Web Resources and Scholarly Readers - Post-Conference Summary

Steve Muhlberger
Nipissing University

The paper focused on expectations of the Web and its usefulness for scholars.

I began my analysis with my experiences of a site I edit, the Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean section of the Online Resource Book for Medieval Studies. ORB is an international consortium which intended to present an online encyclopedia or textbook source, where teachers and serious students of the Middle Ages could go for authoritative material. My section - like ORB as a whole - is well-read, and in many ways must be considered a success.

However in one way it has not met expectations. Like many other Web publishers I have not attracted much in the way of scholarly contributors, despite my best efforts to do so.

Further, most of the traffic is not from professional scholars or academics. Certainly the evidence from my own section confirms that much of its readership comes from "the general public." The bulk of my mail is either from young students (often with questions) or older readers getting back to subjects they were found interesting in school years ago.

Some crude and unscientific readership data points in the same direction. The ORB Late Antiquity home page has attracted almost 12,000 over the past year (November 1999-November 2000). If one assumes, for sake of argument, that all ORB Late Antiquity subsite hits were the result of people coming directly from the home page (as of course they are not) then we could say that:

The pattern is consistent with the assumption of a largely non-scholarly readership. Substantial introductory materials, like the annotated Visual Tour and the five-chapter Overview are particularly attractive, especially for people with no background in the era - the very people for whom those resources were designed. There was very little interest, it seems, in guides to specialized sites or on-line journals.

But what does it mean that readership of the Bibliography page is 28% of home page readership? If other indicators seemed to show that I am reaching mainly novices, and perhaps not serving professional scholars very well at all, did this relatively high access rate to bibliographies mean that I was pulling in a fair number of serious readers? And who might they be?

I decided to ask subscribers on two relevant discussion lists, LT-ANTIQ and MEDIEV-L, what they used the Web for, and what they used the Internet for. What would they say?

I got back 25 substantial replies. My respondents included no young students: A third were scholars in academic employment; 43% were grad students or dedicated independent scholars, some hoping for academic employment, some not; 15% studied some historical subject or subjects for the fun of it.

Responses were notable for their criticism of the current state of the scholarly Web. One writer referred to "endless chains of links leading to other websites ... the real substance ... is a reference to a printed work." Another said: "There's almost nothing serious on-line... The Web has a very, very, very long way to go before it can compete, not with a University library, but even the contents of my own house." Note that these negative comments come from a group that one would expect to be sympathetic towards the Web.

Everyone who wrote back was, complaints or not, making some use of the Internet, and the vast majority admitted to liking some aspect of the Web. I broke up their responses into 57 different "items:" If someone mentioned using e-mail, that was one "item;" if she mentioned using on-line library catalogues, that was another "item." What follows is a short classification of their answers.

In this conference we are talking about many sophisticated, well-designed research tools and environments of a kind that could not have existed before 1990. Yet to date, the overwhelming use being made of the Web, even by those happy to work with and communicate via computer, is to get easier access to essentially traditional resources: books that might have the information they want, library catalogues and bibliographies that identify likely books, reviews that give them a good preview of those books, publishers and booksellers who will sell them books. And that is why my ORB bibliography page has 28% of the hits that the home page has.

Even more popular is the use of the Net and the Web to find people to talk to. They give researchers and students faster access to what is mainly in people's heads. The Web is here in a position of facilitating age-old scholarly activities, conversation and correspondence, which take place in much the same way as they always have.

Wherever I look, I see the same story. Even those who are most enthusiastic are using the Web to make it cheaper, easier and more convenient to get at their essential materials, which are still off the Web. The Web is not their library, although it might be the reference room or card catalogue of their library.

So is the Web to date a scholarly failure?

I believe the Web has already transformed scholarship in what is perhaps a less dramatic or more dramatic, less obvious or more obvious way, depending on where you are looking.

The main effect that the Web has had on scholarship has been to make it much easier for people outside of established favorable research environments - big cities and major universities - to take part in scholarship in ways that otherwise would be impractical or impossible for most of them.

The most important effect of the Web has been to widen the pool of scholarship. When a pool gets wider, it gets deeper, too. For those who were already in the center the pool, the Web has provided extra convenience, even if they did not really need it. But for those who were on the very edge of the pool, or even high and dry a decade ago, the Web is an immense benefit, even without new, unprecedented Web tools. The ability to find or "consume" scholarship, important as it is, is not the end of it. Even though none of my correspondents directly addressed it, even those who run Web sites themselves, the ability to "produce" scholarship or at least participate in scholarly discourse is equally important. It is perhaps more important.

This barely furnished, largely unsatisfying Web which has a hard time competing in some ways with our own private libraries, has created a new environment for scholarship, in which old categories do not disappear - tenured faculty still get paid better for their work than the independents - but they are no longer so insulated from each other. The young students who write us and ask amazingly unsophisticated questions, or even try to get us to do their homework, are just the visible edge of a vast public interest and and a yet-unplumbed desire to get into the real thing. Few of this greater public of "scholars for the fun of it," perhaps, will ever be in a position to contribute to scholarship directly - though that may change. Certainly, they will make new demands on scholars and scholarship, and even, perhaps, provide new rewards.

I said at the beginning of the paper that its subject was expectations. If one's expectations of the Web center around the production of sophisticated new resources, we have just barely begun and little of what exists is all that impressive. If one's expectations center around issues of access, I suggest that the foundation has already been laid, in a variety of ways, for a huge expansion of the audience for serious scholarship, and that those of us who are in academia will have to run very fast to keep up with the expectations we have already created in others. We are in the process of redefining what it means to be a "scholarly reader."

This file was posted on 19 June 2001.
Please send your comments to Michael DiMaio, jr.

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