Religious studies in the web archive: a new opportunity?

To paraphrase a former archbishop of Canterbury, this post is a call to hearken unto the cause of the archived web. Religious studies scholars were quick to embrace the emerging discipline of Internet Studies (1), and in particular to see the potential of social media as an object of study for understanding new ways in which individuals and organisations acted religiously online.

This enthusiasm has not been matched by a similar engagement with the archived web. The group of researchers engaged by the Institute of Historical Research and the British Library as part of a recent project included historians, archaeologists, and scholars of contemporary literature, economic life and sociology, but no scholar from within the broad disciplines of theology and religious studies. This is a shame, since the time coverage of the most long-standing web archives such as the Internet Archive is now nearly two decades. These resources now afford an opportunity to examine patterns of change in the recent past; questions that are out of scope for the more present-focussed field of Internet Studies. (I shall be arguing for a closer integration of these fields at a forthcoming conference in Oxford, in May.)

But what kind of inquiry does this new class of scholarly resource allow? At the most basic level, the existence of web archives allows scholars to consult versions of webpages that have either changed in important ways, or disappeared entirely. For example, the UK Web Archive has a copy of the aid charity Christian Aid’s stance in relation to the General Election in the UK in 2010, which is no longer live. Neither is the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church in England in the same election.

This kind of use is similar in kind to the sort of document study that scholars are accustomed to. But the nature of web archives as Big Data also allows a kind of ‘distant reading’: the discernment and interpretation of trends across larger bodies of material. I have myself explored the change in link structures in the UK web in response to a moment of religious controversy—the 2008 row concerning Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and Islamic shari’a law. Another example of this kind of approach is another blog post on the strength and number of inbound links to creationist sites in the UK.

Scholars interested in religious life and feeling in the nineties and noughties will before too long have to engage with the archived web. Scholars curious to know more could do worse that to start with some of the resources listed in the bibliography at Web Archives for Historians.

(1) See, for instance, the survey by Heidi Campbell in Charles Ess & Mia Consalvo (eds), The Handbook of Internet Studies (2011)

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Historian of twentieth century Britain; interested in digital history, open access publishing, web archives. Tweets @pj_webster

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