In 2016, Jisc the UK higher education, further education and skills sectors’ not-for-profit organization for digital services and solutions, and ProQuest published a study of the impact of digital collections on research and learning in the humanities. The study centered on the use of a pair of mature and well-known resources with broad appeal across multiple disciplines: Early English Books Online (EEBO) and House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (HCPP).
The study showed that EEBO and HCPP were serving a wide diversity of disciplines – stretching beyond English literature, philology, libraries, and history to music, religion, and political science and (for HCPP) history, law, economics, anthropology, and women’s studies. Further, though often considered resources for research-intensive universities, both EEBO and HCPP were used in a variety of institutions, including those less focused on research.
The study also shows that EEBO and HCPP are among a remarkable diversity of digital resources used in the humanities and social sciences. Survey respondents listed a whopping 136 digital collections they rely on for research and learning – an exciting finding, but also a challenge to libraries. “Some fields like nuclear physics rely on a well-defined set of journals and have little need to search widely beyond those sources. In the humanities, there is no similar one-stop location. This makes providing infrastructure that can support this diversity more of a challenge.”
Jisc’s research study authors note that the “The most important point to take from the study is that the impact of digital collections is not a ‘big bang’ moment that immediately and fundamentally changes everything about humanities research.” Faculty, students and even librarians need time to adjust to new habits and new resources. While change can be slow, the Jisc study shows that it is steady and libraries need to adapt to these trends if they want to align with the research and learning needs of their users.
Libraries can create an infrastructure for content diversity by looking carefully at the content mix in the databases they invest in. Multidicsiplinary resources that encompass not just many databases of peer-reviewed journal articles, but many content types as well – primary sources, dissertations, reports, surveys, gray literature, videos, newspapers, periodicals, peer-reviewed journals, et cetera – provide a foundation that libraries can build upon with specialized content that matches their curricula.
Vendors can help libraries by innovating new buying models that help libraries test and acquire a variety of content – including primary sources. For example, ProQuest is currently participating in the Jisc Digital Archival Collections Group Purchasing Pilot, an acquisition program aimed at supporting HEIs with a more efficient, coordinated and transparent approach to the acquisition of digital archival collections. Based on a “buying club” approach to lowering customer cost, the program leverages institutions’ collective purchasing power to enable the widest adoption of digital archives.
These are exciting times for libraries as faculty and students look beyond peer-reviewed journals to embrace primary sources and more. Reports such as Jisc’s are essential in tracking trends and providing libraries, publishers and content providers with the insights needed to stay ahead of user needs.