IMAGE:  December 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 2
Index to a Canon  
  Written by
Julie Englander
Photography by
Dan Dry
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GRAPHIC:  Three Months among the PyramidsFrom an office in Chicago’s Loop, a group of U of C alumni compiles the world’s largest index of religious journals and book reviews.

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 from the Sears Tower. Some are solicited, as when Arnold, AM’93, the acquisitions manager of the ATLA index department, or one of her colleagues hears of an interesting publication at a conference and requests a copy. Other journals are forwarded by a marketing manager or publisher. A few journals arrive via the Internet—the Journal of Southern Religion, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Though Arnold never clears her desk entirely, she keeps the journals in motion, circulating them up and down the index department’s neat row of cubicles to determine if they should be included in the ATLA Religion Database, or RDB—the biggest of the ATLA indexes and the world’s largest index of religious journal articles and book reviews.

IMAGE: The route from publication to inclusion in the religion Database begins on the desk of Heidi Arnold (above), and ends a few months later when Cameron Campbell, AM'84 (below, right), signs off on the index's latest edition.  
The route from publication to inclusion in the religion Database begins on the desk of Heidi Arnold (above), and ends a few months later when Cameron Campbell, AM'84 (below, right), signs off on the index's latest edition.


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 Chicago, where they immersed themselves in 17th-century English devotional literature, the Old Testament, and Syro-Palestinian archaeology. They took courses in the Divinity School, the comparative-literature department, and the erstwhile Graduate Library School. Some are still taking classes or writing dissertations. Quite a few worked at the Regenstein Library, including Cameron J. Campbell, AM’84, who until two years ago was the Reg’s head of serials and digital-resources cataloging and now heads the ATLA index department.

“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 Chicago grads wields a certain power. While they don’t determine the canon of religious scholarship, their work inevitably helps shape it.

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.

IMAGE:  The route from publication to inclusion in the religion Database begins on the desk of Heidi Arnold (above), and ends a few months later when Cameron Campbell, AM'84 (below, right), signs off on the index's latest edition.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 Cuba and Africa that are strapped for resources, “CD-ROM is about all they can handle right now.”

But for those who can access the online version, the benefits are obvious. One scholar at a small institution in the Dakotas  called the RDB a “godsend” for those in remote locations. It’s also simplified the logistics of research. Carolyn Coates, AM’87, a former editor of the Religion Index One, the periodicals subset of the RDB, points out how easy it is to switch from, say, Humanities Index to Sociological Abstracts while planted at a computer terminal. “It used to be you’d have to go up and down the stairs to do that,” says Coates (who left the ATLA this fall for an academic library post in Connecticut), recalling her years at the Reg studying the history of religion and Japanese religions. Juggling a dozen or so print volumes of an index also was “very cumbersome.”

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 Loyola University, has its limits. “There’s a point at which bindings simply break,” he says. But not so in cyberspace—at least in theory. “The container does tend to shape the contained,” observes department director Campbell, speaking in Zenlike phrases that reflect his indexing of journals on Buddhist practice and philosophy. “Suddenly things became possible that were not possible before.”

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 Campbell’s wish list is an indexer fluent in modern Hebrew and Arabic.

IMAGE: Nina Schmit, AM'97; Arnold; Steven Holloway, AM'83, PhD'92; Todd Ferry, AM'01; Campbell; standing: Gregg Taylor, ABD; Kurt Buhring, AM'98; Lowell Handy, AM'80, PhD'87.
Nina Schmit, AM'97; Arnold; Steven Holloway, AM'83, PhD'92; Todd Ferry, AM'01; Campbell; standing: Gregg Taylor, ABD; Kurt Buhring, AM'98; Lowell Handy, AM'80, PhD'87.

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 American Academy of Religion–Society of Biblical Literature conventions, he’s talked to scholars who say the RDB is the only research tool they use.

“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, Campbell asks, is that what ATLA indexers should aspire to provide? There’s a scholarly standard to be maintained: the department would be loath to index what Handy terms “mom-and-pop-in-the-kitchen newsletters,” even if the indexers had all the resources in the world.

But there are limited resources. On average, creating and finishing each indexing record costs $7–$8 in salaries and benefits, according to Campbell. Adding more journals than the indexers can process in a timely manner, he points out, would undermine the currency of the semiannual listing, producing too big a gap between a journal’s publication and its inclusion in the index. Then there are the limitations of existing information systems. Neither the RDB nor most library computer terminals, for example, can handle the Cyrillic alphabet.

The department’s logistical limitations can have a very real impact on publishers submitting journals. Many libraries, Campbell says, determine their acquisitions based on what’s covered in the database, which is updated semiannually (possibly quarterly in the next fiscal year). For a small publisher—and some 80 percent of the indexed journals, acquisitions manager Arnold notes, come from single-title publishers—inclusion can mean a significant increase in subscriptions. And for the past 18 months the association’s new ATLAS project has brought online the full text of the articles in approximately 60 journals indexed in the RDB, affording those particular journals still further attention.

IMAGE:  Index to a CanonAnd so the hopeful submissions continue to come in. Two recent journals to cross Arnold’s overflowing desk for possible RDB inclusion were Medieval Philosophy and Theology, from Cambridge University Press, and Old Testament Essays, the only journal published by the Old Testament Society of South Africa. Each indexer read several issues of the two publications, and their recommendations were tallied. It can take six months to a year to determine what to do with a journal: accept it for indexing, put it on a wait list, or decide it’s not right for the database. In each of the past five years, the indexers have added an average of 18 titles, primarily academic, peer-reviewed journals with established publishing records. Most publishers are “only too happy,” says Campbell, to grant the ATLA complimentary subscriptions.

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 written to Arnold that he will “hope and pray” for its inclusion.

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 Campbell. “This is not the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.”

Julie Englander lives in Chicago, where she works on documentary and other nonfiction television projects.



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