New British Library metadata for theology and church history

Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

Less well-known that it should be is the British Library’s recent venture of making subsets of its collection metadata available for download and reuse on a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication basis.

Of particular interest is a dataset extract from the British National Bibliography in March 2015 for theology, subdivided into monographs and serials. The BNB extends as far back as 1950, and my count suggests that there are some 119,000 entries in the monograph file, and 4233 for serials. This looks to be a incredibly rich resource for thinking about the discipline in the last few decades. My initial searches suggest that there is a great deal here for ecclesiastical history as well.

The files may be downloaded near the foot of this downloads page.

Update:  special care is required in the period before 1960, as there is a very large slump in numbers of monographs included between…

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Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source: field notes from the SeNeReKo project

[A guest post by Frederik Elwert, post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Religious Studies at Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany. He is to be found on Twitter @felwert ]

The Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at Ruhr-University Bochum is a great place to study religion, with a variety of scholars from different backgrounds contributing to interdisciplinary research projects. But despite its innovative research, it still inherits much of the conservatism of its constituent disciplines, Religious Studies, Theology, Indology, Islamic and Jewish Studies, and others. When we started with SeNeReKo, a small digital humanities project, in 2012, we got an opportunity to learn many new lessons on open scholarship.

I am glad to have the opportunity to share some of my ideas on this topic here on the OA-OA blog. I will not talk about Open Access, probably the last step in the research cycle, although colleagues of mine at CERES recently started collecting experiences with that as well, launching a small Open Access online journal called Entangled Religions last year. Instead, I will focus on the prerequisites of open research, which play an even greater role in the digital humanities: Open Data, Open Standards, and Open Source.

Open Data

SeNeReKo is short for the rather lengthy title “Semantic and social network analysis as a tool to study religious contact”. That title highlights the methodological focus of the project. In fact, when funding this project (along with 23 others), it was the German ministry of education and research’s intention to use previous years’ digitisation efforts as a starting point for advances in the analysis of existing collections. The data is there, now what to do with it? It was important for us not having to digitise sources ourselves, something we would not have been able to do within the project’s time frame. But we still learned a lot about the difference between “existing data” and “reusable data”.

There are plenty of religious sources available online. A plethora of websites allows one to read and query databases of religious texts. But terms of use differ a lot, if they are made explicit at all. This is striking, given that most of these texts are some hundreds (or thousands) of years old and should be seen as a common good. But in many cases, specific translations, editions or collections are restricted in access. But in order to re-use data, it is important to have full access to the data. This is a legal as well as a technical problem.

On the legal level, one must have the right to access, store and process data. Without being an expert in this area and without elaborating on differences between countries, this is often covered by academic freedom. In the case of digital projects more crucial, however, is the right to re-distribute: In their presentation of research results, digital projects are not limited to quoting small snippets of the text. They can also display a complete re-sampling of the original data, providing not only results of interpretation, but also tools for interpretation. This requires permission to present and thus to re-distribute the data. (Or only to provide a very limited “distant” view on the data that does not allow one to re-assemble the original text, like in Google’s ngram viewer.)

But there is also a technical challenge: In order to re-use data in innovative ways, one has to have access that goes beyond of what the search interfaces of the collection’s website allows. If we want to re-model religious texts as networks of meaning, then we need to have all the information the source edition provides in a machine-readable form.

In our case, we were particularly interested in the Buddhist Pali Canon and in Ancient Egyptian sources as two exemplary cases. For both, digital editions exist that are regularly used by scholars in the respective fields. The Pali Canon is available in the Chattha Sangayana edition. This edition has previously been sold on CD, but since some years, it is freely available online. More interestingly, the website makes the machine-readable source files available in an (albeit outdated) TEI-XML format. However, the Vipassana Research Institute that publishes this edition does not explicitly state under which terms the data are available. After contacting them, we found them to be very liberal and open, but the case shows the problem of missing licenses that make it difficult to re-use data, even if it is published with an implicit motivation to allow various use cases.

A collection of Ancient Egyptian texts is available from the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Their website provides quite sophisticated search options, translations, and links each word in the texts to the project’s dictionary. But the texts are available only through the interface the site provides. There is no way to download the underlying source data in a machine-readable format for further analyses. We found the Academy to be quite responsive to our requests, but it required lengthy negotiations with legal counsels involved on both sides until a data sharing contract was signed. As part of the contract, the Academy provided us with an XML export of their internal database, giving us access to all the information hidden behind the web interface.

For open scholarship to thrive, we need open data. In my opinion, especially large collections and editorial projects cannot regard their data as a treasure that must be protected. These institutions are rather infrastructure providers, they should allow others to use their data in creative ways in order to generate new insights. Open licenses, as they increasingly emerge for Open Access publications, are also needed for open data.

Open Standards

Even after receiving the raw data from the Academy, we noticed that having the data is not enough: You also have to be able to read them. Reading Old Egyptian was not the issue, since we have competent Egyptologists in the project. But reading a project-specific database schema invented some 20 years ago with all linguistic information encoded using numeric codes proved to be an issue. It took us almost two years of data archaeology to decipher the format, which was only possible with the extensive help of researchers from the Academy who were familiar with the encoding schema.

When we planned how to deal with these project-specific formats, we decided to convert all the files to a standard format before actually doing our analysis. This allowed us to work on a common format for both our corpora, instead of adapting our methods to the specifics of each corpus’ format. And additionally, this allowed us to develop our software in a way that it can be applied to other texts and languages beyond our project with no or only little adaptation.

Still, finding a common format in practice is not always easy. Often, there are no official standards, but rather a collection of de-facto standards, sometimes competing with each other. And using a standard file format does not automatically mean that data can be exchanged between projects and tools. The Pali Canon already was available in a TEI XML format, albeit in an outdated version that still required some work. So using TEI as the basis for converting our corpora seemed to be the obvious choice, also given its spread in the digital humanities context. But TEI can be seen as a family of formats rather than as a definite standard, with many alternative ways of encoding the same thing. So we learned that it is not only important to have a standard format, but also to agree upon how the standard should be interpreted. And this can hardly be achieved on a general level, but rather one needs to have a limited community of people who share some goals and who agree on a way to build compatible editions. The EpiDoc initiative is a good example for such a community. For the case of more linguistically than epigraphically interested Egyptologists, an initial core group gathered in 2013 in Liège. People from the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, Berlin, the Ramsès project, Liège, the Rubensohn project, Berlin, and some others (including us) started to discuss different aspects of data interoperability. This discussion continues, so we hope to achieve a certain level of compatibility in the near future.

All this goes beyond the core work of our project. We could have used the data as they were, transform them according to our needs, and do our analyses. But the data transformation took such a great amount of time that we felt obliged to spare future researchers these hassles. In an ideal world of open scholarship, a project like ours could just access the data in a common format and re-use it without major modifications. Documentation is a large part of this, but also collaboration: Interoperability cannot be achieved by one party alone, it requires agreement between data providers and data consumers. In this light, open standards are not just a matter of technical specifications, but of building a community that actively engages in dialogue.

Open Source

In the context of the digital humanities, but also in other disciplines that apply quantitative methods, analyses often involve writing code. When developing new analytical methods, this requires to implement them in code. But even when applying existing methods to one’s material, this can be expressed in code: Instead of browsing the menus of a statistical application like SPSS, the same analyses can be performed using code-driven statistical environments like R—and even SPSS allows to run analyses programmatically as code rather than through its graphical user interface. Instead of analysing networks using the buttons that Gephi provides, one can also run network analyses from Python.

There are two aspects that I think are important when thinking about code in the context of open scholarship: sustainability and reproducibility. Regarding the first point, almost the same arguments apply as with open standards: Of course, it is a good thing to provide code that is produced in research projects under an open source license. But in order to really have a sustainable open source project, this also requires writing documentation and building a community. We are trying to achieve this at least to a certain extend with our software for text network analysis, but only time will tell if we succeed.

But I think it is still relevant that we post our code online. That way, we allow other researchers to reproduce the analyses we performed, and possibly find errors that we overlooked. Ideally, every article we publish would be accompanied by the code for the underlying analyses. Since we constantly refine our methods, we make it possible to jump back to the state of our code that drove the analysis for a specific paper (see this example for my paper at the DHLU2013 conference). Anybody who ever tried to reproduce statistical analyses following only a description of the process knows what difference it makes to actually be able to inspect the analysis step by step. But this also affects publication strategies: new publishing formats and platforms like GitHub and Notebook Viewer for analyses in Python or RPubs for analyses in R allow to publish reproducible articles that embed the code that drove analysis. But they are currently mainly used by a very technical audience and not integrated into general open access publishing models. Ideally, the publication of articles and the publication of code would be intertwined, allowing for open and reproducible scholarship.


Open Access is but one building block of open scholarship—albeit a very central one. In order to make scholarship fully open, other components of the research cycle should be open as well. This affects open data (like freely available editions of historical texts), open standards (like TEI for text encoding), and open source (for reproducible analyses). Much research in Religious Studies and Theology is textual scholarship, and it would benefit a lot from open access to its sources. Still, I feel that there is yet a lot to improve, both technically and culturally.

Our work in the SeNeReKo project brought us into contact with many of these questions that we had not dealt with before. It was an opportunity to learn, to assess what is already possible, and to contribute our share to improve the situation. There is still a lot we know that we can improve in our own scholarly practice, and we have not yet achieved the level of openness that we strive for. But our research would not have been possible without access to data, standardised ways to exchange data, and open source software. I believe there is much to gain for Religious Studies and Theology on the way to open scholarship.

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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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Posted in Open Data, Open Scholarship, Open Tools

Open Library of Humanities Update, Part 2: More about disciplinary curation; a first Religious Studies content initiative; and partnering with libraries for sustainable funding

Open Library of Humanities
In Part 1 of this Open Library of Humanities Update, I reported that the article submissions platform, built in partnership with Ubiquity Press, has been launched and is now accepting submissions. I also introduced the Religious Studies and Theology Section editors. In Part 2, I want to indicate how disciplinary content published on OLH will be curated; announce a first Religious Studies call for papers initiative (an example of content curation); and describe OLH’s sustainable funding model.

Curated disciplinary content and traditional journals in a multidisciplinary environment

The Open Library of Humanities (OLH) has its own ISSN (International Standard Serial Number)—2056-6700—but it’s not a periodical or journal in the traditional sense. OLH is not a single society, association, or departmental title with a general or specific disciplinary focus that publishes articles ‘periodically’ in self-contained ‘issues’. Rather, it is a journal publishing platform that aims to involve a broad multidisciplinary constituency across the humanities. As I mentioned in Part 1, the megajournal platform model is designed to scale publishing capacity while bringing economic cost advantages. As a multidisciplinary gathering place, it can also stimulate interdisciplinary conversation and research.

Scholars used to the more traditional journal model may be concerned to know how their published research will be discovered/able in this multidisciplinary environment. I asked OLH co-director, Dr. Martin Paul Eve, if this might put some authors off.

The new megajournal is a space for those who want to submit to the platform for the broader benefits it may bestow (access, speed of publication, etc.). You are right that it is harder to attract submissions here because of the breadth. If a space is for everyone, there is a temptation for everyone to assume that it is not for them. We have a large number of pledged articles, though, and these are coming in. We are also in the process of crafting specifically shaped CFPs [calls for papers] for special collections in the areas of our editors’ expertise within the megajournal.

Jonathan Harwell, one of the Religious Studies and Theology Section editors also responded to this question.

The OLH platform is open for submissions from academics across the humanities, and some disciplinary sections have received more submissions than others at this point. With this in mind, our calls for papers are actively targeting those sections that have not received as many submissions yet. Since each Section Editor has a distinct disciplinary interest, it isn’t as if articles are being sent into a single pool for curation and peer review. Rather, the articles are delivered to specific editors according to the disciplinary emphasis. Scholars who find their homes in distinct disciplines within the humanities, as well as those doing interdisciplinary research, now have a major opportunity to submit their work to a broad megajournal that houses a cross-section of papers curated by editors in relevant disciplines.

So, again, OLH will be fully browsable/searchable like any robust modern web-based publishing platform. I imagine it will also be regularly crawled for search engine discoverability. But Section Editors will bring disciplinary focus through curation of published content. This could take the form of “overlay journals” or special collections (more on this in a moment).

Dr. Eve told me that the megajournal platform will also be used to host existing disciplinary journals that choose to convert to open access from a subscription model. These journals can maintain brand independence while utilizing OLH’s technical infrastructure.

Journals that come on board the OLH are a different matter and the focus on ‘overlay’ is perhaps misplaced. The idea here is that they can maintain their full autonomy of brand and peer review practice. They can accept submissions, run special issues, choose to operate on a rolling or issue-based publication schedule, etc. We will underwrite their costs and take on their technical platform. Therefore, if there are existing journals who would like to discuss this, we are interested in hearing from them. We are basically a publisher who can help run an OA journal without author fees.

The journals are ‘overlay journals’ in one specific sense, though. If the editors wish, we are developing the functionality to allow them to build a table of contents, in a separate space in their current ‘issue’, that points to articles elsewhere in the ecosystem. It’s a little like a retweet on Twitter. If an editor sees an article somewhere else in the OLH, and thinks it will be of value to their readers, we’d like them to be able to craft a custom ToC that demonstrates this. In this way, editors are valued for their curatorial role while articles may benefit from increased readerships.

First OLH Religious Studies curated content initiative: Call for papers: “Religious Subcultures in Unexpected Places” Special Collection

As I reported in Part 1, the formal launch of OLH is slated “between May and Summer” with an estimated 120 published articles (based on scholar pledges). The potential for usefully curating content with a disciplinary focus will be demonstrated at launch through a number of targeted disciplinary “special collections.” These special collections will be like thematic or special topics issues in traditional journals.

One such special collection is being planned by Religious Studies and Theology Section editor, Jonathan Harwell. He has just released a call for papers called “Religious Subcultures in Unexpected Places.”

Other Section Editors in religious studies and theology have a range of specific interests. My own emphasis is where those studies intersect with anthropology. That is the focus of this special collection. We’re aiming to publish 4-6 peer-reviewed articles. I’d appreciate your assistance in spreading the word regarding this call for papers.

Follow the link for more information.

How will OLH be sustainably funded? Library Partnership Subsidies

OLH received initial funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to kickstart the project and build out the technical infrastructure in partnership with Ubiquity Press. As has been mentioned, OLH will operate as a not-for-profit entity and will capitalize on the scalability of its web-based online platform to reduce costs. But how will it be funded sustainably if it is neither relying on subscription revenue—as most traditional academic journals do—nor planning on imposing author-facing charges—known as “article processing charges” or APCs, as many open access journals, particularly in the sciences, do?

For Martin Eve, the question of sustainability at OLH is first contextualized within a strong philosophy of commitment to access in humanities scholarly communications:

It seems clear to me that the market model for scholarly communications is failing us. Libraries and scholars share, worldwide, the same goal: for high-quality, peer-reviewed research to be published so that the broadest audience can get access. The subscription mode, though, has led to an access gap and budgetary crisis based on well-documented hyperinflationary price hikes. By contrast, other proposals to fund gold open access seem only to replicate this inequality on the author side: no pay, no say. The philosophy of the OLH model is that we will all get better value if we pool our resources to achieve our shared aim. In this way, there is no local concentration of costs, there is no exclusion based on authors being unable to pay and libraries of all sizes can make a meaningful contribution, relative to their own financial stature, for these disciplines, which lag behind the sciences on open access.

The innovative funding approach OLH has settled on is captured in Eve’s phrase “libraries of all sizes can make a meaningful contribution.” Currently, academic libraries are major purchasers of journal literature on behalf of their institution’s students, faculty, and researchers, typically through subscriptions on a title-by-title or bundled basis. Every library has to pay to assure ongoing access through a quasi-monopolistic system immune to normal pricing pressures. Ironically, the access that libraries are paying for is often to the very research produced by the scholars at their own institutions. In this system, libraries become mere purchasing agents facing continually reduced purchasing power as their budgets flatten, decline, or otherwise fail to keep pace with publisher inflation.

OLH is proposing a meaningful role for libraries to directly support the work of humanities scholarship at their institutions and beyond while helping to assure access for users at their institutions and beyond. The OLH Library Partnership Subsidies (LPS) [PDF] is a cooperative program that aims to leverage the modest on-going contributions of numerous libraries to reduce the cost of publishing open access articles on the OLH platform without requiring authors to bear any cost of publication. The more libraries that participate the lower the per article cost, facilitating greater publishing capacity.

In this illustration (from the LPS flyer), the cost to publish 250 articles per year on the OLH platform is estimated at $185,000 (or $740/article). But distributed across an increasing number of participating libraries, the cost per article borne by each participant falls significantly. The contribution required by each library also falls.

LPS cost illustrationWith this approach, the role libraries play shifts from purchasing agent to a direct funder of research communication. OLH envisions a further role for participating libraries as members of a Library Board, consulting in OLH governance decisions, including the inclusion of new disciplinary overlay journals.

Recently, OLH announced a partnership with the library consortium organization LYRASIS to serve as exclusive agent for signing up OLH library partners in North America (membership in LYRASIS is not required to participate). Yearly participation rates have been set in the United States for the following tiers:

  • $1,000 for 10,000+ FTE institutions
  • $750 for 5,000-9,999 FTE institutions
  • $500 for 0-5,000 FTE institutions

This looks like excellent value. To translate my own interest in this innovative project into productive support, I just signed up my library as a partner.

Posted in Economics & Business Models, Open Access, Open Access Journals, Peer Review, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Associations, Scholarly Journals

Open Library of Humanities Update, Part 1: Now accepting submissions; Religious Studies and Theology editors in place

OLHlogoAn idea whose time has come often takes time to develop. Two years have elapsed since Dr. Martin Paul Eve first issued a call on his blog for participants to help build a “PLOS-style model for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” (I covered and commented on Dr. Eve’s call here.) A broad and deep response to this call from the humanities community internationally set this timely idea in motion through scholar-led organization and governance, seed grant funding, and lots of hard work. On December 2, 2014, the Open Library of Humanities site announced that through its technology partnership with the open access publisher Ubiquity Press, the submissions platform for the multi/interdisciplinary humanities “megajournal” is now open and ready to accept submissions! The formal launch of OLH with the publication of an estimated 120 articles (based on scholar pledges) is slated for “between May and Summer 2015.” You can visit OLH’s submissions platform here to learn about publication guidelines, and to submit your article. See also this announcement on the Ubiquity Press blog.

The “megajournal” concept leverages the ubiquitypresslogoscalability of a robust centralized online submissions and publication platform. Ubiquity Press has built the enhanced platform based on Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal Systems open source journal software. The platform will serve as a multidisciplinary humanities research environment.

OLH takes a broad, inclusive understanding of the academic humanities, from classics, religious studies & theology, modern languages and literatures through to political philosophy, critical legal studies, anthropology and newer subject areas such as critical theory & cultural studies, film, media & TV studies. (from the OLH Library Partnership Subsidies flyer)

Section editors have been selected and are tasked with receiving and pre-screening relevant disciplinary submissions, routing them to qualified peer reviewers, corresponding with authors, promoting OLH, etc. Additional editors will be engaged as article submission volumes increase or as subject expertise needs to be expanded. The section editors will also curate content into disciplinary “overlay journals.” As this content builds and overlay journals are identified (including established journals currently outside of OLH that might choose to publish their content in a co-branding relationship with OLH), authors can submit articles targeted to these specific discipline areas or journals. Since content across the platform will be browsable/searchable, the megajournal can also contribute to and support interdisciplinary research.

Religious Studies and Theology Section editors are in place

Speaking of section editors, a slate for Religious Studies and Theology editors have been selected and are now in place, ready to shepherd your submissions through the editorial and review process:

  • Jonathan Harwell, Collections and Systems Librarian, Rollins College, Florida, USA, with a research interest in the cultural history of Quakers in the Southern United States
  • Athanasios Koutoupas, a graduate student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, with research interests that include Hellenistic Religion and Ptolemaic Egyptian History
  • Dr. Timothy Lubin, Professor of Religion, Washington and Lee University, Virginia, USA, teaches and researches on South Asian (Indian) Religious and Legal History
  • Dr. Thomas E. Phillips, Dean of the Library and Professor of Theological Bibliography, Claremont School of Theology, California, USA, with a research interest focusing on Luke-Acts in the New Testament
  • Garrett Brooks Trott, Reference and Instruction Librarian, Corban University, Oregon, USA, with a background in theological studies

I reached out to these editors and asked them how they learned about OLH; what motivated their interest in becoming a Religious Studies and Theology section editor; and if they could speak to their philosophy of/identification with open access. I received several very thoughtful responses to my inquiry, including this comment from Garrett Trott:

I found out about [Open Library of Humanities] as I was doing some research for a presentation proposal related to open access. I was really intrigued with the idea, particularly as OA really seems to be a “big thing” in the hard sciences—which I believe is in large part a reaction to what publishers have done with some major journals in the hard sciences. However, I do believe that humanities are not far behind—particularly as journal publishers (like Sage and Taylor & Francis) begin to look at taking over more humanities related journals. I really wanted to do my part to make future humanities scholarship available open access—and OLH does exactly that.

And Professor Timothy Lubin replied (excerpted):

My interest in this open access project is a symptom of my frustration with how proprietary practices have developed in the digital era, in the spheres of both dissemination of scholarship and delivery of educational materials. In both these spheres, for-profit publishers and distributers—perversely, given the opportunities for wider dissemination of information—found ways actually to drive up prices on scholarship and textbooks. A few conglomerates have come to dominate the scholarly journals and some monograph series, setting rates far beyond the means of many schools and other institutions. Meanwhile, copyright permissions for course packs, and prices of textbooks, are artificially inflated at alarming rates. …

Although I have good access to material behind paywalls on account of my university post, I have many colleagues in South Asia and Russia (and even some in Europe!) who are stranded outside the paywall. Most of my work pertains to Indian religious and legal history, but readers in India are unable to read much of what is published in the field, and as a result, scholarship there (and even public discourse) is often based on outdated information.

I would like to see this transition come about sooner rather than later, but I recognize that quality control is crucial—open-access should not come to be associated with second-quality work declined by the premier presses. Tenured faculty need to take the lead, so it is in that spirit that I threw in my hat.

I have been impressed by the visibility religious studies and theology is garnering at OLH, including the level of scholarly representation from our disciplines at the organizational level (as I wrote about here*). I think this bodes well, and I look forward to continuing developments.

In Part 2 of this post I want to indicate how disciplinary content published on OLH will be curated; announce a first Religious Studies call for papers initiative (an example of content curation); and describe OLH’s sustainable funding model.

*Note: Peter Webster is now a partner with me here at Omega Alpha. But the blog is not otherwise affiliated with Open Library of Humanities.

Posted in Economics & Business Models, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Open Access, Open Access Journals, Peer Review, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Journals

Public Domain Day 2015 for Religious Studies and Theology? Send in your titles

publicdomain2015logoThe other day after New Year’s I visited the Public Domain Day 2015 page on Duke [University] Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain site. The page celebrates creative and cultural works—books, films, works of art, photographs, music, reports of scientific research (monographs and journal articles), etc.—whose copyrights expire, and on January 1 enter into the public domain in the United States and other countries. The page notes that over time changes in law, especially in the United States, have tended to increase the period (in years) that copyrights remain in force.

When the first copyright law was written in the United States, copyright lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author wished. Jefferson or Madison could look at the books written by their contemporaries and confidently expect them to be in the public domain within a decade or two. Now? In the United States, as in much of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. You might think, therefore, that works whose authors died in 1944 would be freely available on January 1, 2015. Sadly, no. When Congress changed the law, it applied the term extension retrospectively to existing works, and gave all in-copyright works published between 1923 and 1977 a term of 95 years. The result? None of those works will enter the public domain until 2019, and works from 1958, whose arrival we might otherwise be expecting January 1, 2015, will not enter the public domain until 2054. In addition to lengthening the term, Congress also changed the law so that every creative work is automatically copyrighted, even if the author does nothing. (link original)

As a consequence, Public Domain Day also becomes a less celebratory occasion to highlight significant works that could have entered into the public domain had earlier versions of copyright law remained in effect. Specific reference to works published in 1958 above point to time limits on copyright that were in force in the United States prior to the enactment of the Copyright Act of 1976 (the Act went into effect in 1978), which had an initial fixed term of 28 years that was renewable for another 28 years, for a total of 56 years—the period that would have expired on January 1, 2015.

Copyright was intended to grant and protect for original creators the opportunity to derive due recognition and commercial benefit from their creative or intellectual activity. This opportunity was intended to be limited so that, as it were, the energy of that activity could be released back into the public sphere in a friction-free manner to spur fresh creative and intellectual endeavors for the ongoing benefit of society. The Public Domain Day page highlights several reasons why a robust public domain matters, including: supplying the raw material for new creative activity; assuring preservation of past artifacts for future generations; helping to make education more affordable and interactive; the opening of government; and easing the research process for scholars.

Public Domain Day 2015 for Religious Studies and Theology?

Today (January 19, 2015) is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. King was a pastor and a leader in the 1950s-60s African-American Civil Rights Movement, who worked for racial equality in American society based on his Christian beliefs and principles of nonviolence. Serendipitously, as I scanned the list of titles on the Public Domain Day page, I came across Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. This was Martin Luther King’s first book, published in 1958 by Harper & Brothers, as a memoir of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, which he led. The Public Domain Day page commented on the prospects for this book (and others in the list) entering into the public domain:

[I]magine [this book] being freely stride.kingavailable to students and educators around the world. You would be free to translate [it] into other languages, create Braille or audio versions for visually impaired readers…, or adapt [it] for theater or film. You could read [it] online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish [it]. … That is how the public domain feeds creativity. [But] instead of seeing [this literary work] enter the public domain in 2015, we will have to wait until 2054.

As I thought about the titles published in 1958—including King’s Stride Toward Freedom—listed on this year’s Public Domain Day page, I wondered about titles specifically published in the disciplines of religious studies and theology that might have entered into the public domain on January 1. I was particularly interested in my own discipline of Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) Studies. A cursory catalog search brought up several titles that had been influential in my studies, including:

  • Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament. Prentice-Hall.
  • Frank Moore Cross. The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies. Doubleday.
  • Cyrus Herzl Gordon. The World of the Old Testament. Doubleday.
  • Martin Noth. The History of Israel. Harper & Brothers.
  • James B. Pritchard. The Ancient Near East. Princeton University Press.

Send in titles from your discipline(s) of study or research

I would be interested in seeing a list of significant titles from your particular discipline(s) in religious studies or theology that would have entered the public domain on January 1 before copyright term limits were extended (e.g., the current “death of the author plus 70 years”). If you live in the United States, it is fairly easy to identify titles published in 1958, following the approach taken by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. In other places, such as the United Kingdom, I understand previous copyright term limits were the year the author died plus 50 years. In which case, works of authors who died in 1964 would have entered the public domain on January 1. I’d also be interested in hearing your thoughts on the benefits of having scholarly works enter into the public domain.

Posted in "The Hat Tip", Intellectual Property & Copyright

Introducing Peter Webster

A few words of introduction as I join the OA | OA team, in response to Gary’s very generous invitation. I started my academic life as an historian of early modern English religion, but in recent years have carried many of the same preoccupations into the twentieth century. My interests are now in British religious history since 1945, with a particular focus on the Anglican church, the religious arts, and evangelicalism. I have two forthcoming books: one on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, due in 2015; and a second on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester cathedral and the most significant Anglican patron of the arts in the twentieth century.

Despite all this research, my career has not been a traditional SAS_Brochure2012academic one, which explains in part the involvement in this blog. My first job was as a web developer for a digitisation project, when such things were new and exciting. I then moved to London to work on the British History Online project at the Institute of Historical Research (also digitisation, but on a much larger scale.) Alongside that, I took on the management of the institutional repository for the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and its open access journal platform, SAS Open Journals. As a result, I found myself more and more drawn into the debates on open access publishing as they played out in the UK, and in relation to the humanities. A flavour of my thinking may be found on my blog.

Subsequently, I have been professionally involved in the archiving of the web, as part of the UK Web Archive team at the British Library, and as program officer for the International Internet Preservation Consortium. My central interest throughout was understanding what use scholars, particularly in the humanities, were going to make of the archived web as a new class of primary source. This led me to set up Web Archives for Historians, in conjunction with Ian Milligan of the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada). (See some of my blogging on web archiving.)

Most recently I have set up a new consultancy, Webster Research and Consulting, which helps libraries, archives and researchers understand what their users need from digital resources for research, and then to build better services to meet those needs.

These are exciting times in digital scholarship, and I look forward to the journey in theology and religious studies, and helping a little by means of this blog.

Posted in Interviews (Scholars)

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