9:30-11:30 AM, Satuday Jan 4, Hilton, Bryant Suite

The following section was written by Melanie Shell



The following section was written by David Halsted

III. Web Site and E-Mail Lists: Two Different Audiences?

The relationship between H-Net's academic e-mail lists and its Web site is still evolving. The transition from e-mail list to Web is a transition from a two-dimensional world of textual discourse to a multidimensional hypertext environment. E-mail discussions are highly interactive, while Web pages are not necessarily interactive. Even where interactive Web pages have been put in place, they operate on a fundamentally different set of principles from a query for information sent out on an e-mail list. E-mail queries operate much as other traditional means of verbal information-seeking operate; the value and richness of responses is limited only by the imagination and knowledge of the group of people on a given list or set of lists. A Web query is limited by the range and scope of the data available, and its usefulness is limited by the skill of the user in formulating queries, by the ingenuity of the designer or designers of the page and by the richness of the dataset with which the page interacts.

The H-Net Web site represents a very large and complex effort to translate the interactive discourse of H-Net's e-mail lists to the Web's multidimensional world. In contrast to the H-Net e-mail lists, the H-Net Web site serves a number of people who have not decided to join a discussion on a specific topic. In order to find out what H-Net Web users and e-mail list participants expect from the H-Net Web site, I designed a survey form for the Web and sent out a nearly identical form to several of the H-Net lists. As of this writing, more than one hundred individuals have responded to the two forms. The purpose of the survey was to determine the extent to which the H-Net e-mail lists and the H-Net Web site have two different audiences, to describe the character of those audiences with some precision and to determine what kinds of expectations each audience brings to our pages. The results, which I present here, will be used to help guide the further development of the H-Net site. I believe that other academic Web projects will encounter a similar range of audience and expectations, and should take this into account during the site design process. Some of the conclusions of this survey and others like it may even have implications for the policies universities pursue with regard to the relationship between electronic text and library collections, or the best ways to use the Internet to improve classroom instruction.

IV. The Survey and its Results

The survey presented to the H-Net lists and to Web users consisted of 13 questions with several response options each. It also asked participants if they wished to be included in a monthly e-mail update of changes to the Web site and solicited general comments. The results of this survey were translated using a Perl script into text files which were then read into Microsoft Access and Excel files for analysis. The overall results of the survey can be summarized as follows:

  1. H-Net e-mail lists and the Web site have different but overlapping audiences
  2. In general, the Web site respondents are younger (at an earlier professional stage) than the e-mail list audience
  3. H-Net's Web site appeals at present primarily to college and university students and faculty
  4. Respondents showed more interest in resources that supplement traditional kinds of materials used in teaching and research (syllabus banks, bibliographies, maps, primary and secondary research material) than in materials that might replace them (multimedia files)
  5. The Web is not viewed as a replacement for but as a more convenient supplement to the functions traditionally fulfilled by college and university libraries

In addition to these general conclusions, of course, there are specific results about individual resources on our pages which will be very useful for us as we deploy our labor force and creative energies in the near future.

V. The Two Audiences

In order to measure the difference between H-Net's e-mail list audience and the Web audience, we asked Web respondents to identify themselves as H-Net subscribers or non-subscribers. We also asked e-mail respondents to indicate whether they use the H-Net Web site or not. The results are summarized in the pie charts below.

    Fig. 1. H-Net List subscribers and non- subscribers in the Web sample (78 respondents) Fig. 2. Web site users and non-users in the e-mail sample (24 respondents)

The results demonstrate the difference between H-Net's two audiences and reveal something about the nature of response to the surveys. The H-Net Web site audience-or at least the part of it willing to answer our survey-consists mostly of individuals who do not subscribe to H-Net lists. On the other hand, the responses we received to the e-mail version of the survey reflect the expectations of that portion of the e-mail list subscriber base who use our Web site at least occasionally.

Our Web design must therefore take into account the expectations of two rather different groups of users. Each H-Net page clearly must be regarded as a potential publicity instrument for the H-Net subject lists themselves. For H-Net e-mail lists, the Web site is a potentially powerful recruiting instrument, helping the lists reach a broader audience in addition to providing topically interesting information for list subscribers.

VI. The Character of the Audiences-Professional Status

In addition to their different status with respect to the H-Net lists themselves, the two audiences show a very different professional status profile. The original survey included six different categories-Professor/Teacher, Student, Independent Scholar, Computer Professional, Librarian, and Other. Of these, only Professor/Teacher, Student, and Independent Scholar received significant responses ( more than 10%) on one or both surveys.

    Fig. 3. Professional Status of E-Mail
    respondents


    Fig. 4. Professional Status of
    Web respondents

    Although there were six response options for our question, only these three received significant response on on or both surveys. This confirms that the Web audience, like the e-mail list subscriber base, comes overwhelmingly from the world of education; the respondents' lack of interest in materials aimed at high school students and teachers, which will discuss later, indicates the predominance of college and university faculty, staff and students. While the respondents' pool from the e-mail survey consisted primarily of professors and teachers, a majority of the respondents from the Web sample are still students. This conforms to the overall rule that Web users are relatively young, and reinforces the point that the Web site can bring new subscribers into the H-Net family.

    The professional profile of academic Web users has direct implications for academic Web sites and their future. Even if, to some degree, the Web is a marginal phenomenon in the "core culture" of history and social science departments today, inasmuch as that core culture still revolves around printed material and paper publication, the situation is likely to change relatively quickly. As today's students become tomorrow's young faculty, it will be expected that the Web will be a useful scholarly resource. The patterns, standards and models created by this first generation of creators of academic Web resources will inevitably have a profound effect on the way the next generation perceives the potential and limitations of the Web as a venue for academic communication and investigation. It is the obligation of this generation to provide standards that are workable and flexible, to establish a high level of quality for academic Web work and to demonstrate that computing has the potential to move both teaching and research forward in ways that will benefit traditional academic culture.

    Indeed, as a new, increasingly Web-literate generation comes into its own, the separate cultures of the Web and of the traditional academy are likely to converge. The Web culture will change as collaborative institutions like H-Net replace the "brilliant loner" model-the skilled, inspired but overworked professor who establishes a site in his or her field or fields of interest, because quality Web work requires collaboration and a high degree of competence in several fields at once. To this extent, the culture that will build the Web will be different from the academic research model of today, which, in the Humanities at least, has traditionally emhasized single-author work.


    1. VII. Resources Used

    As might be expected, our different audiences also use different resources. Our survey provided for seven possible responses, of which only four were operational at the time the survey was taken: the individual sites associated with H-Net lists, the H-Net Job Guide, and our Links and Events databases. Distribution of results here reflect the different interests of the e-mail and Web audiences:

      Fig. 5. H-Net Web resources used (e-mail sample) Fig. 6. H-Net Web resources used (Web sample)

      The two groups expressed a roughly similar pattern of interest in currently-existing H-Net resources. To be sure, the e-mail audience was clearer in its response; a full 77% of e-mail respondents said they used the H-Net list sites, compared to 46% of Web respondents. A roughly similar fraction of e-mail respondents and Web respondents used the H-Net Job Guide (38% of e-mail respondents, 33% of Web respondents). The primary difference comes in the relationship between the use of the Events and Links resources; more e-mail respondents were interested in links, while more Web respondents were interested in events. I think the difference can be explained readily enough by the difference in professional status referred to above. The younger Web audience can use the Web to replace or supplement the informal networks more experienced scholars have developed in other media and by other means. By the same token, the younger users already know how to look around for links in their areas of interest, while the older users want pages like those H-Net provides to help introduce them to the world of the Web. Each audience looks to the Web site to help supplement currently available resources in areas where it feels a need for such supplements.

      VIII. Suggested Resources

      In some ways, the Suggested Resources category is the most crucial of all, because it provides information about what people expect to find on a site like H-Net's and lets us know where our audiences want us to go in the future. Here again we see significant differences between the Web and e-mail audiences within a generally similar response pattern. For representations of the data, see Figures 7 and 8 (attached). The most important difference comes in the expressed desire for teaching materials. The Web audience was barely interested in finding teaching materials (12%), while a full two-thirds of the e-mail audience indicated that they would like to see more teaching materials on our site. This is consistent with a younger Web audience. It probably also reflects the character of the lists to which the surveys were sent. Teaching material was the most sought-after category of resource by e-mail respondents, while professional material took the lead for Web respondents-probably indicating that both groups are most interested in finding answers to their most pressing professional needs. In both cases, primary research material came in a close second, followed by secondary material and, for the e-mail respondents, professional material. About a quarter of e-mail correspondents wanted more information about H-Net list discussions; about a fifth of Web respondents did. Surprisingly few Web respondents were interested in multimedia files, while nearly a third of e-mail respondents were. This probably indicates that users view multimedia primarily as a teaching tool, corresponding to the Web users' lack of interest in teaching materials in general. Consistent for both groups was a marked disinterest in material for a larger public-for high school students and teachers and for the general public. It appears from this survey that both H-Net subscribers and non-subscribers come to the H-Net Web site for information relevant to those active in higher education, not for material relevant to K-12 or "public humanities." We may surmise that the vast majority of respondents in the Professor/Teacher category are employed at the post-secondary level, and that H-Net's primary audience for both e-mail and Web offerings comes from the world of higher education. This is consistent with what we know about our list subscribers.

      The implications of these results for the future of the H-Net site-and for academic Web sites in general-are complex. The interests users bring to the sites cover the range of interest categories we see in the academy more generally. Teaching, research, and professional concerns all vie for first place, and it is probable that a graduate student for whom professional material is the uppermost concern today will be most interested in teaching materials a few years hence. One of the curious things about the prominence of the primary research materials category in both samples is that there is hardly any primary research material on the site as it stands. Depending on the section of the site, there are some useful resources in secondary research materials broadly defined-bibliographies, tables of contents from recent journals, working papers, and the like-and there are some good teaching resources (though never enough). The interest in primary research materials is one area in which the current state of the site and the expectations of its users seem to be most at odds. It is also a difficult area to develop, as useful primary materials must generally be put into digital form before posting to the Web, and of course there are serious and unresolved copyright issues to contend with. Still, this survey indicates significant demand in the academic community at all levels for primary research material on the Web.

      IX. Comments

      In addition to questions with pre-established response options, a Comments section provided users with a chance to offer general comments, both good and bad, about the H-Net site. This format provided respondents with a chance to suggest new directions for the site and for academic Web sites generally. Interesting, too, were the range of evaluative comments, from "I did not find the site very useful"" to "Thank you for providing an invaluable service to teachers and scholars everywhere." Apparently, quality and coverage expectations for academic sites are still in the process of being formed.

      The comments we received fall into two large categories: suggestions for new features in site design and suggestions for new resources. In the site design category, a number of respondents suggested improvements in search capabilities. Some of these had to do with the interface for our search engine. The engine itself is deliberately simple in design, allowing it to run on the relatively modest hardware at H-Net's disposal. However, these comments point to a desire for easier orientation within the site and quicker routes to specific resources. Other suggestions have to do with improving the searchability of the logs H-Net lists generate, of the Job Guide or of our Book Reviews. All were in the works at the time of the survey and are now operational. In contrast, the suggestions for new resources will be harder for H-Net to tackle. Suggestions for future additions range from richer syllabus banks to map collections, a resume bank, reportage of political events, more thorough bibliographies, and the inclusion of historical dictionaries.

      X. Conclusions

      Combined with the results from the response-option section of the survey, the comments section helps give a sense for the expectations users bring to an academic Web site of the type H-Net provides. Users expect to find teaching and research materials, and they expect to be able to move rapidly and easily between and through sections of the site in their search for them. They are not as interested in finding secondary research material as might have been expected; for example, nobody mentioned e-journals or electronic versions of print journals as a kind of resource they would be glad to see. Instead, they are looking for basic tools for orienting themselves in periods and places they either do not know or tools for communicating with others (teaching), and for materials that wil help them pursue serious research in their own fields.

      The pattern I see in the data analyzed here leads me to believe that most users want the Web to supplement resources they have available in their university or college libraries, rather than to replace them. The Web is not asked to replace the traditional print form of the scholarly journal, even though it could do so in very interesting ways. It is not asked to make recent scholarly monographs available online. I believe the prominence of primary over secondary research material in both e-mail and Web samples is consistenet with this interpretation of the data collected here. Archival material is difficult and expensive to study, requiring the physical presence of the scholar; it can also be extremely difficult to search efficiently. Putting archival material on the Web would be of benefit not only to research scholars but also to teachers, thus fulfilling one of hypertext's greatest promises-the possibility of encompassing a number of different levels of expertise within a single hypertext suite, creating a resource within which researchers, teachers and students can all find something useful. Further studies of this type will be needed to determine more precisely what expectations academics have already formed for the Web. Once those expectations are better met, the Web is sure to take an important place in the academic world, but it will probably not replace existing institutions like the campus library. Instead, it will supplement those institutions, in ways that will act to the benefit of scholars, teachers, and students alike. Site designers can contribute to this process by taking into account both audience expectations and the vast potential of the Internet for the creation of new kinds of resources which might generate more expectations, even as we all work within the constraints imposed by the costs of resource creation.




      The provision of more materials on the Web will contribute to the democratization of academic culture discussed at the beginning of this paper. As more research and teaching materials become available in electronic (and hopefully free or very low-cost) form, one aspect of the research advantage enjoyed by rich universities in rich economies will begin to erode, though of course other factors are likely to remain unchanged. Scholars will be playing on an increasingly level field. The H-Net Web site, if we continue to build and develop it, can have the same kind of impact the H-Net lists have had. In fact, the impact of the Web site could be much more widely felt than that of the lists, because the potential audience for the site is so much larger than the subscriber base for the lists. If the H-Net site can help acclimatize traditional scholars in a newly electronic world, it will have served a valuable purpose indeed. If it can offer primary research materials, it will help contribute to the democratization of the academic research culture dominant in higher education. The Events database can help new scholars break into the information networks that established scholars already have formed. Finally, the site could serve as a crucial interface between the academy and the outside world. As of this writing, it remains to be seen whether this enormous potential can be realized; some of it is already happening.

      Fig. 7. Suggested Resources-E-Mail Sample

      Fig. 8. Suggested Resources-Web Sample