The Impacts of Digital Collections: Early English Books Online & House of Commons Parliamentary Papers

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In 2015, in cooperation with ProQuest, Jisc commissioned this study of the Impacts of Digital Collections focused on two particular collections: Early English Books Online (EEBO) and House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (HCPP). These two collections are just a fraction of the number of collections that Jisc has purchased on behalf of its member institutions. While an understanding of these two collections is not necessarily generalizable to all digital collections (or even all Jisc-provided collections), they were selected because they are both relatively mature in the sense of having been available to users for over a decade, were thought to be well-known in the research community, and also appeal to users from multiple disciplines.

Our team has undertaken related studies of approximately 20 different digital collections over the last decade, and EEBO and HCPP compare well both quantitatively and qualitatively to other digital collections. Taking into account the fact that the earlier studies only reflect a portion of the time covered by the current study, EEBO and HCPP appear to be in the upper third of resources we have looked at in terms of usage and impact. They seem to fall into the same general category as resources like British History Online and Old Bailey Proceedings Online in their overall visibility and measurable academic impacts. These impacts go beyond simple numbers: we have shown clearly in our previous studies that smaller niche resources like the Digital Archive of Medieval Music or Histpop can also demonstrate their importance, and that impacts must be understood not just to be related to size but also must consider their influence within specific areas of research and teaching. HCPP and (particularly) EEBO also can be shown to be playing this sort of influential role within certain disciplines.

EEBO houses over 125,000 digital versions of some of the earliest printed material in English, including books, play scripts, sermons, public and legal documents, religious material and some of the earliest gems of English Literature. It is accessible via subscription to the Jisc Historical Texts platform or via subscription on the ProQuest platform. The related EEBO-TCP (Text Creation Partnership) made 25,000 of the texts (but not images) of these items freely available in 2015, and 28,000 more are available to EEBO-TCP partners and subscribers.

HCPP holds the sessional papers covering the 18th, 19th and 20th Century, as well as documents dating even further back – from the mid to the late 17th century, detailing parliamentary activities of the time. HCPP is available to institutions through Jisc as part of the ProQuest Archives 2014-2017 or via subscription from ProQuest.

The report includes 10 main highlights from the research:

  1. The context of the use of digital resources is changing, but these changes are incremental and have a long development cycle prior to the realisation of impact.
  2. The usage of both Early English Books Online and House of Commons Parliamentary Papers has been increasing steadily over the past decade.
  3. While researchers at top universities are most likely to use EEBO and HCPP, less research-intensive HE institutions also benefit from both collections.
  4. Researchers rely heavily on specific digital collections that they return to regularly, which is resulting in incremental changes in scholarly behaviour.
  5. Resource use in the humanities is extremely diverse, and this makes providing access to needed resources and tools particularly challenging.
  6. The citation evidence that is available shows a growing literature that mentions using EEBO or HCPP, and these publications in turn are reasonably well-cited.
  7. The number and range of disciplines that refer to EEBO and HCPP is much more diverse than expected.
  8. Researchers are more concerned with the content and functionality of the digital collections than in who provides the access.
  9. The UK is unusual for providing national-level access across institutions through Jisc’s national purchasing.
  10. Shifts to humanities data science and data-driven research are of growing interest to scholars, although there is still plenty of room for growth in this focus on digital humanities, particularly in teaching.

The report concludes by arguing that digital collections have become fundamental to modern scholarship.

The full report of this study is available:

Meyer, E.T. & Eccles, K. (2016). The Impacts of Digital Collections: Early English Books Online & House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. London: Jisc. Available online: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2740299