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Andrew D. Scrimgeour

Institutional memory is a dynamic but elusive phenomenon. It rides the waves of oral culture with its turbulence of competing perceptions, until the questions of a new generation or the desires of the older generations to preserve the past spur historians to sound the depths for artifacts on which to anchor full narratives.


When organizations approach major anniversaries, they often commission an official history as a way to mark that milestone. That was the case over thirty years ago as the Society of Biblical Literature planned for its centennial celebrations. Up to that time, only a few brief histories of the SBL existed.[1] A comprehensive narrative was needed. So it commissioned Ernest W. Saunders to write a history as part of an extensive centennial series, and the result was Searching the Scriptures: A History of the Society of Biblical Literature, 1880-1980.[2]

Saunders' careful sleuthing took him to material scattered across the country in the publications of the Society as well as in "mimeographed committee reports, minutes, budgets, secretaries' notes, business files . . . living memories, and personal correspondence . . . The whole represent[ed] a cross between the Congressional Record and the New York City Telephone Directory."[3] Saunders expressed dismay that there was not an organized archive to consult. In fact, few records existed for the first eighty years of the Society's life outside its publications.[4] Saunders added his voice to others who had been advocating for a formal archive program, a sustained effort that would become a repository of academic merit and not a mere attic of idiosyncratic souvenirs.

Several efforts were made in the late 70's but were not successful.[5] The archive project became a sustained priority of SBL leadership in the early 80's, and an SBL archive was formally established in 1982 at the Iliff School of Theology as a center to collect SBL's files, manuscripts, publications, memorabilia, and ephemera.

Saunders contributed to the fledgling repository the material that he had gathered for his book project, including interview notes of his conversations with a number of older scholars. The office of the Executive Secretary also combed its files for relevant material. The result was about 57 linear feet of material (requiring 19 3-foot shelves) to process in 1982. Since then, the national office, officers of the Society, chairs of the various program units and publication programs, and others have regularly sent material to the Archives, and it has grown rapidly. Today it requires 453 linear feet (requiring 151 3-foot shelves) and is housed and serviced in a state-of-the-art archives building at Drew University.

Saunders hoped that with such a resource, "the SBL . . . could write its history in an accurate and comprehensive form that would do it credit. The history I couldn't write remains yet to be written."[6]


An Anniversary Exhibit
When you enter the exhibit floor in Philadelphia, you will as always find a rich array of publishers and recently released monographs. But you will also see some very old material. Within the exhibit space of SBL, four exhibit cases will feature a sampling of items from the SBL Archives as a way to mark the 125th anniversary of the Society. They will include:
  • A page from the original record book of the Society documenting the admission of the first woman to membership in 1894.

  • A program brochure marking the 100th gathering of the Society in 1964.

  • An array of annual meeting programs ranging from a 6-page leaflet (1964) to the current 400-page books.

  • Material from the first annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis with the National Association of Bible Instructors which later became the American Academy of Religion (New York City, 1909).

  • The minutes of Council creating Scholars Press in 1974.

  • The revised Constitution of 1969 that created the current structure of the SBL.

  • The first brochures of Scholars Press (1975, 1976).

  • Program note on the first meeting of the Women's Caucus at the Annual Meeting (New York City, 1979)
And many more. Be sure and visit the exhibit and pick up a commemorative bookmark.



Scope of the Archives
A quality archive is the result of systematic collecting and the serendipity of treasure troves of documents and manuscripts that are discovered and donated from time to time. When it became known that Saunders was looking for pertinent records for his history volume, a substantial number of hitherto unknown documents and memorabilia were brought to his attention.


The SBL Archive happily accepts any material that is directly related to the work of the Society. It does not wish to have said about it what was written about the Paul Tillich Archive— that it declined pertinent manuscript material. [7]

While the Archives has some early records, they are few in number. Chief among them is a pair of record books kept by the first secretaries; these books encompass the years 1880 through 1920, including reports of Council and the major meetings of the Society. The latest entries are in the "meticulous hand of Henry J. Cadbury." Other than the reports published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, there are few records for 1921-1929; while the files for 1930-1960 are rather slight, they include documents for annual meetings and regional meetings, reports of the treasurer, financial ledgers, and IRS returns.


From 1961 to the present, the files are rich and varied. Financial records are virtually complete. Correspondence files of the Executive Secretaries and some of the Presidents are extensive and include not only exchanges with committee chairs and constituents, but communication with the American Council of Learned Societies, American Schools of Oriental Religion, American Theological Library Association, and the Council on the Study of Religion as well. The general files of Robert W. Funk, George W. MacRae, Paul J. Achtemeier, David Lull, and Kent Harold Richards document the dramatic growth of the work of the Society and the leadership of the Executive Secretaries.

The most expansive files cover the annual meetings, publications, and Scholars Press. Every phase of planning for the annual meetings is fully documented, providing insight into the complexities of such a major event. The minutes of the Publication Committee, as well as documents from the editors of JBL, Semeia, and the various series, show the care given to the selection and editing of current research. The era of Scholars Press is fully documented from the conception documents, financial models, and architectural drawings for both buildings on the Emory University campus, to the politics of a complex academic consortium.

Embedded in the files are unexpected gems. Some of the scholars reviewing articles submitted for consideration by JBL, for example, write substantial bibliographic essays that are worthy of publication. An unpublished talk by Amos Wilder includes a fascinating personal description of Albert Schweitzer visiting Mansfield College:

The Schweitzers had a room in the home of the College Principal, Dr. Selbie. The great doctor worked incessantly at irregular hours. He was a massive figure, and Mrs. Selbie plaintively admitted that even his step or a clearing of the throat at 3 A.M. could shake the house! [8]


The holdings of the Archives, of course, also include copies of most of the publications of the Society - the journals, monographs, newsletters, Annual Meeting Programs, Seminar Papers, and Membership Directories.


All material is available for consultation with only a few exceptions. Restrictions have been placed on personnel files and the like, and they may be consulted only upon the written permission of the Executive Director of the SBL. Access issues are governed by the "Access to Original Research Materials, American Library Association — Society of American Archivists Joint Statement" (February 1994). [9] All documents must be consulted on location in the security-controlled reading room. Limited photocopying of stable print documents is provided for a small fee. Scanning services are also available.




Users of the Archives


The major users are scholars who are members of the SBL. Occasionally, undergraduates contact the Archives for assistance in course projects. And from time to time, media persons will call seeking information about a particular area of biblical studies related to a story they are writing. In 2004, the Archives responded to 21 inquiries; 87 documents, publications, or files were consulted.

Sometimes the requests are for citations to SBL publications or for dates pertaining to the work of the program units. One project compiled a comprehensive set of documents charting the history of changes to the constitution and by-laws for the national office in Atlanta. Another identified all documents pertaining to the evolving role of women in the SBL. One scholar asked for assistance in charting annual program programs devoted to biblical theology and feminist perspectives.


Research Possibilities
The collections are pertinent to a wide range of research projects, including doctoral dissertations, particularly those related to the sociology of the professions and learned societies. A few examples:

  • Evolution of the discipline. Tracing the birth, death, and transformation of program units enriches an understanding of the changing specialties of the field.

  • Profiles of leadership. What are the demographics of the scholars in leadership roles over the decades?

  • Profiles of influence. Who are the gatekeepers determining what will be published? Are articles published by a wide array of scholars or are the authors clustered around a few scholars and their institutions?

  • Individual scholars. The collections are a treasure trove in which to "round out" biographies of biblical scholars.

  • Scholars Press. The history of this major experiment in scholarly publishing needs a thoughtful analysis and evaluation.

  • History of the Annual Meeting. The evolution of the Annual Meeting is a major factor in the evolution of biblical studies and its cognate disciplines.

  • Presidential Addresses. What is the role of the annual presidential address? How has the genre changed, if at all, over the decades. What are the recurring themes? To what degree is it a barometer of the prevailing interests of the field? [10]

  • Governance. What are the significant changes in how the guild has organized itself and made decisions? To what degree is the leadership responsive to its constituency?

  • The AAR/SBL Partnership. The verisimilar courtship, marriage, separation, and likely divorce of the two organizations as seen through the Annual Meeting, Scholars Press, shared office building, and other cooperative efforts should be studied. It is a unique chapter in the history of learned societies in North America.





What Do the Archives Lack?
Some documents that would significantly enhance the collection include:

  • Virtually any material from 1880 to 1960, including program leaflets and books, correspondence, committee reports, and photographs.

  • Media reports on any aspect of the work of SBL, including newspaper coverage of the annual meeting and regional meetings in the host cities.

  • Copies of pre-circulated papers discussed at the annual meetings.

  • Photographs from the annual meetings and other gatherings of governance groups and program unit officers (with description, including names).

  • Multiple copies of program books prior to 1970.


If you know of caches of SBL material that might augment the collection, please be in touch with the archivist or the national office in Atlanta.



Plans for the Archives
As part of the celebration of the 125th anniversary, the following projects will be completed:

  • Collection-level cataloging records will be created for the OCLC database so that scholars searching major databases will discover the SBL Archives.

  • The 300-page Finding Guide to the collections will be placed on-line with easy access from the SBL home page.

  • A gallery of photographs, representing major classes of material, will be placed on-line with easy access from the SBL home page.

Issues for the Future
A range of issues and opportunities need to be addressed in the near future:

  • Regions. Should the scope of the Archives be expanded to include processing materials from the regions, if they do not have provision for the preservation of their records?

  • Individual Scholars. Should the scope of the Archives be expanded to include the papers of biblical scholars who have played major roles in the life of SBL? Many of these scholars would face a double-bind — whether to place their papers in their home institutions or in the SBL archive. What is most critical is not to lose these valuable documents. Too often, these papers are not preserved at all or molder in the cartons in which they were delivered to the home library. SBL Council endorsed "in principle" a proposal to so expand the Archives in 1989, but lack of funding has kept it from becoming a reality. [11]

  • Oral Histories. The Society should establish a program of interviewing senior scholars on camera about their teaching, research, and life in the academy. Such an endeavor should not be relegated to major anniversary seasons, but rather should be a yearly activity. Might, for example, all presidents be interviewed as part of completing their term of office.

  • Papers from the Annual Meeting. A regular request at the Archives is for copies of papers read at the Annual Meeting that have not been published. Should the Archive accommodate such papers if their authors wish to deposit them?

  • Electronic Files. Increasingly the work of the Society is conducted electronically. Saving these digital records is essential. The National Archives and Records Administration is investing in the development of a system that would "preserve e-mail correspondence and other electronic records 'free from dependency on any specific hardware or software, potentially forever.'"[12] Such an accomplishment would dramatically simplify the work of all archives.



Using the Archives
Inquiries are welcome and encouraged:

By phone: 973-408-3322

By email:

By mail: Andrew D. Scrimgeour, SBL Archivist, University Library,
Drew University, Madison, New Jersey 07940

In person: Drew University Library, Special Collections and Archives, 36 Madison Avenue, Drew University. Inexpensive housing on campus is available upon prior arrangement with the archivist. It is important to write or call in advance of a visit to ensure that the archivist will be available for assistance.

Final Word
Twenty-five years ago Ernest Saunders envisioned an SBL archive that would be worthy of the discipline of biblical studies. If he had lived to see this anniversary of the SBL, he would have good reason to declare that his dream, in large measure, had been realized and that indeed the SBL had been able to "distinguish an archive of academic merit from an assortment of attic souvenirs."[13] If the SBL had done less, he might well have invoked a caustic line from the poet D. L. Emblen — "we might as well be crows pilfering bits from our old campsites." [14]


Andrew D. Scrimgeour, SBL Archivist, Drew University,


End Notes

  1. For example, "The Society of Biblical Literature: An Assessment of its Influence, 1880-1980," by Walter Harrelson, n.d. Typescript, SBL Archives; two versions exist with the same title, one 23 pp. the other 9 pp. "A Century of Service to American Biblical Scholarship," by Ernest W. Saunders, n.d., typescript, 14 pp., SBL Archives. "The Present State of the SBL and the History of American Biblical Interpretation," by David L. Dungan, 1968, Typescript, 22 pp., SBL Archives. "Memoir on the History of the Society: The Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, 1880-1930 by Nathaniel Schmidt, Journal of Biblical Literature L (1931), xiv-xxiii. The presidential addresses published annually in JBL are a valuable resource as well.

  2. Scholars Press, 1982. It also commissioned a complementary history of Canadian scholarship, A History of Biblical Studies in Canada: A Sense of Proportion by John S. Moir (1982). See also "The Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis," Biblical Criticism in America 1858-1892: The Emergence of the Historical Critic by Jerry Dean Campbell (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Denver, 1982), pp. 249-273.

  3. Saunders, Searching the Scriptures, p. xii.

  4. Saunders, Searching the Scriptures, p. xii.

  5. Exploratory discussions took place with Princeton Theological Seminary and Claremont School of Theology.

  6. "The SBL History I Couldn't Write," p. 10. 1984. A paper read at the 1984 Annual Meeting. Typescript. SBL Archives.

  7. In this case, Tillich's handwritten draft of volume one of Systematic Theology. John Dillenberger, From Fallow Fields to Hallowed Halls: A Theologian's Journey (Polebridge Press, 2004), p. 67. The manuscript may be found with the papers of Dillenberger in the archives of Syracuse University.

  8. "New Testament Studies, 1920-1950: Reminiscences of a Changing Discipline," typescript, 35 pp., n.d. SBL Archives, p. 8.

  9. The document is available at

  10. Kent H. Richards, "The Future of Biblical Studies." Unpublished paper presented at the Center for Judaic Studies, University of Denver, September 27, 1983, typescript, 13 pp., SBL Archives. Richards analyses presidential addresses for themes on the development of the field of biblical studies.

  11. "SBL to Collect Personal Papers of Biblical Scholars," Religious Studies News 4 (1989), p. 4.

  12. "Literary Letters, Lost in Cyberspace," The New York Times Book Review, September 4, 2005, p. 15.

  13. "The SBL History," p. 10.

  14. "Miners All," by D. L. Emblen, Want List &Other Poems About Aging (Running Wolf Press, 2000), p. 74.

Citation: Andrew D. Scrimgeour, " Inventories of the Past, Intimations of the Future: The Archives of the SBL," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:


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