Thursday, August 19, 2010

Library Love

Two things to note.

First, Rory Litwin of Library Juice has offered some important thoughts on librarianship as a profession that often sells itself on the basis of skills that other professions simply do better.  Litwin argues that libraries need to reestablish what makes them necessary and distinct as institutions, rather than simply chase after "new technological tools" as their justification (not that libraries will abandon these tools or use them any less, but an understanding of the library's purpose or "niche" should not revolve around them).

Second, Melody Layton McMahan, director of the Paul Bechtold Library at the Catholic Theological Union, has started a blogMelody's Blog is described as "An eclectic blog on sustainable scholarship and libraries, book jaunts and research, and odd interests like vocation, children's lit, and ???", and her first post discusses what this will entail at greater length. Her focus on "sustainable scholarship" will be worth following, and can also be found in some of her published work at Theological Librarianship

Her "book jaunts" should also be interesting, and I'll note that I've been toying around with a similar project myself.  If it comes to anything, I'll be mentioning it here shortly.

I write this post on my second-to-last day of employment here at Buswell Library, and I'm glad I can end things here with some good thoughts of librarians I've followed a bit.  As someone working at a library who isn't a librarian (I don't have a degree in library science, that is), I've never felt quite competent in commenting on library matters, although I feel strongly that scholars need to have a better understanding of library work and form stronger connections with these institutions.  In this sense I hope I've acted and will continue to act as a bridge between these two corners of academia.  Theologians and librarians in particular have had a long history together, and I think that if any academic discipline stands in a good place to advocate for and be a part of the strength of libraries in the future, ours does.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A few items...

  • The latest issue of Theological Studies is out.  Included is an article by Talar on the modernist controversy, two articles on Vatican II, and others.
  •  My recent post criticizing Google Books on metadata must have made someone unhappy, because my link disappeared from their page after a few hours.  Still up, however, is a link to Tim Carmody, who discusses some of the problems with Google and also mentions the critical piece on Ars Technica that has been making the rounds.  I think the Ars Technica pieces says it well, and really gets to the heart of the problem at Google.  It isn't so much a problem with bad metadata, but rather with Google's seeming desire to go it alone and act as if it's doing something new, or doing it in a more innovative way than generations that have come before:
"Google may not (or, rather, certainly will not) be able to solve this problem to the satisfaction of scholars who have spent their lives wrestling with these very issues in one corner or another of the humanities. But that's fine, because no one outside of Google really expects them to. The best the search giant can do is acknowledge and embrace the fact that it's now the newest, most junior member of an ancient and august guild of humanists, and let its new colleagues participate in the process of fixing and maintaining its metadata archive"
  • Brian Reed makes some good points about problems of hyper-specialization in the academy, and how it creates unhelpful barriers for non-specialists interested in the literature outside of their own discipline.  This happened to come up twice yesterday when I was speaking with different friends, in one case while discussing analytic philosophy of mind and in the other while discussing editorial work on academic literature more generally. 
"How do you know what's fantastic humanities scholarship these days?  Scholarly journals typically have specialists review books in their own fields, a habit which, no surprise, usually results in pieces that speak primarily to other insiders.Venues such as the TLS and the NY Review of Books and Bookforum can be more useful for the would-be interdisciplinary interloper, but they discuss only a teensy fraction of the academic books published.  They concentrate almost exclusively, too, on new and recent publications, which limits their ability to make sound judgments about a work's lasting value.  And they have a depressing tendency to confuse a non-specialist audience with an anti-intellectual one."
  • Others may be familiar with it already, but I ran across Prickly Paradigm Press for the first time a few weeks ago.   Prickly Paradigm is a continuation of Prickly Pear Press, a British venture where pamphlet length works were published that made a critical contribution to academic disciplines, mostly in the social sciences.  Prickly Pear is run by Marshall Sahlins and distributed through the University of Chicago Press.  As you can see from the website, their title list is a bit outdated.  I emailed their editor the other week, though, and he assures me that a new site is in the works, and that newer titles are available or forthcoming.  Included is Roy Harris, The Great Debate About Art; Ira Bashkow, An Anthropological Theory of the Corporation; and Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lépinay, The Science of Passionate Interests: An Introduction to Gabriel Tarde's Economic Anthropology.  I haven't read any of their work, but it looks like an interesting small press to check into... many of the earlier published titles are now available free in pdf through the publisher.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Metadata as body count.

    Apparently, big numbers do for Google techs what shiny objects do for birds and small mammals.

    Shawn Goodwin (friend and guest blogger) brought a post by a Google employee to my attention the other day, where some of the metadata considerations involved in Google Books were discussed and a rough estimate of the sum total of the world's books was offered.  The impetus?  Leonid Taycher of Google says that people with nothing better to consider often ask him stupid questions like "Just how many books are out there?" 

    In order to answer such a question, Google has had to determine certain criteria for what constitutes a "book".  They're not interested in creative "works" like a given novel or play, but rather, "tomes"... "an idealized bound volume" that can be distinguished as an artifact with any number of copies.  ISBN numbers don't meet Google's standards for a tome count, though, because they are not used universally and have some quirks of implementation even where they are used.  And don't get Taycher started on LCCN or OCLC identifications.  What a mess of duplicate records and various local rules!

    Okay, so all the stuff we've been doing is unhelpful.  But since everyone is asking them stupid questions that couldn't have any possible relevance like "how many books are there in the world", Google needs to find a way to fix all of these idiosyncratic cataloging practices and incomplete records!  Something must be done.  So they come up with algorithms that boil down a ton of bibliographic records in order to make their own catalog.  Yet another catalog.  Because if variation amongst multiple catalogs bothers Google's totalizing instincts, it's obviously a sensible solution to add one more voice to the chorus.

    All that so they can tell us that this week's best estimate for the sum total of the world's books is 129,864,880.  I fail to see the point.

    It's not that I have a problem with what Google is doing for books.  I think that Anthony Grafton's talk at Google offers a sensible case for the symbiotic relationship between digital and print literature, and I'm entirely on board with the democratizing and preservationist possibilities offered by Google.  Further, Google on the whole is approaching their project as a cooperative venture with libraries and even small bookstores. These are good things.

    It is for these very reasons, however, that Taycher's remarks about metadata are that much more confusing to me.  Sure Google has its strengths, but can anyone really say with a straight face that Google's metadata is anywhere near as reliable for a scholar as a small liberal arts college library, or a suburban public library?  This is why alternative projects like Hathi Trust are so important.  The problem seems to stem from an odd fixation on one big, totalizing body count of books.  Taycher brings up the problem of multiple records for one edition of one book, but to what extent is this really a problem for the reader?  Given that any catalog is going to only utilize one OCLC record, and that even in cooperative ILL efforts information like publisher, year, and author is what we're interested in rather than a nine digit string of numbers arbitrarily identifying a cataloger's description of this very publisher, year, author... I fail to see why the diversity and overlap of current library metadata is such a big problem.  Surely the goal for catalogers should be to offer a relatively uniform account of different books that distinguishes them and associates them for the benefit of the patron.  Given such goals, one distinct record for a book is preferable to ten distinct records that say the same thing.  But Taycher gives the impression that these catalogs are inadequate simply because they aren't monolithic.

    Such an attitude makes sense, of course, coming from Google.  Because what they're trying to do isn't exactly to be a worldwide library.  They aren't simply acquiring and taking stock of literature in an organized fashion.  The digitized book in Google is a representation of the actual book on the shelf; it is a replica and to a certain extent its own distinct "tome" (to use their language).  It is something like Magritte's picture of a pipe that is not a pipe.  As Google makes these pictures of books/tomes that are not books/tomes, multiple descriptions (i.e. catalog records) of books that are able to converse with one another, compare notes, and yet continue to reference the same thing are simply a confusion.  Google, after all, isn't interested in describing books.  It is interested in scanning pictures of them for its database, and multiple witnesses (catalog records) only confuse this task by unintentionally suggesting to tone deaf Google technicians that there are more books in the world than there really are, or that these three renderings of this one book amount to saying that there are three separate books.  Google isn't really interested in cataloging written works accurately.  It wants to pile them up accurately in order to make pictures of them.  Bibliographic description is therefore less relevant than a bare inventory.

    Metadata as body count.  Which is really a rather boring and unimaginative way to use metadata.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Islamic theology in German universities

    Qantara.de has two fascinating articles up today about the difficulties and possibilities present in the introduction of Islamic theology to German universities, following recent recommendations from the Wissenschaftsrat (I'm assuming this is the relevant report, although I haven't been following these developments and don't know for sure). 

    I will use the term "Islamic theology" here since I think the sense it makes to anglophone theologians outweighs the limitations of its distinctly Christian provenance, although the preferred term for the German universities is apparently "Islamische Studien". The interview with Peter Strohschneider gets into these nomenclature difficulties more extensively:
    Islamic Studies as a theological subject are connected with a belief in Islam, while "Islamwissenschaften" are not. We suggested the term "Islamic Studies" even though it has some risks, for example the fact that in English it is equivalent to what we call in German "Islamwissenschaften", the subject we are trying to distinguish it from. We deliberately avoided using the word "theology" because it comes from the Christian tradition, but the problem is that the only terminology available in the German language has been shaped by Christianity or concepts with a traditional Christian background.

    "Islamwissenschaften" are studies that are not bound up with a certain confession, similar to Literature Studies or History Studies. Islamic Studies in our sense by contrast is a confessional course of studies in the structural sense, just as Protestant Theology and Catholic Theology are.
    Strohschneider also discusses the make-up of governing bodies charged with making decisions about the institutional future of Islamic theology, and the balance of religious institutional structures against state and academic interests.  Here I think there are a good deal of parallels with problems that arise in Christian theological inquiry, where the relationship between theological work and ecclesiastical authorities on orthodoxy and pastoral matters are often ambiguous.  Despite these ambiguities, Christian theology at least enjoys a long history of conventional practices within the secular academic setting, and so benefits from a basic familiarity with the problem if not its viable solutions.

    The second article, "Lateral Thinkers Wanted" by Klaus von Stosch, touches on considerations that will be more relevant for those of us actively involved in theological inquiry already.  Indeed, much of what he says sounds vaguely familiar, and while the distinctions he draws within Islam wouldn't exactly map on to distinctions within Christianity, one can easily imagine a similar sort of thing being done for Christian theological inquiry.  Stosch speaks of "modernists" and "conservatives" within Islam, following the predictable characteristics of either category.  The inevitable (though we still act as if it is a fresher option than previous dualisms) Third Way is then introduced,
    So what we have left is the third group of Muslims, who on the one hand affirm our liberal democratic order and the secular organisation of our communities without reservations, but who at the same time bring with them a sensitivity for the dialectics of information and the social processes associated with those. Only this group can, through theological reflection, expose the emancipatory potential of Islamic thinking and establish a dialectical relationship between Islam and our society. Only this group succeeds, in fundamental solidarity with the values of the constitution, in revealing the liberating potential of the Koran for the victims of modernisation.
    While I find the seemingly imperative hunt for such mediating panaceas a bit tiresome, I'm not intending to dismiss Stosch's point.  These are all relevant concerns and useful responses to them.  I'm not in a position to say how accurate a description of the Islamic situation this is, but certainly from my own religious vantage point the whole thing resonates and sounds plausible as an outline for the possibility of future Islamic theological inquiry in the German universities.

    One contribution I would make to all of this reflection is to consider the relationship between theology on the one hand as a relatively speculative and philosophical discipline and on the other hand as tied much more to the canonical tradition of texts and laws for a given faith.  Often I think that "theology" as we normally identify the inquiry is a creature of the secular situation... and I mean "the secular situation" as something going more than a dozen centuries back rather than simply during the last few modern centuries.  The nature of theology as a detached rational inquiry not entirely concerned with the tradition of ecclesiastical texts (i.e., theology as non-exegetical inquiry) only seems to arise when discourse follows norms determined by certain philosophical possibilities, and when the purpose of inquiry is to pursue truth by these various open-ended discursive processes rather than by an examination and development of a statutory tradition of some sort. 

    The philosophical sort of theology is already quite at home within the secular academy- perhaps not always as a welcome presence, but at least as something that is recognizable and has played a role in the development of the arts and sciences with which it is included.  Exegetical inquiry, on the other hand (and here I'm thinking things like midrash, fiqh, canon law, biblical exegesis, etc.) does not seem to have the same sort of relationship with academic inquiry.  With the exception of Christian biblical exegesis (which through philology and textual criticism has made unique inroads into recent secular academic institutions), most of these exegetical disciplines are heavily institutionalized within their associated faiths and work independent of the secular academy.

    Much of the difficulty presented in the articles over how to understand "Islamic theology" and how it should be represented seems to turn on this sort of internal division present in the Abrahamic theological sciences.  There is of course a long tradition of Islamic theology engaging with Aristotle, Plato, and on these bases with Jewish and Christian thought.  For this reason, I don't think that identifying an Islamic "theology" recognizable to the secular Western academic tradition needs to betray any sort of Islamic particularity.  But this applies (as in Christianity and Judaism, probably) primarily to the philosophical sort of theology, and not to the text- and tradition-based inquiry that will have more trouble within secular institutional settings where Islam isn't quite so native (I make this distinction rather than simply speaking of secular institutional settings simpliciter because the same concern for native/foreign status is present in other faiths.  For instance, Anglican ecclesiastical law is a more recognizable presence within British secular institutional contexts than in the U.S. simply because the Anglican presence is native to the development of secular learning there.  One might argue the same for biblical studies as a sort of Protestant native to German, and through their influence to Anglophone, secular institutional contexts.  Islamic "exegetical" theology isn't foreign to German secular inquiry because Islam is inherently non-secular, then, but rather because the German secular academic tradition has not been informed by the Islamic tradition to the extent that it has been by the Protestant tradition).

    The point, then, is that the varying classes of assimilability that are so vexing for Stosch may be more a matter of differing tasks within theological inquiry and differing native secular soils within which those tasks are being planted.  While the modern/conservative liberal/anti-liberal binaries are certainly identifiable and worth talking about, I'm not sure that they're quite so central to an explanation of the complexities facing Islamic theology in the universities... or for that matter, Christian theology in the universities.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    A few items...

    • Paul DeHart on Schleiermacher, Paul Molnar on Barth, and Daryl Ellis on Jüngel in the latest issue of Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie (52.1 out in July?  Christoph Schwöbel's editorial discusses the new editorial team and shifts in the journal's focus, but doesn't mention why 2010 has gotten off to a slow start.  Part of the NZSTh website lists their publication as triannual while elsewhere it is still listed as quarterly, so perhaps they are in the midst of a shift?  Others surely know better than I do... please share.)
    • This news has been out for a few weeks, but the Seminary Co-op Bookstore will be moving across the street to the McGiffert House in light of the Milton Friedman Institute being set up.  The new space sounds promising: "Cella said the increased space, coupled with increased investment in the Co-op, would allow the store to expand into areas that customers regularly ask about—a broader coverage of the sciences, for example, and more literature in languages other than English. He said the Co-op would be able to host on-site author signings and other events for the first time, and would be able to serve large crowds more comfortably at peak times, such as when students are buying books at the beginning of the quarter."  Chicago Theological Seminary will be moving to a new building to be built and maintained by the University of Chicago.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    In Memoriam: Gerald F. Hawthorne

    We just received word on campus that professor emeritus of Greek, Gerald F. Hawthorne, has passed away.  He had been in hospice care for the past month or so.

    I'm not personally familiar with Hawthorne's scholarship, never having had a course with him and not being in biblical studies.  Initially, I knew him during my time working as a student at the College cafe, where he would often come with his grandson and order ice cream.  We would chat, but at the time I wasn't aware of his academic career.  It was only when I attended the inaugural lecture of Karen Jobes for the Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis that I realized the guy standing with his wife to receive applause and bless the holder of his namesake chair was the same one who talked with me over ice cream at least once a week in the basement cafe next door.  Since working on staff in the library I have continued to run into him regularly, as he had an office across the hall from where I work.  Our interactions over these past few years have mostly involved brief "hello's" and my helping him with the copying machine, but for others he obviously had a deeper impact- you could always hear Dr. Hawthorne bellowing on the phone to someone or laughing in a similarly loud fashion with a visitor.

    The blog of the Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections has revived one of their earlier posts on Hawthorne and a regular gathering he started with Art Rupprecht (under whom I did have a class) in commemoration of his death.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    A few items...

    As of this past weekend, we are Hyde Park residents, although I'll continue to work at Buswell Library for another three weeks into August.  Over the next month I imagine I'll be busy working and unpacking/setting up home, but there's enough in my bookmarks to put together an "A few items..." post.  Some thoughts about the book v. the article in scholarly publishing and other matters related to the past few posts on book culture may make it into some posts over the next few weeks as well.
    • In Classical Philology 105.2, Peter Van Nuffelen has an article on Varro's lost Antiquitates rerum diviniarum (which theologians will be aware of through Augustine's City of God), where he argues that "Varro's views on Roman religion and its history as expressed in ARD depend upon an originally Greek philosophical idea, possibly of Stoic origin, according to which religion contains primitive wisdom, that is, the truthful knowledge about the cosmos that earliest man possessed.  This new hypothesis will allow us to probe beyond Varro's self-confessed pragmatic aim, and will correct the conclusion, drawn by those who study the ARD mainly in relation to its cultural environment, that Varro was interested in tradition for tradition's sake." (p. 163). 
    • Dennis Johnson of Melville House has stopped by to comment on my previous post about "The Trouble With Amazon".  He's offered some more specifics about publisher relationships with Amazon, and about the costs of bringing print and e-books to completion.
    • The other day I was told that I'm apparently the face of research here at Buswell Library.  On the top left of the LibGuides research assistance pages that are now up, you can find me reading a book during a lunch break from a few years ago (I can assure you I wasn't so vain as to pose for this picture... a colleague was going around with a camera taking pictures for our website when I happened to be in the stacks).  A number of research guides for biblical and theological studies are included on the site.