Digitization and the Changing Roles of Libraries in Support of Humanities Research: The Case of the Harrison Forman Collection

PL ISSN 0033-202X

Morgridge College of Education
University of Denver

Krystyna K. Matusiak is an Assistant Professor in the Library and Information Science Program (LIS) at the Morgridge College of Education of the University of Denver. She received a Master’s degree in Theater Studies from the Jagiellonian University and a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She earned her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Prior to accepting her position at the University of Denver, she worked as a Digital Collections Librarian and was involved in establishing a digitization program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research and teaching interests focus on the digitization of cultural heritage materials, digital libraries, the indexing and retrieval of digital images, and user studies. Her book, Digital Libraries: Theory and Practice, co-authored with Iris Xie, will be published by Elsevier in summer 2016.

KEYWORDS: Digitization. Primary sources. Cultural heritage materials. Digital collections. Thematic collections. Historical photography. Digital humanities.

ABSTRACT: Objective – this article examines the role of libraries in expanding access to primary sources through digitization and in providing support for humanities research. Research method – the author analyzes the literature on information behavior of humanist scholars in light of the increased use of digitized primary sources. Next, using the example of the digitized photographs and diaries from the Harrison Forman Collection, the author explores the emerging role of libraries in creating a new source of scholarly materials and supporting research in humanities. Results and conclusions – digitization increasingly matters not only for practical reasons of ease of use and access but also by offering a new potential for humanistic research. Digitization projects provide enhanced intellectual control of primary resources, offer an opportunity to uncover hidden collections, and bring together scattered materials. Digital collections in their present design demonstrate some limitations in supporting scholars’ browsing behavior and in providing contextual information. Creating digital collections in support of humanities research requires the transformation of library roles and collaboration with digital humanities scholars.


Throughout history libraries have played an important role in advancing scholarship through collecting, organizing, preserving, and making available all forms of recorded knowledge. Primary sources in the form of textual documents, visual resources, or oral testimonies are at the heart of humanities research as they represent a key source of historical evidence. Humanities scholars have always depended on research libraries and archives as repositories of primary sources and rare materials. In the past, conducting historical research often involved travelling to distant archives or libraries in order to gain access to original source materials. Digitization and the development of digital collections, however, have transformed the way humanities scholars access primary resources and carry out their research. As Katz notes, “our work has been profoundly changed by the whole range of developments in digitisation and telecommunications” (Katz, 2005, p. 107). Recent studies demonstrate that indeed digitization has made an impact on the research practices in humanities and changed scholars’ information behaviors (Fenlon et al., 2014, pp. 4-6; Rutner & Schonfeld, 2012, pp. 7-11; Sinn & Soares, 2014, pp. 1800-1806).

The development of digital libraries in support of humanities scholarship represents a new area of research and practice with shifting priorities and the transformation of library roles. Many questions still remain unanswered. How should libraries organize and present the new body of digitized primary sources to support and enhance scholarship in humanities? How can libraries address humanities scholars’ ways of research, preferences, expectations, and concerns regarding the quality and stability of digitized content?

This article explores the potential created by digitization for humanities research and the evolving roles of libraries in supporting humanities scholars in discovering, accessing, and making sense of digitized primary sources. The author uses a digitization project undertaken by the American Geographical Society (AGS) Library as a case study to examine the emerging role of libraries in creating a new source of valuable scholarly materials and supporting research in humanities. The AGS Library digitization initiative, funded partially by the National Endowment for Humanities, aimed at digitizing and preserving over 70,000 film negatives of historical and documentary photography2. This large-scale digitization project led to the discovery of a significant body of previously unknown photographs. This article focuses on the photographs documenting the German invasion of Poland in the Harrison Forman Collection. This unique set of images was discovered during the digitization project.

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