Report on CRL Historians' Conference, March 2002

Last March the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) convened a two-day invitational “mini-conference” for academic historians. The conference was held to increase awareness of the wealth of primary source materials held by CRL; and to guide the Center’s administration and staff in promoting wider use of these materials by historians. The event afforded key historians who were unfamiliar or insufficiently familiar with CRL a first-hand, in-depth view of the Center’s programs and collections. Conversely, conference discussions yielded imparted important new insights on the Center’s role within the larger system of scholarly communications and valuable ideas on how to strengthen that role.

Participants were selected and invited from the academic community and included influential historians and area studies faculty from North American universities. Specializations of the participants covered a broad range of modern historical periods and geographic regions. Representatives of scholarly societies and independent scholars who were users of CRL collections also participated. The president and selected managers of the Center hosted and participated in the conference. (A complete list of attendees follows this report.)

We at the Center for Research Libraries are grateful to the individuals and organizations that made the event possible. Generous funding for the conference was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. The conference was organized by John Boyer, Ryerson Distinguished Professor of History and Dean of the College at the University of Chicago and a member of the CRL Board of Directors; Stanley Chodorow, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California at San Diego and chair of the Center’s Board of Directors; and Beverly Lynch, former interim President of the Center and Professor of Information Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Their efforts, and those of the Center’s staff, resulted in a fund of new ideas and perspectives that will inform the CRL preservation and service agenda for years to come.

Bernard F. Reilly, Jr.
January 2003

Conference Schedule & Format

The conference began in the early afternoon on Friday, March 8, and ran through early afternoon on Saturday, March 9. The event began with small-group tours of the Center’s collection storage facility and holdings. These were followed by presentations by CRL staff highlighting particular collection strengths, such as foreign newspapers and government documents. Presentations also described various CRL programs such as the area studies microform projects and the Digital South Asia Library. On Friday evening, several scholars described their own research involving substantial use of CRL collections.

On Saturday, the conference was devoted to open discussion of the challenges facing historians doing advanced primary source research and ways in which the Center could foster and facilitate greater access to its primary source materials for that research.

Summary of Outcome

Conference planners hoped to identify measures whereby CRL could increase the use of its collections by historians and thus strengthen support among the universities for CRL preservation and collection development activities. The discussions did in fact identify a number of ways in which CRL can make its collections more visible. These include working directly with the major scholarly societies to strengthen awareness of the Center’s services and holdings and providing collection-related information to scholars in more intuitive and “discipline-friendly” forms.

The conference also yielded a better understanding of three factors that hamper use and visibility of CRL collections and services. Those factors are:

  • The Center’s lack of a strong “profile” in the scholarly community. Unlike many research libraries, the Center does not have a profile that is well defined by the content of its collections or the disciplines that it serves.
  • A change in the faculty-library relationship that has traditionally provided a mutually supportive framework for the building and use of scholarly resources in academic libraries. This change was attributed variously to the reduced involvement of younger scholars in developing holdings of primary source materials, a move by scholars in recent decades away from empirical research, and changes in the staffing and “culture” of academic libraries.
  • The ongoing decline in support for advanced research in the humanities and social sciences at universities and academic research libraries. For most university libraries the lion’s share of resources are devoted to acquiring and preserving the most heavily used materials (i.e. English language materials supporting the undergraduate curriculum) rather than the less frequently used materials that support advanced scholarly research.

The conference also underscored the fact that these trends do not uniquely affect CRL but also negatively affect the management of scholarly resources and humanistic research in general. Conferees agreed that many of the challenges facing CRL, such as low use of holdings and high costs, “come with the territory” of maintaining collections for advanced research. Conferees also believed that the Center’s role in acquiring and preserving these kinds of collections is at least as important to the health of scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences today as it was in the past.

There was a consensus that the Center, because of its accountability to the broader community of American academic libraries, should take a leading role in the preservation of materials for advanced humanities and social science research.

Discussion & Conclusion

The discussions at the conference were affected by the results of the tours and staff presentations that were presented on Friday afternoon. The conference participants were impressed by the scope and size of the Center’s holdings of primary source materials that are not available elsewhere. Center staff were gratified by the positive reaction of the participants to their summary of the Center’s facilities and operations.

The consensus view of participants was that the holdings of the Center, though used less frequently than many of the materials held locally by their own libraries and now augmented by electronic resources, remain crucial to historical research.

Among CRL’s varied holdings those considered by attendees to be the most valuable were newspapers, trade journals, U.S. state government publications, foreign dissertations, and foreign state documents and archives, and large microform sets. Moreover it was clear that the value of these holdings to scholars was increased by the terms of access to them provided under CRL lending policies. Participants noted that many of these materials, such as foreign and U.S. newspapers and large microform sets, were either unobtainable from other libraries on interlibrary loan or were not available for the lengthy periods that the historians’ projects and graduate seminars required. Some scholars require access to the materials for the duration of major, multi-year research projects, such as a study on the history of water management in the Midwest. For others the nature of their research requires consultation of long runs of particular journals or newspapers.

For example, one scholar spent months combing through journals of the Chicago plumbing and building trades to identify the architects of historically important but un-attributed early modern buildings. Another scholar used the Center’s extensive holdings of nineteenth-century trade journals to carry out a study of non-transparent industries, such as silk, diamonds, and rice production, mapping patterns of self-regulation and community-building among those trades. Several conferees gave accounts of dissertations and major monographs for which the Center’s holdings had been indispensable.

Despite its value, conferees agreed that CRL is not well known in the scholarly community. Even those who use Center resources regularly and heavily are often not aware of the scope of CRL’s collections. Throughout the discussions conferees cited three phenomena contributing to this problem: the Center’s lack of a distinct profile in the community; a change, even weakening, of the traditionally strong relationship between university libraries and faculty; and the growing emphasis at universities on core collections that support undergraduate studies at the expense of research collections. The discussions on these points are summarized as follows.

1) The Center lacks a readily discernable “profile” and hence constituency, in the academic community. Scholarly constituencies form around research libraries that have visibility by virtue of particular disciplinary strength. Independent research libraries like the Folger Shakespeare Library (Renaissance literature), Newberry Library (Americana and Native American history), and the Huntington Library (Anglo-U.S. art and literature) have distinctive collecting profiles that attract scholars to their resources even though their holdings might not be easily discoverable via the Web or through on-line OPACS.

An anomaly among research libraries, the Center has an indistinct profile that is defined neither in terms of the content of its collections nor the disciplines that it serves. Often characterized as an “omnium gatherum,” the Center’s collections are extremely diverse and, when described in CRL literature, are most often characterized in terms of the bibliographic formats represented, such as newspapers, dissertations, and microforms, rather than by subject or discipline.

This characteristic of CRL stems in part from the historical circumstances of its founding and its traditional role in the research libraries community. CRL was created in 1949 as a regional “fallback” repository to augment the holdings of its member libraries by holding “infrequently used materials.” In keeping with this role CRL collecting policies have been shaped by those libraries’ decisions on what not to collect or hold locally.

Conference participants also noted that the Center lacks the “thereness” through which other libraries or research centers attain visibility in the scholarly world. Most independent research libraries with on-site reading rooms and study facilities serve as places for study and scholarly interaction. The Center’s facility has a small study room in which visitors can use materials, but it was built primarily as a “back-office” operation. With its focus on utilitarian functions, such as providing security, climate-control, and space for receiving, processing and cataloging operations, the Center is relatively inhospitable to on-site use. One scholar proposed that the facility be modified to expand on-site facilities and accommodations for scholars. Others suggested that the Center offer grants and fellowships for residencies at the Center, to provide scholars with an opportunity for direct access to Center holdings.

2) CRL is affected by a change in the traditionally close relationship between university libraries and faculty. Several of the participants noted that librarians in many institutions are seen to play a less critical role in linking scholars and scholarly resources. In the past reference librarians routinely directed graduate students and even faculty to resources available outside the university, such as those held by CRL. One senior faculty participant said that such interaction between scholars and librarians was an integral part of the research process and critical to the discovery of research materials.

Many participants believed that this interaction was undermined by the “desktop” orientation of today’s researchers. On-line catalogs, databases and finding aids available outside the library enable researchers to locate, identify, and order their materials remotely, with little or no intervention from a librarian. In fact, a report produced recently for the Digital Library Federation by Outsell, Inc. established that librarians are now only consulted as a last resort by researchers, who tend to rely on electronic resources first, and actually spend less time in the library during the course of their research.

This development has made CRL collections less visible to the scholarly community. Because many of the Center’s collections are un-cataloged they are not discoverable via the Web or though catalogs and bibliographic utilities. When scholars routinely used the bricks and mortar library to get access to most resources, library area specialists, bibliographers, and interlibrary loan staff were able to guide them to CRL and other non-local resources. Now CRL must bridge the gap created by the absence of a mediating librarian.

Some participants saw this problem as being compounded by a reduced level of research skills and lack of familiarity with primary source materials among graduate students and younger faculty. This was said to be a logical outcome of undergraduates’ reliance upon the Internet for research. Hence, many graduate students rely heavily on secondary literature like journals and other materials that are electronically available and have little acquaintance with primary sources like government documents, newspapers, and archives.

A number of conferees noted that this change in the library-faculty relationship also adversely affects the development of primary source collections. Some believed this trend was the result of a larger change in the administration of university libraries. “Universities are now undergoing a fundamental culture shift. Libraries are now controlled by ‘information scientists,’ whereas thirty years ago those who bought the books were academics, scholars.” Others believed that the ability of university librarians to ensure strong research collections has been affected by the changed stature and position of the librarian on campus. One scholar said that at the University of Kansas the university librarian now reports to the vice chancellor responsible for information technology, rather than to the provost.

Others noted that scholars, particularly younger ones, no longer provide the constituency for the long-term building of resources in libraries. One participant noted that “It is the era of the boutique scholar” and that “Faculty think increasingly on a narrow horizon of their own academic interests.” There is less interest among junior faculty, he said, in “institution-building,” i.e., in developing library collections that will sustain advanced research across a broad range of topics.

3) CRL is affected by the threat to scholarly research in the humanities posed in part by the prevailing market economics of libraries and universities. Contraction in academic library spending brought about by the recent economic downturn has reduced funds for research collections, i.e., materials other than those that support the undergraduate curriculum. The focus on support of the undergraduate programs has come at the expense of primary sources and other materials that are used for advanced research in humanities and social sciences.

Conferees believed that the cost-benefit analyses widely applied in making library spending and preservation decisions imperil the survival of primary source materials for the humanities. Source materials for advanced research, particularly materials in languages other than English, tend to be difficult and costly to acquire and catalog. At the same time they are used less frequently than core curriculum materials. Judged in terms of cost-per-use, then, such materials are less likely to be acquired, cataloged, and preserved. Some participants bemoaned the fact that their libraries are apt to question the purchase of foreign language materials, “When ninety percent of collection use is for English language materials.” One conferee observed that low-use materials are also the first to be relegated to remote storage when on-campus space is scarce.

These trends, participants believed, will ultimately limit the research agendas that academic scholars in these fields can pursue. As one participant noted, “The most important scholarly research is done with materials on the fringes.” In other words, original research most often involves using materials that are not widely familiar. Another participant asserted that the unavailability of such materials has a limiting effect, leading to “consumerist scholarship.”

Conferees expressed concern about the ability of the major non-academic libraries to continue to bridge the gap in certain kinds of scholarly resources not preserved by academic libraries. Some observed that recent and continuing budget shortfalls at institutions like the Library of Congress and New York Public Library hamper the preservation of their important early American and foreign newspaper holdings. This trend will render the academic community more reliant upon the Center to make these kinds of materials available. Participants viewed CRL as an institution “that still cultivates the obscure” and its role in the ecology of scholarly resources as increasingly crucial.

The continued enlargement of the realm of “the obscure,” fueled by the economics of academia and the knowledge industry, challenges the Center’s ability to remain an omnium gatherum. Conferees suggested that CRL might focus its collecting activities more narrowly. Some thought that CRL should emphasize its areas of strength and high value to the scholarly community, notably newspapers, microform collections, dissertations, and government documents, and favor its programs that build in these areas. However most agreed that the Center should move decisively to support coordinated action on the national level to address the threats to the diversity and richness of scholarly resources.

Next Steps

Clearly CRL must provide more knowledge and easier discovery of its holdings for researchers and make a stronger case to university administrations for the value of CRL holdings and services. Success on these fronts will enable CRL to better promote scholarly research and sustain its own preservation and collecting activities. As a result of the conference CRL administration and staff will take the following steps:

  1. “Push” more and better information about CRL resources out to scholars. CRL will continue the intensive cataloging of its important un-cataloged holdings begun in 2001. Those holdings must also become more directly discoverable by researchers by mounting CRL catalog records and finding aids on the Web and, where possible, in member library systems; providing tools to enable academic librarians to guide researchers to content at CRL in a “discipline-friendly” way; and using other electronic and traditional, discipline-specific channels like the newsletters of the American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians, and H-NET to publicize CRL collections as they are acquired, cataloged and preserved.
  2. Enhance channels for feedback about CRL collections from scholars, to better measure the value of CRL resources and improve the focus of collection-related information provided to the community. The effectiveness of CRL programs and services requires the continual and ongoing analysis of scholars’ use of Center holdings. Gaining first-hand knowledge of such uses requires CRL to expand its participation in the meetings and conferences of scholarly societies; interact with faculty during member university site visits; and gather information on use of CRL holdings through ILL contacts. CRL can use its own newsletter, Web site, and other materials to profile instances of scholarly research projects that draw heavily upon Center materials. This will provide university libraries and faculty a fuller sense of the value of the Center’s resources than that provided by transaction-based statistics alone.
  3. Explore creation of greater on-site use of the Center’s holdings. Many conferees agreed that the Center’s profile in the scholarly community would be strengthened by a program of fellowships and scholarly residences. CRL should investigate the possibility of serving as a regional facility for empirical research in modern, international studies with a scholars-in-residence program. Such a program would bring scholars, particularly graduate students and junior faculty, on-site to use CRL collections. While in residence scholars could take advantage of the holdings of the universities in the region as well.
  4. Actively promote focused, community-wide action to preserve resources for advanced humanities and social sciences research. Such materials represent an “endangered species” among knowledge resources. Conferees affirmed the critical importance of their survival, roundly endorsing CRL’s continued “cultivation of the obscure” as an essential part of the national, academy-wide system of preservation. Given the continuing decline of support for such resources, however, libraries must work to make the production and management of these kinds of materials economically viable. The Center will work with other organizations equally vested in the preservation of such materials (including the Library of Congress, National Archives, National Endowment for the Humanities, the large U.S. foundations, scholarly societies, and publishers) to achieve efficient, systematic management of scholarly resources.

Revised Jan. 15, 2003


  • Edward Alpers (University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Marc Becker (Truman State University)
  • John Boyer (University of Chicago)
  • Anthony Cardoza (Loyola University Chicago)
  • Raquel Chang-Rodriguez (City University of New York)
  • Stanley Chodorow (University of California, San Diego)
  • Frank Conlon (University of Washington)
  • Kathleen Conzen (University of Chicago)
  • Lee Formwalt (Organization of American Historians)
  • Michael Geyer (University of Chicago)
  • Ann Haight (Kalamazoo College)
  • Bruce Haight (Western Michigan University)
  • Derek Hirst (Washington University)
  • Stanley Katz (Princeton University)
  • Theodore Koditschek (University of Missouri—Columbia)
  • Peter Knupfer (H-Net)
  • Beverly P. Lynch (University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Melissa Macauley (Northwestern University)
  • Rebecca Manring (Indiana University)
  • Jamie Melton (Emory University)
  • Barbara Metcalf (University of California, Davis)
  • James Nye (University of Chicago)
  • Bernard Reilly (Center for Research Libraries)
  • Timothy Samuelson (Chicago Historical Society)
  • Stephen Schuker (University of Virginia)
  • Edward Shreeves (University of Iowa Libraries)
  • James Simon (Center for Research Libraries)
  • Carl Strikwerda (University of Kansas)
  • Stephen Wiberly (University of Illinois at Chicago)