Bible Reference in the Electronic Age

Publishers innovate with new products and Web strategies

By Kristin Swenson

Got questions about how to use turmeric, the mating habits of penguins, or why water still drips out of the faucet when it should come through the filter you’ve attached? If you’re like the majority of the curious today, you’ll turn to the Internet for answers. Questions about the Bible are no different—people go online to find out who Paul was, where the remnants of Noah’s ark might be, what deities the Israelites worshipped that made God so angry, and how many miracles Jesus performed. Says Brian Hughes, senior marketing manager at Oxford University Press, “Search engines are the new card catalogue, and we want our content to be at the top of the search. We are constantly working to improve our discoverability, on campus and off.” Michael Stephens, senior editor at Abingdon, notes, “It’s not enough just to go to particular biblical verses—people need help interpreting what they read. They need some context.”

Not so long ago, it was books—heavy, often multivolume tomes—that were the go-to resource for definitive information. One advantage was that it was pretty easy to determine the credentials of the authors of those books. You could assume that encyclopedias were edited by subject authorities who invited qualified contributors, and that dictionaries were compiled by experts. Bible commentaries laid out their authors’ credentials, and lexica were the product of professional philologists. On the downside, it was difficult for any individual to have all sources at his or her elbow. In-depth research usually required a trip to the library, and it could take a long time to hunt down the answers hiding in one volume or another. We also had to wait, sometimes years, for new editions to incorporate changes in a field of study or to record new discoveries.

All of this is different thanks to the electronic revolution of the past couple of decades. There’s no going back, and most of us don’t want to. We have information, it seems everything you’d want to know (and more), immediately available at the click of a mouse. The biggest problem is that checking the sources for such online information and verifying the accuracy of information is often difficult. Many people don’t bother.

As publishers strive to meet the enduring need for Bible reference materials, it’s the electronic format that dominates discussion. The easiest thing to do right away is to convert existing books into electronic versions, and everyone is doing that. Zondervan has over a thousand titles available in digital formats, Abingdon sells the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and New Interpreter’s Bible on CD-ROM, and you can get e-book versions of many of the Jewish Publication Society’s commentaries and reference titles. Oxford has a collection of research monographs online and just launched Oxford Bibliographies Online to help researchers at all levels find relevant and credible sources. Laurie Schlesinger, JPS’s director of sales and marketing, is excited about the publisher’s audio version of JPS Tanakh, seeing in it an opportunity to experience the Bible as people might have done years before it was a book—in an oral format.

More challenging—and promising—is the creation of interactive, multimedia platforms. Jack Kuhatschek, executive v-p and publisher for Baker Publishing Group, says, “I think some of the most exciting trends will be in the digital arena, where we will be able to transcend the limitations of print.” The ability to call up relevant visual aids and even audio and video to clarify or supplement straight text are not just useful tools—they will be expected by the iPad generation. “We also see the need for reference materials that go beyond print to include visual enhancements,” says Paul Engle, senior v-p and publisher at Zondervan. The “ongoing challenge,” Engle adds, “is to publish vetted and carefully edited resources from the best scholars, to set it apart from what might appear in Internet searches.”

This is the aim of two evolving projects. The Society of Biblical Literature is developing Bible Odyssey, an interactive Web site for people who want to know from reputable sources about the Bible, archeological discoveries, and interpretations of biblical text in art and literature. Aiming to fund the project with help from the NEH, an advisory group of scholars (of which I am a member) has contributed content and ideas toward the site’s development. Already up and running, Oxford Biblical Studies Online integrates material from existing OUP references, such as two concordances, the entire Oxford Bible Commentary, and articles from its forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible with full-color maps, time lines, and links to Web sites selected and approved by experts. Editor-in-chief Michael D. Coogan notes, “The field of biblical studies has changed over the centuries, and it is continuing to do so. An online resource such as this one makes it possible for [readers] to investigate these changes, and for us to bring you further changes as they occur.” Difficult as it is for publishers to navigate these open waters, both they and readers stand to gain.

From Publisher’s Weekly

The original article may be found here.

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