Digital Biblical Scholarship: Dust to Dust?
The SBL Annual Meeting in 2006 will be held in Washington, D.C., home of the Freer Manuscript of the Gospels (as well as several other important biblical manuscripts). Dating from either the late fourth or early fifth century, the manuscript is for the most part more legible than the average handwritten document of today. It is legible despite some 1700 years having passed—surviving in spite of conditions that would make even the most callous user shudder.
Contrast this with the status of the text of the Hebrew Bible produced by Gérard Weil, a project that started in 1963 and was completed in 1977. A little more than 28 years have passed since that project was completed; informal inquiry produced one respondent who opined that he might have a copy on disk—but he was unsure. And what of the translations, transcriptions, bibliographies, and research notes that biblical scholars produce year in and year out? If the fate of major text projects is uncertain, how much more uncertain must be the fate of important but less well-known material?
Scholars, who are largely not technologists, should practice better data preservation techniques, such as depositing their materials with those possessing the skills to both preserve those materials and migrate them as technologies change. But how many scholars are at institutions that possess both the skill and willingness to undertake such preservation efforts?
Preservation of digital resources has been recognized as a national priority in the United States. The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/, a collaborative initiative of the Library of Congress, was formed to address this sort of issue. In September 2004, $14 million in grants were awarded to a variety of programs concerned with preserving digital resources.
But what programs were funded? Among others are programs to preserve collections of web-based government and political information, digital public television programs, culture and history of the American South, private sector activities during the Dot Com Era, and digital geospatial data resources from state and local government agencies in North Carolina. All worthy projects with subject matter that needs to be preserved, but the sum total for preservation of the work of biblical scholars: $0.00.
There are projects, such as the Oxford Text Archives (http://ota.ahds.ac.uk/), that preserve humanities texts, but as of August 2005, OTA has only three Bibles: two King James texts and one Revised Standard Version. It does not reflect the myriad texts that are produced by the average bible scholar over a lifetime of work.
To summarize at this point:
- Preservation of the work product of biblical scholars is needed
- Scholars by and large lack the skills and institutional resources to ensure that preservation
- Funding is available but has largely passed by biblical studies.
As we all recognize, merely reciting a well-known problem is not really a contribution towards solving it. What can be done to stem the tide of continuing loss of the labors of biblical scholars?
Preservation requires a number of things, which can be loosely summarized as follows:
- Technical skills for preservation
- Standards for preservation (both format and what is preserved)
- Institutional commitment to preservation
- Awareness among scholars of the preservation opportunity
- Institutional neutrality
- Availability of the preserved materials to the scholarly community
- Funding to support all these activities.
There are projects and universities that focus on preservation in particular areas, and this article is not meant to denigrate those efforts, but they fall far short of being available to all scholars. When all of these factors are added up, it sounds like a task for an organization that is committed to biblical scholarship and those who practice it—hmmm, that sounds like the Society of Biblical Literature.
Such a task would not be an easy one for the SBL to undertake, but with the support of its members, it is in the best position to do so. First and foremost, SBL is not associated with any particular university or project; this provides a neutral home for any materials deposited in such an archive. That is not to imply that any current projects or universities don't operate with complete evenhandedness, but simply to recognize that courts and other neutral bodies exist to assuage our suspicions, whether based in fact or not.
Second, as the largest organization of biblical scholars, the SBL could mount a dedicated campaign specifically to raise funds for such an effort, which would provide both its members and the donors with a visible result from their contributions. Whatever one's view of the current national leadership of the United States, it is hard to deny that the Bible and Bible-related themes appear to have an appeal in the halls of government. There is no reason why the SBL should not put itself forward as a representative of biblical scholars and seek to preserve the labors of its members.
Third, as a membership-based organization, the SBL could effectively spread the news about the ability to archive materials that might otherwise be lost as scholars change computers or retire. There are a number of issues, such as standards for formats that would be preserved and access to the contributed materials, that can be resolved only in the context of broad participation by all concerned. The Annual Meeting of the SBL provides a venue for making sure that all concerns are heard and that a consensus is forged to answer such questions.
Make no mistake. All of this is easier said than done. The technological challenges alone are quite large , but as has been seen in other disciplines, answers can be fashioned that meet the real need for preservation. The question for SBL members is whether their life's work is simply ephemera that should pass on with them or a legacy for future generations of scholars. If their work was intended as a legacy for future scholars, shouldn't the SBL undertake to preserve that legacy?
Patrick Durusau, firstname.lastname@example.org.Patrick Durusau is an independent consultant specializing in markup and information technologies, with an emphasis on biblical studies.
Citation: Patrick Durusau, " Digital Biblical Scholarship: Dust to Dust?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=439