The Use of the Internet by English Academics
Department of Information and Library Studies
University of Wales,
The original title for the PhD research was broad and read as: The Use of the
Internet by Humanities Academics. This was narrowed slightly by the selection
of the English and History disciplines for comparisons amongst the humanities
overall. In the time available for the research (three years funded), it would not have
been feasible to consider investigating more than two groups of humanities academics.
Generally it is thought that the humanities can be viewed as either traditional or
modern in interpretation. The traditional subject areas include language, literature,
linguistics, philosophy, religion, music, history, archaeology and the arts. The more
modern areas would be performing, creative and visual arts, media studies and
communication studies (Kirkham, 1989). It is notoriously difficult to say what those
disciplines have in common, but they share at least the task of connecting the past and
present as they are manifested in the works and acts of men (Roush, 1969). Many
authors prefer to be general in their usage of the term humanities, others specific,
referring to historians alone. The phrase ‘humanistic scholar’ is often used instead of
‘humanities scholar’. Likewise, the humanities has been described as a group of study
as opposed to fields of study. It can only be concluded that there is a lack of consensus
being reached within the humanities as to what the term humanities means.
Since January 1998, there has been a review and modification of the title towards
English Literature, which is part of the traditional humanities. It now reads as:
The Use of the Internet by English Academics. According to Gould
(1993) literary scholarship is increasingly interdisciplinary with more than ever, its
sources overlapping with those of other disciplines. Mullings et al. (1996)
advocates that the computer has already become a comfortable object for almost all
literary scholars in areas of communication and production of typescript, and it is
rapidly becoming accepted as a tool of literary enquiry also. Ciolek (1998) concludes
in a Scholarly Internet Survey that the three most popular professional
uses of the Internet revolve around sending and receiving electronic mail
(individual and list-mediated), and reading on-line news. This is open to debate as this
survey was distributed to subscribers of English language electronic mailing lists
specialising in Asian and Pacific studies.
During this decade we have witnessed a proliferation of information technologies
which are transporting us into the new millennium and beyond. One example is the
Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet could not have been made possible
without the advent of the personal computer in the 1970s. It is evident that the library
is no longer the only building where access may be gained to a wealth of stored
information. Increasingly, it is the Internet, which is operational 24 hours a day, seven
days a week (subject to connections and time delays), that is the preferred option,
being available via the personal computer which is more often than not situated in the
academic’s office, or increasingly at home.
What does the Internet have to offer? Not only are there web sites which contain
hypertext-links all over the world, but there are also discussion groups and mailing
lists, including electronic mail that can enable the academic to converse electronically
within minutes about a query. File Transfer Protocol (ftp) allows the rapid transfer of
documents from one file to another almost instantaneously. The first electronic project
dates back to 1948 when Father Busa started to prepare electronic texts of St Thomas
Aquinas for his monumental Index Thomisticus (Hockey, 1997). It was 1973 before
the first volume was made available (Deegan, 1995). As a result of information
becoming available electronically, academics are having to become computer literate
to enable them to handle this tool effectively for use in their research. Electronic texts
on-line are a valuable resource for the academic who can scan pages rapidly and
download chapters of books for analysis. This is especially true for the English
academic who can now access a whole range of primary sources, such as novels,
poetry and literary essays that have exceeded their copyright date, back runs of critical
journals and current scholarly journals in electronic form. The Oxford Text
Archive, which is one of the oldest and best-known electronic centres in the world,
works closely with members of the Arts and Humanities academic community to collect,
catalogue, and preserve high-quality texts for research and teaching.
The proposed work plan
Key areas of focus are :
These areas of focus will be investigated from two angles: the teaching and research
aspects of the literary scholar’s daily working life. Whilst previous studies will be a
guide to this area, one major aspect to be covered here will be how information on the
Internet is interacted with by the English Academics themselves. The emphasis will
also be particularly on the USE of the Internet and the electronic
- Information Needs
- Information Seeking Behaviour
- Information Uses of English Academics
The above areas of focus raise the following (sample) questions :
In the first instance it was essential that a literature survey (approximately six months)
was carried out. This helped to determine which methodologies would be most
suitable for use with this target group, as well as identifying previously recorded
studies of information use in the area of the humanities. The choice of methodologies
(e.g. focus groups, questionnaires, observation and interviews) will only reveal
themselves once personal contact with academics has taken place, although the
approach will be qualitative as opposed to quantitative. Time management
must feature highly throughout the duration of this research to gain the maximum
usage of resources and results. The intention is to carry out a pilot study in the
University of Wales, Aberystwyth (UWA) first to gauge the response and eliminate
those academics who are unable to assist in this research from the outset, before
extending the study to other colleges of the University of Wales.
- How do they carry out their literature searches for their research?
- Is their information need satisfied by the use of the Internet?
- Are English academics aware of the types of information that are available to
- Do they use them for research/teaching?
- How or why do they use these sources?
- What problems do they face in using these sources?
- What are the problems associated with using these sources, e.g. copyright,
access, knowledge about what is on offer, technological problems?
- Have English academics grasped the necessary information-handling skills in
order to use the electronic sources that are available on the Internet?
After analysis of these results it may be possible to make suggestions as to how
English Academics can be more productive in their work (teaching and research)
through the USE of the Internet. Two-way communication is vital in this
research, otherwise the outcome will be a biased point of view. The nineties scholar
after all, has varying information needs, uses and seeking behaviour now, especially
since electronic environments became accessible in their own workplace.
A number of studies have taken place in the 1980s and early 1990s, but these relate to
the humanities discipline, and not necessarily to those in the English discipline or to
the Internet, for example; (Ellis et al. 1993; Fulton, 1991; Gould, 1988; Katzen, 1986; Stieg, 1981;
Stone, 1982; Watson-Boone, 1994; Wilson & Walsh, 1996). According to most estimates,
more than one million people will ‘Net’work each day from over two million host
computers. In 1995, universities in more than 40 countries provided full Internet
participation. At that time, many had access only to the email function, but if the rate
of growth in that year continued, it was projected that there could be 300 million users
by 1999, 750 million by 2000, and 1.5 billion by 2001 (Bane & Milheim, 1995).
Progress to date
The initial PhD research began in October 1997 with a literature survey covering a
variety of formats; for example; Computers & Humanities; Computers &
Texts printed journals, electronic journals, the world wide web, and the Library
and Information Science Abstracts on CD-ROM, dealing with my chosen discipline.
The literature search looked at the information seeking habits and information needs of
the humanities scholar. Before the New Year a general overview of the humanities was
produced, focusing on the areas of History and English (including Uniform Resource
Locators references). This overview revealed that English academics are the lesser
known academics in terms of their research and teaching habits in an electronic
context (except for those situated in America where technology has moved on at a
Scholars in the humanities, like researchers in other subjects, make use of
computers for word processing, for cataloguing the books in their departmental
libraries, and also for desk-top publishing (Kenny, 1991). The tried and tested
print formats in the physical library are often the preferred option to the electronic
scene. More often than not, the necessary information handling skills have not been
acquired by the academic of the English discipline to use the hardware and software to
access the Internet. The Internet does require a different approach for obtaining
information, articles, documents and carrying out a discussion in electronic format.
For the past three years, Netskills Workshops have taken place across the country, for
example, Using the Internet for teaching and learning (Cardiff, July
7th 1998) introduced and explored some of the tools and techniques for
teaching using the Internet.
During the spring months a second overview was compiled which concentrated solely
on the varying aspects of English Literature. Unlike the previous overview, this one
endeavoured to find out how the English Academic works in the working environment.
Although not comprehensive in nature, a list of approximately 100 web sites was constructed
to highlight the availability of sites dedicated to English Literature for the academic.
Many academics are concerned with typology i.e. they study genre, period or a theme or
specific named authors in depth; occasionally they might interact with more than one of
these typologies. The use of the web can enhance the ability of research that an academic
is required to undertake during their working life. Dedicated sites to authors such as the
Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and Shakespeare for example, offer the English academic with the
opportunity of locating hypertext editions of novels, works and biographical,
bibliographic and critical material. Academics can also be directly involved with inputting
information into an online database such as The Reading Experience Database 1450-1914 (RED)
which is co-ordinated by the Open University.
Similarly, teaching can be carried out in multi-media format with a large class of
students quite effectively. Wack (1993) from the English Department of the Washington
State University has already taught a course on Chaucer in 2001, nicknamed 'Electronic
Chaucer'. From the remarks made in the symposium, it would appear that electronic sources
used solved her pedagogical problems. Similarly, Skilton (1998) from Cardiff
University devised a comprehensive electronic module entitled 'Literature and the City:
London in the Nineteenth Century' for his English students.
It is invaluable to know how these academics study their subject within the English
discipline, to what depth, and which sources are of most value to them. In this way it
can be assumed that a certain academic uses a specific type of electronic resource to
suit their information use, thereby building up a picture of the English Department as
a whole. However, three quarters of Internet hosts and the majority of its users are in
the US (Barrett, 1996), so this can apply a limiting factor to British counterparts.
Today’s Internet is a result of the Department of Defense’s ARPAnet which
began in 1969 to enable researchers to share major hardware and software
resources located at remote computer centers. As with all technologies, there
are the inevitable advantages and disadvantages. However, the speed at which
information can be accessed and downloaded or printed (subject to
connections and time zones) is phenomenal. A wealth of information awaits
the academic in the English discipline on the continually evolving web which
was developed at CERN in Geneva in 1994 (Rockwell, 1997). English Academics need
to be given the opportunity to embrace the electronic sources that are available for
use on the Internet, and receive training if information handling skills are not present.
The research to date has been hampered by the requirement of funding bodies
for first year PhD students to undertake a Postgraduate Training Course. This
has taken up a considerable proportion of time during the first year, and it is to
be hoped that the effort expended will eventually pay off.
- Jane Austen web site (Republic of Pemberley) Available from: http://www.pemberley.com
- Bane, A.F., & Milheim, W.D. (1995). Internet insights: How academics are using the Internet. Computers in Libraries, 15 (2), 32-36.
- Barrett, N. (1996). The state of the cybernation: cultural, political and economic implications of the internet. London: Kogan Page.
- Ciolek, T.M. (1998, March) The scholarly uses of the Internet: An on-line survey. Available from:
- Deegan, M. (1995). IT and the humanities. Information UK Outlooks, 14, 1-19. London: South Bank University and The British Library.
- E-Journals, Listservs, Reference (Rhodes English Resources). (1998, July) Available from: http://blair.library.rhodes.edu/englhtmls/engljrnls.html
- Ellis, D., Cox, D. & Hall, K. (1993). A comparison of the information-seeking patterns of researchers in the physical and social sciences. Journal of Documentation 49, 4, 356-369.
- Fulton, C. (1991). Humanists as information users: a review of the literature, AARL, 22, 188-196.
- Garrod, P. (1997). New skills for information professionals. Information UK Outlooks, 22 (7), 3-17. London: South Bank University and The British Library.
- Gould, C.C. (1988). Information needs in the humanities: an assessment. Stanford, California: Research Libraries Group.
- Hockey, S. (1997). Electronic texts: The promise and the reality. American Council of Learned Societies Newsletter, 4, 4. Available from:
- Katzen, M. (1986). The application of computers in the humanities. Information Processing & Management 22, 264.
- Kenny, A. (1992). Computers and the Humanities. British Library annual research lecture; 9. London: British Library
- Kirkham, S. (1989). How to find information in the humanities. London: Library Association Ltd.
- Mullings, C., Deegan, M., Ross, S. & Kenna, S. (eds.) (1996). New technologies for the humanities. (pp.280-298) London: Bowker-Saur.
- Netskills Workshop: Using the Internet for teaching and learning. (1998, April 20). Available from: http://www.netskills.ac.uk/events/workshops/mcc-apr98-1
- Rockwell, R.C. (1997) The World Wide Web as a resource for scholars and students. American Council of Learned Societies Newsletter, 4, 4. Available from:
- Roush, J.G. (1969). What will become of the past? Daedalus 98, 64. Cited in: Tibbo, H.R. (1993). Abstracting, information retrieval and the humanities: Providing access to historical literature. American Library
- William Shakespeare web site Available from:
- Skilton, D. (1998, July 7). http://www.cf.ac.uk/uwcc/secap/skilton/
- Stieg, M.F. (1981).The information needs of historians, College & Research Libraries, 42, 6, 549-560.
- Stone, S. (1982). Humanities scholars: Information needs and uses, Journal of Documentation 38, 292-313.
- The Oxford Text Archive. (1998, July) Available from:
- The Reading Experience Database 1450-1914 (RED). (1998, March) Available from: http://www.open.ac.uk/OU/Academic/Arts/RED/redform.htm
- The Thomas Hardy Society of North America (THSNA). (1998) Available from: http://wolf.its.ilstu.edu/hardysoc/TEACHING.HTM
- Wack, M. (1994). Chaucer in 2001 in Okerson, A. and Mogge, D. (eds.): Gateways, gatekeepers , and roles in the information omniverse: Proceedings from the third symposium November 13th-15th, Association of Research Libraries Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing, Washington DC. (pp.45-57).
- Watson-Boone, R. (1994). The information needs and habits of humanity scholars, Information Needs, Winter, 203-215.
- Wilson, T.D. & Walsh, C. (1996). Information behaviour: an inter-disciplinary perspective: a review of the literature. London: British Library Research and Innovation Centre. British Library research and innovation report, 10
Information Research, Volume 4 No. 2 October 1998
The use of the Internet by English academics, by Wendy Shaw Location: http://InformationR.net/ir/4-2/isic/shaw.html © the author, 1998. Last updated: 9th September 1998