The Information Needs of Humanities Scholars
The humanities include disciplines that are the foundation of human experience and
culture. Literature, art, and history continue to shape civilization as they have for thousands of
years. In recent years, these fields have received less attention than the more utilitarian fields in
the sciences and social sciences. At the same time, new scholarship is encouraged by the
availability of sources in digital form. The nature of humanities scholarship is in transition in the
current academic climate. In order to preserve the humanities, librarians must work closely with
scholars to identify their needs, expose them to electronic sources, and promote the importance
of humanities scholarship to the academic community at large.
The research patterns of a humanities scholar are unique. Keeran states that “the humanist
starts with a question, which is explored using a variety of primary and secondary texts in which
his or her personal interpretation of material is central to conclusions reached.” (2001). Books
are preferred over journals, and print sources are used more often than electronic sources. Even if
Journal articles are consulted at the beginning of a project and used as a stepping stone, but
monographs provide scholars with most of their information. (Carr 2005).
Electronic sources are consulted if they are considered to be more useful or timely than a
print source. (Barrett 2005). Print sources, however are still more widely respected in the
humanities. Rimmer’s study (2007) found that scholars often cited the print version of a source
even if they consulted the electronic one. Another complaint about electronic sources is that
there is a lack of primary materials. (Barrett 2005). There is still a bias against electronic sources
in the humanities, though it seems to be diminishing.
Humanists consider the library their laboratory because most of their sources are located
at or acquired from libraries. (Keeran 2001). Ironically, though they frequently use the library,
they are hesitant to ask reference librarians for assistance. Most often this is because they feel
they are familiar with available sources in their narrow area of expertise. (Couch&Allen1993;
Wiberly 1989). Scholars can benefit from consulting librarians because they possess knowledge
of different databases, and can discern which ones are most useful for the research question at
hand. This can save the scholar a lot of time. (Wiberly 1989). Librarians are more successful in
reaching scholars when they meet them at functions where faculty are rather than in the library
itself. This requires more effort on the part of library staff, but it reinforces the library’s role in
the research process. (Wiberly 1991).
Research topics in the humanities are more subjective and individualistic than those in
the sciences. Humanities scholars attempt to tap into cultural phenomena and social movements
rather than presenting mere facts. (Blazek & Aversa 2000). Humanists are concerned with
individuals and their condition rather than sweeping conjectures about large groups of people.
What separates the humanities from other fields is its examination of human experience, thought
and emotion on an individual level. (Frow 2005).
The humanities are in danger in the current academic climate that values utility over
knowledge. Scholars need to abandon the “ivory tower” approach, as Patricia Cohen suggests,
and should focus instead on illustrating the real value of their disciplines. (Cohen 2009). The
sciences are seen as more valuable by many because of their applications in real world situations.
Departments also face a lack of funding making it harder for younger scholars to find jobs at
major research universities. This makes it harder for these scholars to establish the same level of
collegiality among their peers as older scholars. (Couch & Allen 1993). Information cannot be
shared as easily among scholars as a result, and this causes an even greater divide between
disciplines. Scholars must fight to prove that the humanities are the foundation of human society
as we know it.
Librarians must take responsibility for educating scholars on available resources within
their academic disciplines. New technologies provide access to sources that were previously only
available in special collections or archives, breeding new topics for scholars’ exploration and
examination. Though the humanities are important to human culture, they are often considered
trivial when compared to the sciences. This creates a transition in the way scholars present their
research and influences the topics they study. Humanists need to emphasize the value of their
disciplines and create new interest in them. This will ensure that the humanities are preserved
within academia, and that future scholars will add to the cumulative body of knowledge they
Barrett, A. (2005). The information-seeking habits of graduate student researchers in the
humanities. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31(4): 324-331.
Blazek, R. & Aversa, E. (2000). Introduction to the humanities. The humanities: A selective
guide to information sources (5th ed.). Greenwood Village, Col.: Libraries Unlimited. pp.
Carr, P. (2005). Beyond the monograph: The uses of journal literature by
humanities scholars at Mississippi State University. Collection Management, 30
Cohen, Patricia. (2009, February 25). In tough times, humanities must justify their worth. The
New York Times , pp. C1, C5.
Couch, N. & Allen, N. (1993). Introduction. The humanities and the library (11-27). Chicago:
American Library Association.
Frow, J. (2005). The public humanities. The Modern Language Review (100), 269-280.
Keeran, P. (2001). Humanities reference librarians in the electronic age: Strategies
for integrating traditional on-line resources in an academic library. The Reference
Librarian, 72: 123-136.
Rimmer, J, et al. (2007). An examination of the physical and the digital qualities of humanities
research. Information Processing and Management, 44: 1374-1392.
Wiberly, S. E. (1989). Patterns of information seeking in the humanities. College and Research
Libraries, 50: 638-645.
Wiberly, S. E. (1991). Habits of humanists: Scholarly behavior and new information
technologies. Library Hi Tech, 9(1): 17-21.