We’ve come a long way from Uruk. That great Mesopotamian cosmopolis of old—the birthplace of writing itself—is nothing but ruins today, but it gave to human culture a means of communicating that has never ceased to evolve. E-books were novelties and digital resources daunting to all but the tech-happy few (and children under 10 years of age) only a few years ago. Today, it is rare that a publisher doesn’t present as a matter of course electronic versions of new and forthcoming titles. Readers are beginning to expect it. That is as true of people looking for titles in biblical studies as it is for those surfing the latest young adult fantasy wave. And with their maps, illustrations, and other beyond-text features, books in biblical studies are especially well suited to digital formats.
All of our books, with very few exceptions, appear as e-books at the time of their release as conventional books,” says Fred Appel, executive editor at Princeton University Press. “The books we publish on topics connected with the Bible, such as Jon Levenson’s forthcoming book, Inheriting Abraham, are no exception.”
Similarly, all of Westminster John Knox Press’s frontlist titles are immediately available in digital formats. Among those WJK will feature at this year’s joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL, Nov. 17–20) is Living Countertestimony: Conversations with Walter Brueggemann by Walter Brueggemann (profiled in this issue, p. 14) with Carolyn Sharp. Alicia Samuels, director of electronic resources at WJK, reports the press is steadily bringing backlist titles into electronic formats.
Baylor University Press is “very aggressive in e-book distribution,” says Carey Newman, BUP’s director. “Two of the three macro-genre books that we publish electronically [as well as in print] without question are monographs and trade books.” In biblical studies, Newman is especially excited to introduce to conferees at AAR/SBL Associations in the Greco-Roman World by Richard S. Ascough, Philip A. Harlan, and John S. Kloppenborg, and The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation by Matthew W. Bates.
Not Easy, Not Cheap
But delivering books in electronic formats isn’t easy and isn’t cheap. “I really admire any publisher who can do all e all the time,” says Newman. He notes the particular challenges invisible to most consumers in bringing a book into an electronic format, especially books acquired before contracts began to include language to manage digital content. “It would be like loaves and fishes,” Newman says, referring to biblical stories of Jesus’ miraculously broad distribution of limited resources. Paul Engle, senior v-p and publisher for church, academic, and reference resources at Zondervan, might concur, noting, “There are significant hidden production costs that accompany producing digital versions.” Indeed, Sally Sampson Craft, director of digital publishing at InterVarsity Press, observes, “One myth about digital publishing is that it costs virtually nothing to convert a print book into an e-book.”
Nevertheless, in biblical studies Zondervan has “literally hundreds of titles of textbooks and reference books” available in e-book and software formats, as well as other kinds of books such as Darrell Bock’s new A Theology of Luke and Acts. In addition to Bock’s book, Zondervan plans to feature prominently at AAR/SBL Constantine R. Campbell’s Paul and Union with Christ.
Despite the practical difficulties, some publishers do go beyond simply reproducing a print title in electronic form, especially when those titles might be useful for classroom teaching. Engle says that for 25 primary texts Zondervan has “hundreds of free electronic resources” as well as aids for instructors, quizzes, and flashcards for students on its TextbookPlus Web site.
Craft reports that IVP has “partnered with Biblesoft, Laridian, OakTree, Olive Tree, QuickVerse, and Wordsearch to provide biblical studies and commentary texts on a variety of digital platforms.” IVP plans to offer a mobile app this fall that will bring reference materials to users in yet another way.
What Do the Professors Say?
Employing such mobile devices for classroom use is one new frontier, says Mark Hoffman, professor of biblical studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pa. “More and more people are going to their smartphones or iPads,” he observes, and content will need to be able to move onto those portable systems. Hoffman has been investigating and using digital technology in the classroom for many years; he is the unofficial go-to guy for digital resources in biblical studies at Gettysburg. Hoffman even taught a course specifically on the Bible and technology, which enjoyed the happy coincidence of finding its core text, From the Garden to the City by John Dyer, pop up as the free Kindle book of the day. One of the remarkable advantages of using such an electronic book in the classroom, Hoffman noted, is how he could share the notes and comments he made in the margins of his copy. Immediately available on each of the students’ devices, his annotations could serve as fodder for questions and discussion.
Whether they teach online or not, most professors find it useful to have some electronic resources for their students as well as for their own research. Simply having a digital image of the object of study can be worth the proverbial thousand words. Henry Rietz, associate professor of religious studies at Grinnell College in Iowa, studies the Dead Sea Scrolls and appreciates how “one can enlarge and manipulate the images” to reveal things that might be missed even when examining the Scrolls in person. Brooks Schramm, professor of biblical studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary, uses BibleWorks in the classroom with his graduate students. The software makes otherwise cumbersome tools such as lexica nimble and easy to access. It’s also possible to allow students new to a biblical language to follow the professor’s reading with commentary from a single classroom screen.
Logos Bible software is Rietz’s electronic reference tool of choice. Accordance is the third in the trinity of Bible software tools increasingly employed by biblical scholars and teachers who want to introduce students to a package of sophisticated digital resources for biblical studies, from grammar and dictionaries to maps. Hoffman provided a detailed review of the features, strengths, and weaknesses of each of the tools in his September 10, 2012, blog post “Bible Software Decisions.”
Publishers have found that partnerships with these software companies help them meet their own goals of making content electronically available. Samuels notes that Westminster John Knox Press has “engaged in licensing agreements to have our content available on the main Bible software platforms.” Another digital resource that has found its way into the classroom is the ATLA religion database, produced by the American Theological Library Association, which allows subscribers to access any of thousands of articles in biblical studies for personal research or for classroom use. These tools make it possible to assign specific readings for classroom or online courses in place of or as secondary to a primary, hard copy textbook.
Specific Web sites, such as Hoffman’s Crossmarks.com, provide a clearinghouse of digital resources for faculty and students at a particular institution and beyond. Others have done similar things for their institutions that nevertheless achieve a broader reach. Matthew Skinner, associate professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, says that although he does not use particular e-books in the classroom, he helped create Luther Seminary’s Enter the Bible Web site and is a contributing editor for the Bible pages of Odyssey Networks, a multifaith coalition that produces and distributes interfaith romances.
Martien Halvorson-Taylor, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, is answering her school’s call to “hybridize” more courses—that is, allow for some of the learning to take place in virtual classrooms or online environments. On her digital wish list, Halvorson-Taylor expressed the need for “a better-curated database of high-quality images” tailored to biblical studies courses, and also collected images of classical art and popular culture she could use to supplement discussions about biblical interpretation. These are some things that the Society of Biblical Literature hopes to satisfy with its Bible Odyssey project, an interactive Web site supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and designed to make balanced, biblical scholarship available to the general public. However, Halvorson-Taylor, along with what appears to be the majority of biblical studies professors, has a preference for traditional print textbooks for classroom use.
Still in Love with Print
Indeed, while Engle notes that Zondervan has watched sales of e-books and software rise with each passing year, “We continue to see strong physical textbook sales, as many students prefer the physical text or choose to have both digital and print.” Samuels reports that WJK did provide additional electronic perks with some of its “key introductory textbooks”—bonuses such as disks or specialized Web site access—but she says there hasn’t been “much success or traffic to the site.” Rietz reports that he has invited students to use digital textbooks in the past, “but they were not enthusiastic about them.” He distributes some readings electronically, but thinks students might share his own proclivity for hard copies. “Reading is still for me a very tactile process,” Rietz says, and he values the ability to underline with a pencil, make marginal notes, and recall a passage simply by its placement on the page.
The delight of a book in one’s hand, with its notable heft, maybe interspersed with the distinct paper quality that hints of full-page pictures, an index, and handwritten notes will not disappear any time soon. Yet the expectations of readers to have digital versions of the books they want to read in ever more mobile formats will continue to grow. And the extraordinary possibilities for research and teaching provided by multimedia platforms promise to astonish scholars and students of biblical studies for years to come.