to a Canon
New journals are
always piling up on Heidi Arnold’s sunny, window-side desk in
the penthouse quarters of the American Theological Library Association
(ATLA), located in a Chicago Loop office building just across the street
Back in 1949 a trio of theological librarians at the then-three-year-old ATLA began indexing contemporary scholarly periodicals on Protestant theology. They focused on what they considered important: journals and books of essays on Old Testament and New Testament studies and heavy doses of church history. The size of the index department has since increased (to a current 11), and so has the scope of its work, which now covers world religions as well as the history and sociology of religion. Meanwhile the ATLA has grown to an 800-member professional association serving theological and religious-studies librarians, and the Religion Database, once published the old-fashioned way as disparate, bulky paper indexes, has entered the Internet age. At last count its online database contained more than 1.2 million records.
While Chicago grads work in many capacities
at the ATLA—microfilming fragile materials, writing programs for information
services, and selling ATLA products—they are represented most strongly
in the index department, the largest in the 37-employee organization.
All but one member of the group has studied at
“It’s not that hard to figure out why
so many of us hail from the U of C,” says indexer Steven Holloway, AM’83,
PhD’92, who began working part time at the ATLA as a “hungry graduate
student” in 1988, when indexing took place in offices near 57th and
University (the indexers then moved to quarters in Evanston, and in
September 2000 the ATLA moved into its downtown digs). After all, ATLA
indexers are not only “obsessive-compulsive,” as Holloway jokes, but
they also are intelligent and read many languages—able to digest the
latest editions of Kabbalah, Svensk Missionstidskrift,
and the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists,
quickly assigning each article a trio or so of descriptive subject headings:
“Waco Branch Davidians Disaster, Tex, 1993,” for example, or “Bible
(OT)—Genesis 1–11.” And this outpost of
The Religion Database works much like the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the first index that many students learn to use, with journal articles, essays, or book reviews (and the publications in which they appear) listed under multiple subject headings.
The RDB indexers currently sift the contents of approximately 700 journal titles. While the purpose of the indexing—to simplify the search for relevant material in the vast amount of literature out there—hasn’t changed much since 1949, the technology has. CD-ROM technology was introduced into reference publishing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then came the aggregators—online subscription services, such as First Search and Silver Platter, that distribute multiple databases covering a variety of subjects. In the span of a decade, the potential reach of tools like the ATLA’s four print indexes was vastly extended, points out executive director Dennis Norlin, and in 1995 the association created a new product—the Religion Database—that would combine records from the existing indexes, one each devoted to periodicals, multi-author works, book reviews, and research in ministry.
Sales of the RDB ($2,300–$2,500 each,
depending on the format and purchaser) have risen from 859 in 2000 to
1,063 this year. The greatest increase came in subscriptions purchased
through online aggregators, while CD-ROM sales saw the greatest drop,
according to sales manager Rick Adamek, SM’77, who has also worked in
the ATLA preservation department and on the book review index. Of course,
says Norlin, it will be a long time before the association’s print and
CD-ROM products disappear. In libraries he’s visited in
But for those who can access the online
version, the benefits are obvious. One scholar at a small institution
And print publishing, says Lowell Handy,
AM’80, PhD’87, a 14-year ATLA veteran who has taught New Testament,
Old Testament, and Introduction to the Bible at
As technology has evolved, so has the widely diverse population using the RDB: scholars, church officials, and seminary students, all with different needs. As it stands the database emphasizes Bible studies and theology more than the indexing staff would like, inadvertently shortchanging fields like the sociology and anthropology of religion, reflecting those fields’ relatively recent academic vogue and the database’s own roots.
There’s an extent to which inclusion in the database is by necessity “haphazard,” according to Coates, who jokingly suggests that all canons are formed “in fits and starts.” A past editor may have decided to index a journal because it was deemed unusual rather than scholarly, and for consistency that editor’s successor continued the task rather than create holes in coverage. If a journal has degraded significantly or its emphasis shifted, making it more appropriately indexed elsewhere, the indexers would discontinue coverage, but this hasn’t happened in recent memory.
In their own shaping of the RDB, today’s
department members would like to increase the number of third-world
journals (currently 51) and branch out from the database’s Western bent.
Certain areas are neglected entirely: all the material on Islam comes
from Western-language publications, rendering sources in Arabic “opaque”
to RDB users. Thus high on
This September the ATLA began a retrospective indexing project, working to bring pre-1949 scholarship into the database. In part, the project is a response to changes in how students and faculty conduct research—according to a recent study by Outsell for the Digital Library Federation, for example, almost 90 percent of researchers begin online. Indexers at the ATLA have anecdotes to back up the quantitative data.
Steven Holloway recalls a conversation with one seminary librarian shortly after that library first received the RDB on CD-ROM in the early 1990s. Rather than explore the extensive bibliography for Biblical studies, Elenchus of Biblica, or the annual index of Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, both of which Holloway terms “superb surveys in print,” the librarian reported that seminary students fawned over an electronic function of the CD called the “scripture browse wheel,” which enabled them to look up hits on particular scriptural passages relatively easily.
Although he admits it could be coincidence,
Handy says he’s followed the careers of a few scholars who only cite
sources indexed in the RDB. And at the ATLA booth at annual
“There’s a modern fetish to rely upon scholarly works published in the last 50—or even 25—years,” Holloway says. But in his personal browsing of 19th-century journals, he’s found “phenomenal things,” citing evolving interpretations of a particular Assyrian palace excavated by the French in the 19th century as an esoteric but fascinating story that unfolded over years’ worth of old journals.
Even if cyberspace
has room for an infinite number of database records,
But there are limited resources. On
average, creating and finishing each indexing record costs $7–$8 in
salaries and benefits, according to
The department’s logistical limitations
can have a very real impact on publishers submitting journals. Many
And so the hopeful submissions continue
to come in. Two recent journals to cross
In the end the indexers decided to include
the full run of Medieval Philosophy and Theology (which dates
to 1991) and to put Old Testament Essays on the wait list until
they have the resources to index it. The wait list, currently numbering
34, will continue to grow, and in the meantime, the Essays editor has
Realizing that their decisions are the
stuff of prayers, the ATLA indexers feel a responsibility to use their
resources wisely. “With a very small staff we do a lot,” says
Julie Englander lives in
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