Beyond Citation: Critical Thinking About Digital Research

We want to be the "Missing Manual" for digital research collections. While the use of databases such as ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers or Gales’ Nineteenth Century Collections Online is common, these tools have largely escaped critique by traditional humanities scholars. Knowledge of the way proprietary databases work is limited because their structures and content are opaque. As a result, scholars may not be able to discover the provenance of documents or to understand why certain search results are returned. There has been no simple, accessible way for scholars to understand either the affordances or the limitations of humanities databases for research. Information provided by publishers is often inconsistent and incomplete. Reviews in trade journals tend to be descriptive rather than critical.

Our pilot website centralizes descriptive and critical information about academic databases and digital collections to make these tools more transparent and to illuminate the ways that they may shape scholarship and research outcomes. Our goal for future versions of the site is to work with researchers and librarians to collaboratively construct our understandings of the way databases and digital collections function.

Our team and stellar group of advisors ( are pursuing funding to extend the pilot site and the number of databases covered, to build an API, to make widgets for library websites, and to write critical thematic guides to research in databases for a variety of disciplines.


Kinds of collaborators
Individual/small group
Graduate students
Undergraduate students
Help description
Experience with WordPress front end or back end and librarians are especially welcome. As we move into the next phase of site development, we could use assistance in these areas: 1) Project management and communication tasks 2) Testing metadata plugins for structuring the data on the site 3) Implementing and and testing for annotation 4) Writing a specification for building an API 5) Content: writing new entries; adding to current entries 6) Updating website and Quality Assurance testing. Interested people with all levels of technical expertise are welcome. Aside from writing the specification for the API, none of the above tasks require more technical knowledge than could be learned in a brief tutorial session.
Contact person
Help needed