Arts & Humanities Division Libraries
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Statement of Purpose

Library Collecting in the Humanities

Principles of Collection Development


Major Interdisciplinary Resources

Arts & Humanities Libraries

Humanities Websites

Nature of the Humanities



Library Collecting in the Humanities

The Humanities

The humanities consist of those branches of learning concerned with the culture, thought, and values of human beings. Traditionally, the humanities encompass the study of all languages and literatures, the arts, history, philosophy, and religion. In contrast to the sciences, which generally seek to discover the laws of the physical world, the humanities often consider questions for which there are no clear answers or for which there are many possible answers.

As human beings, we share common experiences, feelings, and values--not only with our contemporaries but with those who preceded us and those who will follow. The study of the humanities involves discourse and debate about human culture, and through this study we develop analytical and critical skills that can be applied to research and scholarship in all disciplines.

The Nature of Humanities Research

The laboratory of the humanist. The humanities are distinguished by their fundamental textuality. The research of scientists is conducted in laboratories, where experiments are mounted, results are tested, and reports are written. While published research is typically the outcome of scientific experimentation, the essence of a scientist's work is laboratory research. For the scientist, the text is a supplementary resource whose primary value is as a medium for communicating the results of the research process. Scholars in the humanities, on the other hand, analyze and interpret existing texts and images. Both the object and outcome of study for the humanist is textual. For this reason, the library serves as the humanist's laboratory, with texts as scientific apparatus and instrumentation, the research subject, and the data set. To be successful, humanistic research requires strong and deep library collections that are scrupulously sustained.

The diversity of texts. Texts used by scholars in the humanities may be written, oral, aural, visual, symbolic, or performative. They include original creative works (which may be in the form of a manuscript, an early printed edition, a musical score, a recording, a film, or an art object), writings about those works (textual analysis, interpretation, and criticism, in the form of books and articles), and tools to identify and locate all of these materials (in the form of indexes, catalogs, and bibliographies). Art and architectural historians, artists, and architects must have access to a wide array of images that are available in exhibition catalogs, journals, monographs, catalogue raisonnÚs. These visual resources function as catalysts for the creative process and, unlike the written word, are ill served by a thesaurus of terms.

The currency of old materials. In the sciences, the currency of the text is critical. For the humanist, individual texts exist as links in the chain of scholarship. There is no presumption of obsolescence for older texts as there is in the sciences, since the entire universe of texts supports current humanities research. The importance of specific works may wax and wane in a given discipline, but a work always remains part of the textual tradition for that discipline. The historical dimension of humanistic scholarship, whether explicit or implied, is fundamental. Original source material in philosophy and the classics, for example, may extend back three thousand years.

The importance of the book. The results of humanities research are most frequently presented in book-length studies. While articles are important for reporting research, journal literature in the disciplines of the humanities often represents a partial presentation of ongoing research that culminates in the publication of a monograph. The book-length study remains the sine qua non of humanistic scholarship, and it shows no signs of disappearing. Although many journals and magazines are now available through the World Wide Web, books continue to be published almost exclusively in print form.

The need to compare and browse. The resources of the humanities are vast and complex, and they have rarely been placed under the minute bibliographic control that has been imposed on the literature of the sciences. In the course of their research, humanists need to compare and contrast texts and to seek out related texts. Researchers need to be able to study a variety of texts simultaneously, and they need to work in an environment that facilitates serendipitous discovery. It is vital that they are able to browse large collections of literature in their field.

Interdisciplinarity and the humanities. During the past two decades, scholars in the humanities have explored alternative approaches to studying and evaluating texts. The disciplines of the humanities now regularly borrow methodology and theory from one another, resulting in new adaptations that are in turn borrowed and modified anew. In addition to this cross-disciplinary fertilization, the boundaries between the traditional humanistic disciplines are blurring. The rise of interdisciplinarity may result in changes in the way the humanities are organized within the academy. Early signs of this trend can be seen in the growth of multidisciplinary programs such as, on the UIUC campus, the programs in medieval studies and Jewish studies, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretation, and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.

Building Library Collections for the Humanities

The monographs that are central to research in the humanities are published at irregular intervals in many languages by publishers scattered across the globe. Libraries cannot subscribe to monographs; they must be painstakingly selected, one title at a time, on the basis of complex criteria and considerations. As a result, the process of book selection is highly time- and labor-intensive, informed by expertise that is continuously augmented and refined. The great humanities collections have been built over the course of generations by bibliographers with strong subject and language skills, working hand in hand with teaching faculty.

While new web-based indexes and article databases have greatly facilitated research in the humanities, humanists still rely primarily on texts that are available only in paper format. In order to continue building collections that meet the needs of researchers, librarians in the humanities must continue to focus their efforts on acquiring print materials, while recognizing the increasing need for texts in digital format. Humanities librarians look to the future as well as the past, building the record of human culture so it will be available today, tomorrow, and into the future.