PRDL puts research within reach
December 11, 2009
Not all that long ago, people like Todd Rester, that is to say, scholars of the Reformation, would travel long distances—and pay considerable money—to get their hands on primary source materials: the original writings of Calvin, Luther and their contemporaries held in special collections in European libraries. "It’s a six-month wait to get into some of these libraries,” said Rester, a PhD graduate student at Calvin Theological Seminary.
For the last two years Rester and several of his seminary colleagues have been building an online resource that puts primary Reformation sources within the reach of a scholar’s computer keyboard. Their efforts culminated recently with the launch of the Post-Reformation Digital Library or PRDL.
A tool for scholars
"It just rolls off the tongue,” joked Jordan Ballor about the name of the resource. Ballor is another of the PhD students who worked on the PRDL under the direction of Richard Muller, a professor of historical theology at the seminary. “The whole point was to try to come up with a tool that fits with the community of the seminary and was available to scholars around the world,” Ballor said.
The Post-Reformation Digital Library, sponsored by the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and the Calvin's Hekman Library, is a bibliography, a “finding list” of links to resources from research libraries, scholarly initiatives and other sources from all over the Web. Organized alphabetically by author names, the PRDL is an A-to-Z (or Abbadie to Zwingli) trove of Reformation scholarship. The linked names of authors take the user to digital versions of their works.
The site is not simply an archive of Reformer’s works, but also those of their influencers. There are links to Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, Arminian-Remonstrant, Socinian-Unitarian thinkers as well as secondary sources. The PRDL also links to works of patristic and medieval theologies, early modern philosophy, Bibles, correspondence, creeds and confessions, periodicals and journals, synodical records, university Web sites, reference works, bibliographies and other resources.
"What a site like this demonstrates is that there is a digital frontier of resources,” said Rester. The broad access to scholarship not only gives a scholar freedom, but enforces a new level of accountability, he added: “Gone are the days when you can make massive generalizations about 100 years.”
The role of online scholarship
The PRDL grew out of discussions among the grad students and Muller about the role and benefits of online resources for the scholar. (Muller’s years of work categorizing online sources was a major inspiration for the site, the students said.) “A lot of these sources were coming online, but there wasn’t a systematic arrangement of them,” said Rester.”We decided to put together a wiki, and it just grew.”
The original group of students, which forms the PRDL editorial board, did the majority of the online searching and the categorizing for the resource. They were helped by scholars, many of them alumni, who contributed links to post-reformation Web sources. The wiki grew to the degree that the scholars felt it should be housed elsewhere.
At Muller’s suggestion, the students approached Hekman Library and Meeter Center staff about collaborating on the project. “He wanted it to be placed on the Meeter Center’s Web site, so that the center’s work could be expanded an enhanced,” said Paul Fields, the Meeter Center’s theological librarian. "It’s an amazing thing.”
The Hekman’s theological librarian Lugene Schemper and his students did the heavy lifting of transferring the contents of the wiki to the bibliography.
"This is niche librarianship,” Schemper said of the PRDL, which he emphasized was not a substitute for standard research with traditional print materials. Schemper is not worried about the digital horizon, however: “Library studies show that those who are the heaviest users of digital research resources are also some of the heaviest users of print materials.” He used the PRDL as the subject of a presentation he made at the Fall Meeting of the Chicago Area Theological Librarians Association. “The people were pretty excited about it,” Schemper said.
Destined to grow
Judging by the reaction the PRDL editorial board members are getting, scholars are excited about it too. "Objectively, this is something that has raised the profile of the seminary and the college and the Meeter Center around the world because a lot of people are getting use out of it,” Ballor said.
"This will get bigger," Schemper predicted.
Rester is grateful that the PRDL is opening a window on history for post-Reformation scholars: “You’re talking about the theology of men and women and pastors who, in many cases, were writing while they were persecuted,” he said. “In such cases, we don’t have a collection of their opera.”
Rester also likes seeing so much scholarship come out of obscurity. He gives as example a 400-year-old Hebrew grammar by theologian Francois Dujon that for years was merely rumored to exist. “I was searching on Google books one day,” Rester said. "I found it, and I almost fell out of my chair!”
~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing