Academic Research Is Now Almost Always Digital

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:50 PM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Eileen Clancy, City University of New York
The practice of research in digital collections is largely undertheorized, with most scholars relying on the basic representations about the digital archival collections offered by the companies or organizations that create and manage them. Yet, digital collections, particularly of primary sources, are not merely neutral. They may actively shape and even delimit the scholarship and research outcomes and the strategies that historians use when working with these collections. As Marlene Manoff notes, “database experience increasingly determines the nature of our connection to knowledge and history.” Although so much research is now conducted digitally, scholars and specialized librarians have very little ability to look into the structures, contents and editorial decisions regarding the databases they are using. Proprietary database algorithms and structures especially are not transparent. As a result, researchers are often unable to account for specific databases’ parameters of coverage, or for their specific strengths, biases, errors, and omissions.

What are the effects of digitization of primary source materials on research? . Enormous databases can have a misleading appearance of exhaustiveness; but, what items are missing from these collections and what is not being represented? Historians need to understand databases at the collection level, not simply at the level of individual documents and artifacts. They must be able to understand the way that collections have been constructed; and discover the provenance of materials contained in databases.

To explore ways to respond to some of these issues and questions, the Graduate Center at CUNY has created a new NEH-funded pilot project—Beyond Citation ( The project’s goal is to collect and centralize information about digital resources and databases and to encourage conversations among researchers to enhance public understandings about those materials. Ultimately, we would like to become the “Missing Manual” for research databases.