I have been concerned for quite some time that works of Christian scholarship are not ideally accessible in the marketplace of ideas. Early in my career, I documented that evangelical literature was often not available digitally, and I advocated for publishers and others to address such deficiencies.1 Fifteen or so years later, it is much more common to find evangelical books and journals in digital form. However, I am reluctant to celebrate a victory won. In fact, I believe that trends in the library and information industries—especially outsourcing and consolidation—could impede future discovery and production of Christian scholarship.
Libraries have a long history of outsourcing certain functions to outside entities, whether to increase economic efficiency, to improve service quality, or both. In recent decades, libraries have come to rely heavily on a wide variety of partner organizations: library networks, standards organizations, book jobbers, subscription agents, online database providers, and technology firms, among others. Sometimes a partnership relieves a library of the need to perform a function locally; in other cases, it influences how the library does its own work. Regardless, partnerships tend to shape the resources and services that a library offers and the ways that users can engage with them.
Libraries contract with other organizations to obtain services on a scale that they could scarcely hope to deliver on their own. The deployment of discovery layers in libraries provides an illustrative case for consideration. These cloud-based systems provide a Google-like experience that enables researchers to execute a single search within a vast pool of resources, including: books; journal, magazine, and newspaper articles; audio-visual items in various formats; theses and dissertations; and more.2 Arguably, such technologies serve researchers’ interests, mitigating the need to search multiple database environments and de-duplicate search results. Not surprisingly, over the course of more than a decade, discovery layers have become a popular destination for library users—even those who are reviewing literature in support of scholarly research.
Like most other industries, the library technology industry has undergone a significant amount of consolidation over the past 40 years. Merger and acquisition activity has intensified since the advent of the Web, as Marshall Breeding’s charts demonstrate. Industry consolidation, coupled with the progressive development of cloud-based technologies, has led to the concentration of significant power in the hands of a relatively small number of library technology vendors, most of which operate with a commercial motive. Overall, the trend can be described in terms of five vectors:
- from smaller organizations to larger ones
- from nonprofit organizations to for-profit companies
- from privately held companies to publicly traded firms
- from visible and tangible services to invisible and intangible ones
- from on-premises systems to multi-tenant software as a service
Observers across the ideological spectrum agree that big technology companies play a powerful role in mediating access to information in an increasingly globalized world. Although library technology firms’ influence pales in comparison to that of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, analogies can be drawn. The proprietary nature of discovery layer technology limits the extent to which a library can understand or control a system’s search outputs. Users’ searches may not yield the best results, but unless they are searching for known items, they may never know what they missed. Furthermore, if a library has reason to question the merits of the algorithms and metadata that its system employs, switching to a competing vendor’s service will certainly be cost-prohibitive, maybe even impossible.
Christian scholars face significant obstacles when seeking to discover, read, write, and publish works that integrate faith with disciplinary learning. In some cases, these obstacles are rooted in biases toward materialism and humanism, whether conscious or not, wherein the notions of divine authority and revelation have little, if any, credence. It is difficult to assume that library services, being increasingly mediated by high-tech firms that have little interest in furthering Christian thought, are immune to bias.3 As I consider how believers might respond to these conditions so as to enhance the prospects for Christian scholarship, three complementary approaches come to mind: advocacy, permeation, and instruction.
When Christian scholars and librarians practice advocacy, they seek to represent the interests of readers and scholars—Christian and otherwise—in obtaining effective access to Christian intellectual output. Some advocacy might be done collectively (e.g., via organizations such as the Association of Christian Librarians), but lobbying in regards to one’s personal or institutional needs is certainly valid. Advocacy could take the form of expressing to a publisher or aggregator one’s general objectives—for example, obtaining better access to Christian books published outside the West. However, asking an organization to make a specific change is more likely to yield fruitful outcomes. As a case in point, as I planned this blog post, I was reminded of a 1996 journal article entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Produce Christian Scholarship.”4 Although my library has access to print and digital versions of the article, I was unable to locate it via the library’s discovery layer, possibly because metadata for Crux—or at least some subset of the journal’s history—has not been entered into its central index. I intend to request that the company responsible for the discovery layer address this defect. For now, though, the article remains hidden from searchers.
Permeation involves Christian professionals using the vantage point of employment with key industry vendors to maintain and enhance access to Christian scholarship. In my dealings with vendor representatives in recent years, I recall crossing paths with graduates of two Christian colleges. They may be in a position to take actions that serve the purposes of Christian scholarship. Believers in such settings would do well to view their employment as a venue for service. Perhaps God has placed them there for purposes that extend beyond providing for their livelihood.
Instruction is the province of those who are involved in training researchers at Christian institutions. Notwithstanding efforts to advocate and permeate, services acquired by a library may not adequately address the distinctive requirements of Christian scholarship. In such cases, librarians should be prepared to recommend alternative approaches that may enable researchers to obtain needed information resources.
The information landscape, like every other dimension of human activity, bears evidence of humanity’s alienation from God. Nevertheless, those who are both faithful and thoughtful can exert a redemptive influence in this sphere. Throughout church history, Christians have taken active measures to produce, collect, preserve, copy, and disseminate texts that they deemed valuable, at times exhibiting notable degrees of creativity in the pursuit of these aims.5 In today’s complex information environment, Christian information professionals and scholars can afford to do no less.
- Gregory A. Smith, “Christian Libraries for the Next Generation: Expanding Access to Evangelical Literature,” October 2006, https://works.bepress.com/gregory_smith/6; Gregory A. Smith, “Hidden under a Bushel? Evangelical Journals in an Era of Web‐Based Communication,” The Christian Librarian 51, no. 1 (2008): 3–11, https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/tcl/vol51/iss1/3/.
- The library discovery tool used on my campus claims to mediate access to nearly 900 million items.
- Makers of library systems are reportedly feeling pressure to alter search technologies to suppress access to content that has become offensive as cultural mores have shifted. Given the hostility that many academics exhibit towards faith-informed views, it is not difficult to foresee systems being modified in ways that hinder the discovery of overtly Christian scholarly works.
- John G. Stackhouse Jr., “Why Johnny Can’t Produce Christian Scholarship,” Crux 32, no. 1 (March 1996): 13–23, Atla Religion Database with AtlaSerials PLUS. Stackhouse concluded his article with an exhortation that he could have directed with equal relevance to Christian information professionals: “Are evangelical professors, evangelical churches, and evangelical schools truly committed to shaping intellectual fields according to Christian principles, to exerting Christian influence on the contemporary mind through published scholarship and not only by teaching, to claiming this area, too, for Christ? … If we are so committed, … then let us be committed heart and soul, mind and strength, datebook and chequebook. The task deserves, and requires, no less” (p. 23).
- For brief overviews of Christians’ historical contributions to the development of library and information services, see John Mark Tucker, “Logos, Biblos, & Bibliotheke: Christian Influences in Library Development” (conference paper, Annual Conference of the International Federation of Library Associations, Jerusalem, Israel, August 16, 2000), https://archive.ifla.org/IV/ifla66/papers/013-145e.htm; and Gregory A. Smith, “A Rationale for Integrating Faith and Librarianship,” in Christian Librarianship: Essays on the Integration of Faith and Profession, ed. Gregory A. Smith (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002), 12–15. For extended explorations of books, reading, and libraries in the early church, see Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); and Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006).