Beyond the Scanned Image: A Needs Assessment of Faculty Users of Digital Collections

July 18, 2013, 13:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents F


The plethora of digital collections now available to humanities scholars — such as the William Blake Archive or the Civil Rights Digital Library— prompt us to ask critical questions concerning the next stage of humanities scholarship: How well are digital collections meeting the research needs of scholars? And how should digital collections evolve to sustain and strengthen their value to digital humanities research? This paper presents the results of a study of humanities faculty at twelve research institutions that surveyed scholars on their use of digital collections and types of additional functionalities they thought digital collections needed for scholarly research. This study specifically focuses on the structural functionalities in digital collections for which libraries have expertise, such as metadata, information retrieval, and other issues surrounding access and communications.


Digital collections are defined in this study as dynamic and coherent aggregations of thematic digital content that provide a “dense unit for exploration or study” (Palmer 2004; Palmer, et al. 2010). Humanities scholars’ use of digital resources has been explored a number of studies during the past several decades. Early studies by Gilmore and Case (1993), Duff and Cherry (2000), and Bates (1993, 1996) among others, analyzed how humanities scholars incorporated early electronic resources into their research. User studies such as those by Brockman et al. (2001), Spiro and Segal (2005), and Warwick et al. (2008) have examined how humanities researchers incorporate digital materials into their workflows and Sukovic (2008, 2011) has analyzed the usage patterns of electronic texts by humanities scholars.

The effectiveness of digital collections for scholarly use has been the focus of several recent studies, including Proffitt and Schaffner (2008), Bulger et al. (2011), and Meyers’ study (2011)that led to the development of Toolkit for the Impact of Digitised Scholarly Resources (TIDSR). Thus there is an emerging and rapidly expanding body of research that examines the use and structure of digital collections. Little, however, has been written on functionalities of digital collections for research needs.

Needs Assessment Study

The study presented here consisted of a survey distributed to English and History faculty at twelve research universities, and interviews conducted with fine arts and performing arts faculty at the same research universities. The faculty were identified and recruited for the study with the assistance of librarians and academic technologists at the institutions. The survey was distributed to a randomly selected one-third of the faculty members in the English and History departments at each institution, and was conducted from October 2011 through February 2012. Interviews were conducted from January 2012 through August 2012 via email and telephone, and a random one-third of faculty members from fine arts departments were recruited for interviews. Both the survey and interviews asked respondents to describe their research work with digital collections, the benefits and disadvantages of digital materials, and functionalities that would improve digital collections for scholarly research. Survey respondents were provided with this precise definition of digital collections as curated collections and asked if they used this type of digital resource. Respondents who answered “Yes” continued the survey, while those who answered “No” were taken to the end of the survey.

The quantitative survey responses were analyzed in Excel for statistical percentages. The open-ended survey responses and qualitative interview data were hand coded for themes, and then automated coding was applied with the ATLAS.ti software. In the analyses of these gathered responses from humanities scholars, this paper asks: How do scholars incorporate digital collections into their research? What do digital collections do well and what functionalities are needed in them?

Two primary needs emerged in the scholars’ responses: sustained access and discovery of digital collections, and the ability to mix and reuse digital materials. These needs map to the issues of digital curation and interoperability, which will be explored in-depth in this paper.


Among survey respondents, the most frequently used materials were texts at 100 percent and images at 94 percent, followed by maps at 58 percent, video at 42 percent, and audio at 39 percent. For all of these materials, curation was paramount.

The responses on the requirements for preparing these materials for scholarly use corresponded to varying processes within the Data Curation Lifecycle (JISC, 2010). Respondents were asked to identify the most needed functionalities for collections of types of digital objects: texts, images, and multi-format media materials. For text collections, detailed metadata and provenance information were the most desirable features. Respondents also strongly expressed the importance of annotating texts, and access to the text files for analyses. For collections of images, the most frequently identified functionality was the ability to download images, followed by the need for consistent, high quality images. Similarly strong responses were expressed for the availability of annotation and editing tools. One survey respondent noted, “The easier objects are to repurpose, remix, and reuse the better.”

The interviewed respondents had similar needs for curation, citing content of collections as the most critical need. This included the temporal coverage of content, transcriptions, the inclusion of non-textual sources in collections, and access to broader content. Such steps for curation enable the discovery of content, and reveal to scholars the ways in which they can synthesize the digital materials together for scholarship. Yet synthesis also requires interoperability.


Users also need digital collections that contain interoperable content that functionally facilitates the synthesis conducted by humanities scholars in their comparative examinations of digital materials. As noted in a study by Brockman et al. (2001), the research practices of humanities scholars prominently includes the gathering of sources from multiple collections, in order to create a customized corpus that enables them to explore particular research questions. As such digital collections need effective interoperability between collections’ content and metadata to support scholarly research, and the respondents in this study clearly expressed this need.

In the survey and interviews, robust search tools across multiple digital collections were another strongly expressed need among interview and survey respondents. Search functionalities that were particularly valuable included keyword searching, faceted searching, previewing of files, and general browsing of all types of materials. Responses also identified the need for comprehensive metadata in digital collections to enable comparative analysis of collections’ content, particularly the identification of specific scholarly editions. The cross-collection use of digital materials results in remixing and reuse of materials for teaching and research, as one respondent explained that ideal digital collections allowed them to be “exporting files and creating my own text and visual files either for teaching or research purpose.”


The respondents’ expressed needs for digital curation and interoperability in digital collections highlight the imperative for libraries to re-evaluate their approach to building and enhancing digital collections. A number of recent studies — notably including the 2010 CLIR report The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship — argue for a dramatic shift in research libraries’ conceptualization of collections. This shift is marked by an active, user-centered perspective toward collections — both digital and physical. In particular, the principle of contextual mass (Palmer 2001, 2010), which prioritizes users’ research practices in determining collection content, is more imperative than ever in the development of digital collections. Thus as scholarly users demand greater functionality and reliability in digital collections, it is critical that libraries anchor the scope and functionality of their collections in the needs of users, and in doing so, begin establishing deeper research partnerships with users.


This study presents an initial exploration of the needs of researchers when using digital collections. While there are vast differences among the scholarly needs of individual researchers, this study begins to reveal that libraries must work to build collections that exist in a sustainable, networked and iterative environment, and that the content is responsive to the evolving needs for digital humanities research. The study not only reinforces the need for content providers such as libraries and museums to collaborate with humanities scholars when making curatorial decisions about digital collections, it also emphasizes the essential nature of this partnership in shaping digital collection development.


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