Hi folks. It has been an embarrassingly long time since I wrote an issue of this newsletter. A few things happened. The sheer exhaustion of the pandemic caught up with me, as I am sure it did with you. But even more, I took on a major non-work responsibility—the details don’t matter for our purposes—and I have tried to discharge my duty faithfully. But a new academic year is upon us, and I hope to get back to writing this newsletter. Below is a scattershot of updates to get started again.
I read in the news that in an address on the crisis in Afghanistan, President Biden quoted Isaiah 6:8 (“Here am I; Send me”), referring to American service members . I think it is fair to say that it is a jarring and not at all typical use of the text. Certainly I had never encountered a use of that text in that context before. So I had to wonder, Is there a history of using that verse to refer to the military? But before I could work on it myself, my feed reader turned up Chris Gehrz’s post for The Anxious Bench: “‘Here I am, send me’ in American Military History.” Chris uses my America’s Public Bible to turn up a number of earlier examples of similar uses. You should take a look.
Speaking of America’s Public Bible, I am working as quickly as I can to complete the updated version to send to the press. Here’s Isaiah 6:8 in the long-running prototype version, which you can continue to access.
And here is the far more reliable and (I hope) more useful version that is forthcoming but still in development.
It’s not just a visual refresh: I’ve also extended the chronological range, found a lot more quotations, and added an interpretative layer to the project.
Speaking of layers, one of the most useful essays I’ve read on the form of digital scholarship is Robert Darnton’s 1999 essay, “The New Age of the Book.” I was not precocious enough to be reading the New York Review of Books at the dawn of the new millennium, but I had the good fortune to hear Darnton speak on a similar subject at the Brandeis University library while I was in graduate school and subsequently discovered the essay. I’ve found his idea of an e-book as a pyramid of scholarly materials—from a broad base of sources ascending to an interpretative point—to be a persuasive goal for digital scholarship.
I’ve tried to structure the new version of the project along those lines. Here’s a draft of the “how to use this site”:
The elements of this site form an interpretative pyramid, something like the e-books that Robert Darnton envisioned.
- At the base are quotations in the newspaper. You can browse the gallery of quotations to see examples, or see the datasets for a complete list.
- Those quotations are aggregated into trend lines, which are accompanied by tables of quotations. You can start by browsing the featured verses.
- Verse histories take the information from the trend line and the quotations and offer brief interpretative essays on their history.
- Longer essays and other explorations introduce the site, its methods, and address topical questions in the history of the Bible in the United States.
Speaking of e-books, America’s Public Bible will be a digital monograph, and it will be published more like a book than like a website. (It will even have the obligatory colon and subtitle: A Commentary.) But I hope to continue adding things as occasion arises, and one of its primary purposes is to be an ongoing platform for other people’s scholarship, too.
And so I’ve recently become a part of Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud at the LC Labs. Part of my aim there is to extend APB by finding biblical quotations across all the Library of Congress’s digital collections. But my not-so-secret other aim is to hang out with the cool folks at LC Labs and my fellow researchers, Andromeda Yelton and Lauren Tilton. (Mission accomplished.) Here’s a post from the Library about the project, and here’s a story in the Wall Street Journal.
Returning to Darnton’s ideas for e-books, there is a kind of homology between his concept of a layered pyramid of scholarship, and what programmers would call “the tech stack.” The stack is the set of technologies which enable some kind of software product. For example, you might have heard of the LAMP stack, which undergirds popular software like WordPress: Linux (the operating system), Apache (the web server), MySQL (the database), and PHP/Perl/Python (the programming language). Well, I don’t use any of those. But I thought I might start writing an occasional series on the technology stack that I do use for my digital research. Why? Because I love PostgreSQL and I think you should too. More on that next time.
Working: Collaborating with colleagues on a map of city-level data from the Censuses of Religious Bodies.
Playing: MLB The Show.
Reading: Ted Gioia, Healing Songs.
Watching: Mythic Quest. The series as a whole is dumb yet charming, but the standalone episode “A Dark Quiet Death” was truly moving.