Beyond Citation: Critical Thinking about Academic Databases

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Eileen Clancy, City University of New York
Historian James Mussell describes the transformation of research as the "shift from documents to data" as scholars have moved from working with paper to electronic representations of documents and artifacts. Yet in this shift, historian of information history Toni Weller observes, understanding "information provenance" has been overlooked. Although most humanities scholars use academic databases from publishers such as ProQuest or Gale, knowledge of how databases work is extremely limited because their structures are dynamic and not transparent. This means that scholars may not be aware of and cannot account for how databases affect their interpretations of search results or text analysis. Lack of information is an obstacle to scholarly inquiry because databases shape the questions that can be asked and the arguments that can be made through their search interfaces, algorithms and the items that are contained in or absent from their collections. A gestalt understanding of a primary source database is crucial to determining the representation of items in the collection. But, because they can contain what seems to be an almost infinite number of documents, archival databases offer an appearance of exhaustiveness that does not yield easily to a scholar's probing. Researchers are generally unable to interrogate digitized collections for content lists, provenance, verifiability of OCR'd text, and paratextual clues for contextualization and validation of documents, because the information is scanty when available at all, difficult to locate and constantly changing.

Beyond Citation is a website that aggregates bibliographic information about major academic databases in the humanities so that scholars can understand the significance of the material they have gleaned. Beyond Citation has a reflective space for scholars to contribute information and their perspectives about the use of databases. Information scientist Ryan Shaw notes, "In an era of vast digital archives and powerful search algorithms, the key challenge of organizing information is to construct systems that aid understanding, contextualizing, and orienting oneself within a mass of resources." By making essential bibliographic information about the structures and content of academic databases accessible to scholars, Beyond Citation takes an important step to updating the scholarly apparatus to encourage critical thinking about databases and their impact on research and scholarship.

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