The Creation of the Wabash Center Internet Guide

 

Charles K. Bellinger

 

 

 

["The Creation of the Wabash Center Internet Guide." Journal of Religious and Theological Information 3/3-4 (2001): 87-96. Published simultaneously in Theological Librarians and the Internet: Implications for Practice, edited by Mark Stover, 87-96. New York: Haworth Press, 2001.]

 

 

1. A Summary of My Activities

In September 1998 I began working for the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion as a consultant. I was given the task of setting up a website which would provide guidance for faculty and students in theology and religious studies who are seeking to locate Internet resources that have academic value. My work was framed as a sixth month pilot project to determine the current state of the resources available on the Internet in religious studies, and to consider how those resources could be incorporated into teaching situations. 

The first question which I faced concerned the overall shape of my efforts during the six month period. Three basic possibilities presented themselves. 1) I could produce cataloging records for the websites I selected similar to those traditionally produced for books; 2) I could attempt to create records in conformity with Dublin Core standards for Internet metadata; 3) I could create an organized and annotated collection of links to the selected resources. In consultation with the director of the Wabash Center, Raymond Williams, I decided that the third option was the most feasible one for directing my efforts. The first option would be advisable for a full‑time permanent cataloging librarian who would be able to incorporate the results of his or her efforts directly into an institution's library database. Since I am not a cataloging librarian, and was not in a position to incorporate the results of my efforts into a library database, this was clearly not a viable option for my efforts. Furthermore, certain key members of the American Theological Library Association had been meeting during the previous year to formulate a plan for cataloging electronic resources. I was aware of these plans, which made it clear that my time would be more effectively spent working in another direction. Concerning the second option, the Dublin Core standards for metadata are intended to provide a means for the creators of websites to "catalogue" their own materials to make the use of Internet search engines more efficient. These standards are not intended, however, to provide a way for an external visitor to a site to catalogue it. I have incorporated Dublin Core metadata into the guide which I created, but this avenue of resource description was not a viable option for my efforts. The third option clearly emerged as superior to the others because it gave me a high degree of flexibility in being able to adapt my work to suit the goals for which I was aiming. My principal goal was to create a guide which would allow users to avoid the often time consuming and inefficient process of locating resources through an Internet search engine. In my own use of the Internet, I have found that the most efficient way of finding resources is to use a subject guide which has been created and maintained by a knowledgeable human being. This observation has been echoed by others I have spoken with. Creating a set of annotated links has the additional benefit of enabling the results of my efforts to be made immediately available to anyone in the world who has Internet access, rather than only being available to those connected with a particular institution.


The next question which I faced concerned the overall structure of the site which I would be creating. What subject area pages should I create, and how should each page be organized? The answers to these questions evolved gradually over a period of months, rather than appearing at the outset. (This corresponds with the literature concerning webpage design, which speaks of many iterations of a site leading to gradual refinements.) In terms of subject areas, I used the program areas of the American Academy of Religion annual conference, combined with my own knowledge of the courses which are being offered in religious studies departments and seminaries, to set up a basic framework. This framework was filled out as I proceeded to investigate the Internet to discover what has been made available there. In other words, the existence of a substantial body of material on the Internet relating to a certain subject sometimes led to the creation of a page for that subject, even though I was not aware at the outset of that body of material. Thus, the shape of this guide mirrors to a large degree the shape of that portion of the Internet which relates to religious studies materials. In this sense, this guide is different from a guide which might be created at a particular institution to support the particular courses that are offered at that institution.

The organization of each particular page also evolved gradually. Since I was given the task of setting up a guide to assist in the incorporation of Internet materials into teaching, I decided to segregate resources according to their type or genre. This would enable a professor to find relevant resources which relate to the various aspects of a course: syllabi (for overall course organization), electronic texts (for primary reading materials), electronic journals (for secondary reading materials), websites (for other supplementary and introductory materials), bibliographies, and listserv discussion groups (for possible dialogue with others who are studying a particular subject). To this list the category of liturgical resources was added when appropriate. This basic structure proved to be valuable in establishing a large number of "cubby holes" in which to place resources as I came across them. I have allowed this structure to be flexible rather than rigid, as circumstances warrant. For instance, the page on the visual arts provides links to digital images in the subsection which corresponds to electronic texts on most of the other pages.


My task was to locate Internet resources which would be of use to the academic community. This led me to emphasize selectivity over comprehensiveness. I decided to add an "NB" to the sites which appeared to me to have the highest quality, rather than developing a more elaborate "5 star" rating system. The simpler approach struck me as being more feasible because it is impossible for me to envision how valuable a given site might be or not be to all of the different persons who could conceivably visit it. I decided that the "NB" symbol would be sufficient to indicate that a particular site should be among the first that a person visits to determine if the resources available there are appropriate for their needs. Approximately half way through the sixth month period of employment, I was able to articulate the main criteria which were guiding my efforts in selection. This was also a gradual process of discernment, leading to this list of criteria for website selection: useful, significant content; institutional origin; active maintenance; free access; good webpage design; correct spelling and grammar; English language. This last point is not an absolute, of course, since many resources linked to in the guide provide texts in languages other than English; this point serves to indicate that the vast majority of the sites linked to have their origin in North America, and no special effort has been made by me to organize materials in languages other than English.


After approximately four months of full‑time (40 hours per week) site construction, I began to feel that I had become aware of about 95% of the high quality academic sites in religious studies in English. I received this impression when visits to pre‑existing guides to religious resources on the Internet led almost exclusively to sites I was already aware of. It became harder and harder for me to locate sites in that other 5% which I speculated were probably in existence. This result is interesting because it contradicts the mistaken notion at work in some people's thinking that the Internet is already a limitless source of information, or that "the entirety of the Library of Congress" is on the Internet, or something to that effect. In reality, even though the Internet contains many millions of documents, images, homepages, etc., the amount of high quality material in a particular academic field is clearly finite. It is a challenge to remain on top of this situation, from the perspective of the librarian who is organizing material for the academic community, but it is not an impossible challenge. The dynamic, growing, changing, transient nature of the Internet adds to the challenge, but this also is only a minor obstacle. I will speak further on the topic of "staying on top" of religious studies resources on the Internet in section 5 below.

 

2. A General Description of the Wabash Center Internet Guide.

Various types of guides to Internet resources in religion were already in existence when I began this project. The simplest and least useful kind of guide is just a list of links to religion related sites, without any annotations or subject organization. The next step up from there is to add subject divisions. The number of such divisions might range from two (Christianity and World Religions), up to something like one hundred. Generally speaking, the larger the number, the easier it is to find what you are looking for. Another important step forward in usefulness is the addition of annotations for the links. Some kind of rating system to indicate the better sites is also helpful. An internal search engine is sometimes valuable. Lastly, making the URL of the link visible rather than invisible provides the user with another piece of information about the site linked to.


The Wabash Center Internet Guide is now one of the largest and most comprehensive guides to religious resources on the Internet. It contains approximately 45 different subject area pages, and more than 20 other pages for material types, reference and teaching resources, etc. The subject heading pages are further divided into six subsections: syllabi, electronic texts, electronic journals, websites, bibliographies, and listserv discussion groups. Multiplying 45 x 6 equals 270, which indicates a very high level of "granularity" in the organization of materials. The total number of links is in the vicinity of 2,500. If all of the pages in the Wabash Center Guide were to be printed out on 8.5" x 11" paper, it would add up to about 400 pages. It offers a simple rating system, annotations, and visible URLs. The particular strengths of the Wabash Center Internet Guide are links to syllabi, electronic texts, and free electronic journals in religion.

3. How the Internet Can Be Used for Academic Research in Religion

The following list indicates some of the ways materials currently on the Internet can be of assistance to those studying religion:


syllabi Professors can consult online syllabi to see how others approach the teaching of a certain subject. The number of syllabi now on the Internet is probably one percent of the total number of syllabi currently given to students in printed form. Nevertheless, the number of syllabi on the Internet is already significant, and it covers most of the basic course areas in religious studies. I am confident that in the future the number of syllabi on the Internet will continue to increase, and many such syllabi will begin to incorporate links to materials which are relevant to the course. The process of converting a word processor file to an HTML file is really quite simple with the right software, which can be obtained at reasonable cost or for free. Further, most institutions of higher education now have websites, so there is no major obstacle to a dramatic expansion in the number of online syllabi.

electronic texts Electronic texts can be used to supplement printed reading materials; in some cases, there is enough material on a given subject already available on the Internet that a student wouldn't need to purchase most of the books for a particular course. When I say this, I don't mean to imply that this possibility is preferable to the traditional pattern; I am simply describing the situation. Personally, I would much rather buy a copy of Augustine's Confessions as a book than print it out on 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper and read it in that form; reading it on the computer screen is even less desirable as an option. Nevertheless, the existence of electronic texts opens up new options that are often valuable. The photocopied course packet, for example, is often an expensive, ungainly monstrosity that students are required to purchase. The Internet makes possible the creation of electronic course packets which are much more user friendly from the students' point of view. The scarcity of library resources can also be overcome through electronic reserves. If 30 (or 200) students need to read a chapter in a book of which the library only owns 2 copies, an electronic copy of that chapter can be made, thus avoiding the logjam at the reserve desk. This solution requires, of course, the appropriate technological infrastructure to be in place, in terms of student access to computers. (The copyright issues involved with reserves and course packets are being debated currently.) The existence of texts in electronic form also allows for texts to be searched for particular words or concepts. This feature is very popular in the field of biblical studies. Electronic texts also allow a passage to be clipped and pasted as a quotation in a paper. This avoids the need for retyping and the possibility of typos.


As of early 2000, when these words are being written, the total body of electronic texts in religious studies on the Internet is very substantial. The basic core of canonical scriptures in the major world religions is available online, often in several different English and non‑English translations. Also, a very large number of theological and philosophical texts can be found on the Internet. In some cases, sophisticated searching and lexicographical analysis of these scriptures and texts is also available online. A considerable amount of secondary scholarship is present on the Internet, both in terms of introductory materials and more advanced essays. For the primary materials, it needs to be noted that the quality of the texts varies widely. It is often the case that older (out of date?) translations and scholarship have been placed on the Internet simply because they were in the public domain. Thus the Internet is often a strange combination of the latest technology with scholarship from past generations.

electronic journals There are a large number of electronic journals currently on the Internet, though the total number of print‑only journals is still much larger. The Wabash Center Guide has focused on gathering links to free journals, rather than those which restrict access. I have included links to approximately 200 electronic publications in this guide. The quality of these publications varies widely, however, from well established academic journals to ephemeral publications of little academic value. In my opinion, electronic journals will eventually completely replace print journals as a form of scholarly communication. This process is likely to take several decades to complete, however, and we are only in its infancy.


websites Websites, understood as a separate genre from texts and journals, have some value to academic scholarship in religion, in that they can provide both more "objective" scholarly introductions to a particular religion or topic and also more "subjective" or "committed" introductions by members of that religion. They often provide a combination of texts, images, and perhaps sound files which will be useful to students who are seeking to gain a broad exposure to a particular tradition. As with the other genres, however, they can vary greatly in their quality, depending on the intellectual abilities, aesthetic sensibilities, and institutional resources of the site's creators.

bibliographies There are a significant number of bibliographies in religious studies already on the Internet, and that number is likely to rise in the future. Since bibliographies are relatively easy to find in traditional print sources in most libraries today, this aspect of the situation does not involve any dramatic changes. It will simply be easier for researchers to obtain the information they are seeking without having to physically go to the library.

listserv discussion groups This is a new form of communication which has been brought into existence by the Internet. The novelty is found in the ease with which people who are geographically separated from each other can communicate very easily and inexpensively. Discussion groups serve as a form of daily informal conversation between members of a particular academic guild, or between people in different fields who are interested in a certain topic. The Wabash Center Guide typically provides a link to the homepage of a listserv, which offers a description of the group and provides instructions for subscribing.


Another variation on the listserv concept is seen in temporary groups formed to facilitate discussion within a particular course. Students can post responses to readings, react to what others have written, pose questions, etc. The professor can monitor all of this activity, make assignments and announcements, bring print or Internet resources to the attention of the class, etc.

 

4. The Current Limitations of the Internet


As stated above, one key limitation of the resources available on the Internet is seen in their often dated nature. A professor may want to assign as reading a text which is on the Internet, but be deterred by the fact that the only available translation is from the 19th century. If a more recent translation is available, particularly as an inexpensive paperback, this will most likely be seen as a superior alternative. A more substantial limitation is seen in the nonexistence of many modern texts in electronic form. If one is seeking texts by authors such as Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Buber, Barth, and the Niebuhrs, one will find next to nothing on the Internet currently. This situation is likely to change in the future as more texts are made available online, but I don't expect the change to be dramatic or rapid. The works of these authors are for the most part still within the publishing domain, not the public domain, and the need for publishers to earn income militates against the free dispersal of these texts in electronic form. There is also a large body of high quality secondary material which currently exists in printed form but not in electronic form. This situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, unless there is a large movement among the authors of such books to make their works available electronically. As noted above, the total number of print‑only journals exceeds the number that are available electronically. This situation is likely to change more quickly, however, than the book publishing industry, because the overwhelming strain which expensive serials place on the budgets of academic libraries will break the back of the current system. The many advantages of electronic journals as a form of scholarly communication, along with their relatively inexpensive cost structure, spells doom for the traditional print journal system. It is likely that this breakdown of the traditional system will take the form of the academic community taking complete control of the journal publishing process, removing publishers and information brokers from the situation completely.

 

5. A Vision for the Future of This Guide or Similar Efforts


In my opinion, while the total number of high quality Internet resources in the field of religious studies is finite, this entire body of material is too large and too complicated for one person to organize effectively on an ongoing basis. If several different people try to manage this large task separately from each other, their efforts will be redundant as well as being insufficient. It is clear that the most rational plan is for different parts of an Internet guide in religious studies to be delegated to various persons. One person could be responsible for the page on ethics, another for the page on Hinduism, etc. A team of such persons could be recruited from the ranks of professors, advanced graduate students, or librarians with subject area expertise. Each could be paid a small amount, such as three to five thousand dollars per year, to spend a small number of hours per week maintaining and improving their page. This money could either come from a central source which sponsors the project, or from the budgets of the various institutions with which the page maintainers are affiliated. The overall guidance for the project could come from an organization such as the American Theological Library Association or the American Academy of Religion. The resulting guide would constitute the primary resource which students and professors would turn to when they are seeking to locate Internet resources in religion. In my view, the knowledgeable individuals and modest financial resources which are necessary to make this plan a reality are available within the North American academic community. All that is required is coordination of efforts in this direction by individuals in leadership positions in the American Theological Library Association or the American Academy of Religion.