[Archive copy mirrored from the URL: http://www.qucis.queensu.ca/achallc97/papers/p037.html; see this canonical version of the document.]


Electronic Theses and Dissertations in the Humanities

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Virginia

Edward A. Fox

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)

Keywords: theses, dissertations, electronic publishing, digital libraries

Though their potential as an area of scholarly electronic publishing has thus far been largely neglected, the last year has seen a significant increase in the amount of attention devoted to electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs). In addition to such anecdotal evidence as coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 8, 1996, A15), and active threads on Humanist (the international humanities computing electronic discussion list), there have been several key developments at the institutional level: first, in January of 1997, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) began requiring electronic submission of all new theses and dissertations -- these documents will be archived in both PDF and SGML, are capable of handling multimedia objects, and will be served over the World-Wide Web; second, the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) has agreed to fund a proposal for a National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD); and third, University Microfilms, Inc. has announced that it will begin accepting dissertations in electronic formats, and has expressed a willingness to accommodate students working in multimedia and hypertext. Given this recent interest and activity, it seems likely that electronic theses and dissertations will come to represent an increasingly important area of scholarly electronic publishing. This paper will provide a comprehensive overview of current ETD standards and practices, with particular emphasis on the humanities, and will do so by juxtaposing the university-wide implementation of ETDs at Virginia Tech with a detailed look at several electronic dissertations in the humanities currently in progress at the University of Virginia and elsewhere -- projects which were undertaken at the initiative of individual students rather than in response to institutional policy.

ETD Implementation at Virginia Tech

Beginning in January of 1997, Virginia Tech began to accept, archive, and distribute new theses and dissertations solely in electronic formats. The Virginia Tech ETD project, which was first discussed as early as 1987, and which has been actively underway since 1991, promises to have important implications for every university with a graduate degree program.

The rationales for Virginia Tech's ETD project, include: 1.) Preparing graduate students for their professional careers by training them in the use of digital libraries and introducing them to electronic publishing; 2.) Promoting collaboration between graduate research programs at separate universities by making graduate scholarship visible and accessible via a network archive; and, 3.) More efficient use of the university's library and administrative resources. The channels Virginia Tech has established to guide the finished thesis or dissertation from the student's personal computer to the offices of the graduate school and to the library's on-line archive will be reviewed, stressing that an important component of the Virginia Tech project has been to develop potential models (as opposed to absolute standards) for ETD production elsewhere. Also to be discussed are document formats for the completed ETD (PDF and SGML), multimedia applications, and the archiving of the ETD with UMI. Finally, a statistical analysis of existing Virginia Tech ETDs will be presented, addressing:

Hypertext and Multimedia Theses and Dissertations

Although Virginia Tech has pioneered the institutional implementation of ETDs by mandating their submission on a university-wide basis, the last several years have also seen significant numbers of graduate students at other universities undertaking ETDs on their own initiative. These projects generally gravitate toward hypertext or multimedia formats. At their most creative, such projects attempt scholarship which either could not be undertaken, or else could be undertaken only on very different terms, in print media.

Matthew Kirschenbaum, this paper's primary author, has compiled an on-line directory of ongoing ETDs in the humanities (exclusive of Virginia Tech). This on-line directory includes most, though perhaps not all, such projects currently underway. At present, the site lists some two dozen electronic theses and dissertations, representing a full range of humanities disciplines: art history, philosophy, American studies, English, history, music, and religious studies. While about half of the projects listed focus explicitly on the social and cultural implications of digital media technologies, it is important to recognize that the electronic format is capable of enriching -- indeed, in many cases of transforming -- the way scholarship is performed even in more traditional areas. Several sample projects from the ETD directory will be discussed to illustrate this point, with particular attention to innovative and effective applications of hypertext and multimedia.

Archival Considerations and Other Issues

Perhaps the most serious issue facing graduate students wishing to produce theses and dissertations in electronic formats is the question of their archival stability and long-term sustainability. What assurances are there that an electronic thesis or dissertation will be accessible even ten years in the future, let alone the many generations acid-free paper can promise? Several strategies for addressing this problem will be suggested: First, that it is reasonable to expect organizations like UMI (formerly University Microfilms, Inc.), who are in fact already moving in this direction, to take up some of the responsibility for keeping pace with technological change. Second, the importance of emphasizing the adoption of non-proprietary standards, such as SGML, JPEG, VRML, etc. for the production of sustainable ETDs. Third, that the astonishing preponderance of electronic scholarship already existing in other scholarly genres -- electronic journals and digital research archives, for example -- indicate that long-term stability and sustainability is a problem -- more accurately, a challenge -- endemic to the medium as a whole, and not therefore a sufficient objections in and of itself to graduate students wishing to undertake work in electronic formats. Finally, that it is precisely those scholars who are presently either at or nearing their thesis or dissertation who will play a major role in responding to these archival challenges in their subsequent careers.

A related issue is the delivery mechanism for ETDs, particularly the considerations at stake in the choice of the stand-alone CD-ROM format versus storage on a network server. In this context, the proposed National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations, which would establish an infrastructure for a network-accessible, searchable, full-text database of graduate research, will be discussed.

Copyright and intellectual property issues will be addressed, as will anxieties about plagiarism.

Finally, the question of supervising and assessing an ETD will be addressed. Particularly if the student's work is published on the network as it progresses, the dissertation may potentially find dozens or even hundreds of outside readers and respondents; should this audience affect the evaluation of the work?

The paper will close with announcement of any late-breaking ETD developments at the time of the conference.

Presentation of the paper will be accompanied by demonstrations of ETDs from Virginia Tech and elsewhere.

Articles and Papers

On-Line Resources