such schools such as Harvard and MIT, was voted down in a 37-24 decision during the University of Maryland’s faculty senate:

Senators criticized the proposal for its language, which they said did not accurately characterize the variations that exist between departments. Throughout the debate, science professors faced off against humanities professors – a rift caused by the vast differences between scientific journals and humanities journals.

“This is a proposal that does not take into account the needs of different disciplines,” history professor Gay Gullickson said. “[Open access] applies well to some disciplines and hurts others.” (“Faculty Sens. Battles Over Open Access“)

The STM disciplines are far out running the Humanities in digitizing scholarly literature. However, change is inevitable. Opportunities should not be avoided within the Humanities; they should be embraced. As University of Maryland Arts and Humanities’ Dean James Harris noted:

… libraries are slowly becoming virtual and the university will eventually have to transition with them.

‘This is happening,’ Harris said. ‘The train has left the station.’(“Faculty Sens. Battles Over Open Access“)

If there is one thing we can agree on it is that the humanities disciplines are a vast conglomeration of differing fields, each with their own fairly distinct personality. This variability is part of the Humanities’ greatest strengths. Encompassing a wide variety of fields, opinions, methods and personal backgrounds – it is a mosaic at its finest and a quagmire at its worst. As with the STM disciplines, these variations have allowed each of these fields to flourish. The initial proliferation of various and vibrant digital Humanities projects over the last decade has marked the Humanities’ progressive entrance into the digital world. Unfortunately, these projects and participation within the digital realm have not been widely adopted by the Humanities community. However, it is imperative that those scholars that have a stake in the humanities’ transition into the digital World let their voices and opinions be heard about what this transition should look like.

Eloquently expressed by Johanna Drucker in “Blind Spots: Humanists Must Plan Their Digital Future:”

The question cannot be answered in the abstract. The details that will bedevil this and other schemes for the next age of scholarly work and design of the environments to support it are not trivial. And here I come to the crux of my argument. The design of new environments for performing scholarly work cannot be left to the technical staff and to library professionals. The library is a crucial partner in planning and envisioning the future of preserving, using, even creating scholarly resources. So are the technology professionals. But in an analogy with building construction, they are the architects and the contractors. The creation of archives, analytic tools, and statistical analyses of aggregate data in the humanities (and in some other scholarly fields) requires the combined expertise of technical, professional, and scholarly personnel.

The task of modeling an environment for scholarship (not just individual projects, but an environment, with a suite of tools for access, use, and research activity) is not a responsibility that can be offloaded onto libraries or technical staffs. I cannot say this strongly or clearly enough: The design of digital tools for scholarship is an intellectual responsibility, not a technical task. After all, what will such “research portals” do? What kinds of work will they be designed to support? Editing? Annotation? Aggregation of leaves of manuscripts scattered at remote institutions? Collaborative writing? Close readings? Data mining? Information display? Multimedia writing? Networked conversation? Publishing? Those are enormous questions, to which no scholar would have the same set of answers as another. No scholar would have the same requirements. But creating boutique, custom solutions on a project-by-project basis is not practical, and the labor involved is too costly. The scope of the task ahead is nothing short of modeling scholarly activity anew in digital media. To answer that challenge, humanists have to do more than wave their hands at the technical professionals.

Collaboration is critical in this endeavor. 1,000 different departments searching for 1,000 different solutions will not work. What we need is a dialogue among all potential stake holders, including the early adopters and those late to the party. We (academics, publishers, repositories and other stakeholders) need to work together and find the solutions to the somewhat unique needs of the discipline: what specific software and services do Humanities academics need in a digitized world that will help them accomplish and expand their goals? The conversation needs to be collaborative, but also the Humanities disciplines need to take advantage of the pioneers in the STM and the Social Science disciplines. A lot of disciplines have taken a lot of arrows, and the Humanities should be able to learn from them. Or at least look to see from which directions the arrows came.