What, you ask, is an interactive scholarly work? I would argue that it is a book which combines prose with the affordances of new media. My children would respond: “Mommy has written a book. You only just made a website.”1 I leave the matter for you to adjudicate. Click through the cover image to decide for yourself.
The project allows you to find a few examples—well, a couple million examples—of how Americans used the Bible in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I’ll let the introduction do the work of serious scholarship, but for now I will just point out that there are all kinds of crazy and fun things to be discovered using the site. Here are a couple.
I doubt that I have looked at even half of a percent of the examples of biblical quotations available on the site. I hope you will find some that interest you. If you do, please send them my way.
People who come to the project by other means will have to content themselves with receiving a free, open-access publication. But you, gentle subscriber, deserve special treatment. If you would like an attractive, signed copy of a postcard—which is the closest thing I can offer you to a signed copy of the book without scribbling on your laptop with a Sharpie—please reply to this email with your address and I’ll put it in the mail. (I will of course not keep your address for any other purpose.) And if you want ten for your book club, Sunday school class, or dart board, that can probably be arranged too.
The project was a lot of fun to make, and I learned a lot while working on it. Now I hope that you have fun exploring the site, and maybe that you learn a little history along the way.
For the record, I have in fact written as traditional a book book as they come, but for some reason that does not count for anything in my household either. At least they are proud of their mother. ↩︎
In this case, the wounds are truly self-inflicted. Scholarly works and textbooks don’t need to be a shrinking business. Many other parts of the book business are flourishing right now. In fact, some niches in publishing are growing rapidly (for example my platform Substack).
But those successful publishers worry about readers. That’s why they’re growing.
I absolutely refuse to accept the economic argument for the crisis in academic books. I believe, as a matter of principle, that there’s an audience for smart, scholarly books. There always has been in the past, and there’s no legitimate reason that should have changed.
Anyone who has ever published with an academic press will find much familiar here. I would add only one footnote to Gioia’s discussion.
Not only are university presses in the business to sell books only to university libraries, they don’t even really sell books. As near as I can tell from my experience using university libraries and publishing with a university press, major publishers like Oxford University Press and Harvard University Press bundle the books they publish into e-book platforms, selling access to the content en masse rather than to individual e-books. Furthermore, they may not even sell the e-books. Instead, the deal is something like this: the book might be made available in a university catalog, but the library doesn’t actually pay until a certain number of users access it. In other words, presses don’t bother trying to sell to readers, but they also aren’t trying to sell specific books even to libraries. They are just content aggregators.
As Americans go to the polls to vote in today’s midterm Congressional elections, they will be able to watch results flow practically in real time. By the end of the day, the data for the election returns will be more or less available. For much of United States history, of course, information flowed more slowly. But even still, we can take it for granted that there are regular records of elections, and that it is straightforward to find out who won.
Not so for the period before 1825. Before that date, there was no federal mandate that state election officials report the results of elections in an official way. As a result, there simply is not a comprehensive record of Congressional elections during the formative era of the early republic and the first party system.
At least, there wasn’t, until Philip Lampi made it his life work to create that archive. Born in 1944, Lampi had no formal historical training outside of high school. But Working for decades, Lampi painstakingly re-created the election returns from 1789 to 1825 by scouring newspapers, local history collections, and every possible archive. His recreation of the election returns for the early republic was, perhaps, the single greatest act of historical recovery for U.S. history.
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, newspapers in the United States—even newspapers which were not published by a religious denomination or organization—made frequent recourse to the Bible. Newspapers printed sermons and Sunday school lessons. They featured jokes whose punchlines required familiarity with the Bible and aired political commentary that cited the Bible on all sides of a given issue.
America’s Public Bible is an interactive scholarly work that uncovers the history of the Bible in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. When the Bible was cited on one side or the other of an issue, only rarely was its meaning explicated rather than assumed. Those who cited the text most typically thought that their readers would understand its meaning precisely as they did. But the multiple and mutually exclusive ways in which newspapers used the Bible tests that assumption. By identifying and studying quotations in American newspapers, the site offers a commentary on how the Bible was used in public life, uncovering trends and patterns that would be invisible to a single scholar’s reading of these documents.
Sometime ago Kellen Funk and I used computational analysis to study how the Field Code created the category of civil procedure in American law, and how that New York code spread across jurisdictions in the nineteenth-century United States. We published an article about those specific findings, and have given various talks, shared code, published datasets, and the like.
Since that time we have tried to maintain a consistent historical and methodological approach, while expanding our scope in two ways. Our historical aim remains the same: we want to show how the modern structures of American law developed, and to do so, we are using computational methods which can uncover and describe patterns not readily found or explained with more conventional historical methods. We are expanding that research to more comprehensive corpora of legal sources, including the Caselaw Access Project and The Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises, 1800–1926. And while we intend to keep publishing in conventional historical journals—at least, we hope to—we also want to expand the scope of the project to include more interactive visualizations.
To that end we have created a website for our work, which we are calling Legal Modernism. At the moment the website simply gathers our already published work. But it will soon be the platform for our visualizations and other ongoing work. (There is a feed on the project website if you’d like subscribe for updates.)
While my blogging efforts have been at most sporadic, I hope to share more substantively some of what we are working on in the coming days.
The most recent issue of the American Religion @ RRCHNM newsletter features an announcement of our Luce Foundation grant for a podcast on the history of American antisemitism, a new map of male and female preachers in the National Spiritual Alliance, and a new collection of oral histories about the Jewish experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things.
Caroline Greer writes about a National Spiritual Alliance church named after its pastor, Dorcas Brown, and maybe the biblical Dorcas too.