Thematic Research Collections: What’s the Big Deal?

I wanted to share some interesting things I’ve come across in my research for my thesis project. The project focuses on digital tool development as a way for librarians, research faculty and other academic workers to collaborate and advance their careers in alternative directions from the traditional journal publication pipeline. This is an exciting area for library students and especially those students interested in academic libraries. Thematic research collections (TRC) are one example of these types of projects that really caught my attention. I wanted to look at how these digital projects can help challenge seemingly immutable notions of how academics ought to produce scholarship–and who ought to be doing it.

So, what are TRCs? John Unsworth (2000), followed by Carole Palmer (2004) were the first authors to put forth solid definitions. Both authors describe TRCs in similar terms, and they both agree on the main components that define this genre of scholarly work, they are:



Extensive but thematically coherent

Structured but open ended

Designed to support research

Authored or multi-authored


Collections of digital primary resources (Unsworth 2000)

The most important of these components for the present discussion is the “authored or multi-authored” one. Palmer places much value on this point in her treatment of TRCs as well. This is where Palmer pushes the definition of the TRC further, stating that TRCs represent a scholarly contribution because they are collections which provide “contextual mass” on a theme (p. 353).

TRCs are “authored” in the sense that they are meaningfully and purposefully brought together to support research on a specified theme–the project requires not only technical knowledge, but subject expertise. Further, TRCs exhibit some meaningful method of displaying contextualized relationships between primary digital objects and other supporting secondary documents. Contrast this with the library collection at large, which places objects together along a more-or-less arbitrary description of content. This means that the objects that would be useful for one researcher’s project will be housed all throughout the stacks, in special collections and archives. So, by collocating resources in terms of their thematic relationship to one another, a TRC can achieve contextual mass. Contrast this with the main collection which aims to provides a critical mass of disparate materials that require researchers to design their own personal mini collection within and throughout the larger one. The TRC is deliberately authored to provide for a deep analysis of a specified theme all in one digital location, reducing future researcher’s need to duplicate that labor.

So, rather than a researcher needing to find their own path through the various collecting areas of libraries and digital repositories to find all the thematically relevant material, the author(s) of the TRC have done that work already. For example, on the Digital Dante project, users are given access to not only digitized works of Dante, but related primary and secondary sources hyperlinked to the contextually appropriate lines of text.

The contextual mass of the TRC is what metamorphoses it from a simple digital repository to a true scholarly product. The question remains though, how do we evaluate the quality of that contribution? This is where Katrina Fenlon’s 2015 paper, “Significant Features of Thematic Research Collections” comes in. In the paper, Fenlon proposes a quantitative method for demonstrating a TRC’s scholarly value—text analysis. The method laid out in this paper uses Voyant—a textual analysis tool with a robust suite of features—to analyze the tf-idf weights of a TRC’s item descriptions (p. 4). Term frequencies across a TRC’s authored descriptions can help evaluate its thematic coherence, which illustrates the TRC’s contextual mass. Fenlon proved, at least provisionally, that there is a quantitative way to justify the classification of TRCs as scholarly content, as the hypothesis of the paper set out to do:

…TRCs are distinguished from other kinds of collection [sic], and indeed attain status as a scholarly genre, in part by providing layers of “intellectual context” (Beaudoin, 2012) on top of items, beyond basic descriptive information (p. 2).

There are many points that could be made to help articulate just what makes a TRC distinct from other forms of collections, and what makes them a genre of scholarly content but I will keep this short for this discussion (too late?) I want to bring up TRCs as an example of how it could be possible to think outside of the box when it comes to academic work and publishing. I think projects like these are things that we as library students should watch.

Digital projects like TRCs which go beyond the traditional modes of article and monograph publishing are difficult to fit into the paradigm of scholarly work that sees the research professoriate as the only source of legitimate scholarship. Not only will expanding our conception of what can be considered “scholarship” help librarians and alt-ac workers receive credit and recognition for the labor they do. This is also true for scholars in the humanities who rely almost exclusively on that traditional model for career advancement. Having to place several articles in top tier journals and securing a book contract before a scholar can even be considered for tenure can be a huge deterrent for young humanities scholars to participate in innovative digital projects, which are seen as a distraction from the “real” work they must do to advance and legitimize their career.

As Fenlon argues in a later article in 2017, “Thematic Research Collections: Libraries and the Evolution of Alternative Digital Publishing in the Humanities,” TRCs represent an excellent opportunity for librarians, research faculty, and alt-ac workers to collaborate on innovative projects. With concerted effort, this collaboration can challenge the conservative nature of the tenure pipeline, help to get librarians and alt-ac workers the credit they deserve for their scholarly contributions, and in general, promote the further propagation of valuable digital research tools and learning in general.


References and Further Reading

Fenlon, K. (2015). Significant features of thematic research collections. Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 52(1), 1-5. Retrieved from

Fenlon, K. (2017). Thematic research collections: Libraries and the evolution of alternative digital publishing in the humanities. Library Trends 65(4), 523-539. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved January 31, 2019, from Project MUSE database.

Palmer, C. (2004). Thematic research collections. In Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, & John Unsworth (Eds.), A Companion to Digital Humanities. Oxford: Blackwell.

Unsworth, J. (2000). Thematic research collections. Paper presented at Modern Language Association Annual Conference, December 28, Washington, DC.

Featured image citation:

Siegel, Jane. “Illustrations from Early Printed Editions of the Commedia.” Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017.


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