Christianity and Religious Plurality: Studies in Church History 51

A recent arrival on the doormat was the latest volume of Studies in Church History, being papers mostly from the Ecclesiastical History Society’s conference in Chichester in 2013. Given the theme of religious plurality, there are rich pickings for scholars of the twentieth century, which isn’t always the case with Studies.

In no particular order, some of the papers of particular interest are:

  • John Wolffe’s presidential address to the conference on the Christian response to religious minorities in London since 1800;
  • Marion Bowman on plurality and vernacular religion in early twentieth century Glastonbury;
  • Martin Wellings on James Hope Moulton’s 1913 book Religions and Religion;
  • Stuart Mews on a Christian-Hindu encounter in the University of London (1909-17);
  • John Maiden on a fascinating contested church building redundancy in Bedford in 1977-8; and
  • my own paper on Michael Ramsey and his encounter with other faiths (of which there is an extended summary).

As well as these, there are papers on twentieth century Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon and Jerusalem, as well as on the Chaldean Catholic Church in modern Iraq.


Dramatic adaptations of James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ in 1960s Belfast

Scholars of James Joyce (one of which I am assuredly not) may be interested in a chance discovery in the archival collections of the National University of Ireland Galway. Obscured by an incomplete catalogue record is the existence of adaptations for the stage of three of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, one of which at least was produced by the Lyric Players in Belfast in March 1963.

File T4/75 in the Lyric Theatre/O’Malley archive is catalogued as concerning a triple-bill production of plays by W.B. Yeats, J.M.Synge, and Lady Augusta Gregory. On examination of the file, the programme states that the production was in fact of four plays rather than three. The fourth was an adaptation of ‘Grace’, one of the stories in Dubliners, made by Maureen O’Farrell and James O’Connor. In the same file there is a script of the same that establishes the point. O’Farrell (later Maureen Charlton) was involved in the Belfast theatrical scene, and adapted Synge’s Playboy of the Western World as a musical. The file also contains a number of photographs of the production of ‘Grace’.

In the same file there is a second script, typed on the same yellow paper, with a missing first page. This appears to be a similar adaptation of ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room,’, also from Dubliners. However, it doesn’t seem to have been produced, although it was presumably considered.

If my identification is correct, it also makes sense of file T4/432 in the same archive, which contains a third adaptation in the same typescript on the same yellow paper of ‘The Dead’, a third Dubliners story. The catalogue records this as of an unknown adaptor, although it seems likely that this was also the work of O’Farrell and O’Connor.

It may be that these adaptations are well known to Joyce scholars; but I record them here in case they are not.

Why hoping private companies will just do the Right Thing doesn’t work

In the last few weeks I’ve been to several conferences on the issue of the preservation of online content for research, and in particular social media. This is an issue that is attracting a lot of attention at the moment: for examples, see Helen Hockx-Yu’s paper for last year’s IFLA conference, or the forthcoming TechWatch report from the Digital Preservation Coalition. As I myself blogged a little while ago, and (obliquely) suggested in this presentation on religion and social media, there’s growing interest from social scientists in using social media data – most typically Twitter or Facebook – to understand contemporary social phenomena. But whereas users of the archived web (such as myself) can rely on continued access to the data we use, and can expect to be able to point to that data such that others may follow and replicate our results, this isn’t the case with social media.

Commercial providers of social media platforms impose several different kinds of barriers: These can include: limits on the amount of data that may be requested in any one period of time; provision of samples of data created by proprietary algorithms which may not themselves be scrutinised; limits on how much of and/or which fields in a dataset may be shared with other researchers. These issues are well-known, and aren’t my main concern here. My concern is with how these restrictions are being discussed by scholars, librarians and archivists.

I’ve noticed an inability to imagine why it is that these restrictions are made, and as a result, a struggle to begin to think what the solutions might be. There has been a similar trend amongst the Open Access community, to paint commercial academic publishers as profit-hungry dinosaurs, making money without regard to the public good element of scholarly publishing happens. Regarding social media, it is viewed as simply a failure of good manners when a social media firm shuts down a service without providing for scholarly access to its archive, or does not allow free access to and reuse of its data to scholars. Why (the question is implicitly posed) don’t these organisations do the Right Thing? Surely everyone thinks that preserving this stuff is worthwhile, and that it is a duty of all providers?

But private corporations aren’t individuals, endowed with an idea of duty and a moral sense. Private corporations are legal abstractions: machines designed for the maximisation of return on capital. If they don’t do the Right Thing, it isn’t because the people who run them are bad people. No; it’s because the thing we want them to do (or not do) impacts adversely on revenue, or adds extra cost without corresponding additional revenue.

Fundamentally, a commercial organisation is likely to shut down an unprofitable service without regard to the archive unless (i) providing access to the archive is likely to yield research findings which will help future service development, or; (ii) it causes positive harm to the brand to shut it down (or helps the brand to be seen *not* to do so.) Similarly, they are unlikely to incur costs to run additional services for researchers, or to share valuable data unless (again) they stand to gain something from the research, however obliquely, or by doing so they either help or protect the brand.

At this point, readers may despair of getting anywhere in this regard, which I could understand. One way through this might be an enlargement of the scope of legal deposit legislation such that some categories of data (politicians’ tweets, say, given the recent episode over Politwoops) are deemed sufficiently significant to be treated as public records. There will be lobbying against, surely, but once such law is passed, companies will adapt business models to a changed circumstance, as they always have done. An even harder task is so to shift the terms of public discourse such that a publicly accessible record of this data is seen by the public as necessary. Another way is to build communities of researchers around particular services such that generalisable research about a service can be absorbed by the providers, thus showing that openness with the data leads to a gain in terms of research and development.

All of these are in their ways Herculean tasks, and I have no blueprint for them. But recognising the commercial realities of the situation would get us further than vague pieties about persuading private firms to do the Right Thing. It isn’t how they work.

Lecture at NUI Galway: ‘Prospects and pitfalls in web archives for research’

Some details of my public lecture at the National University of Ireland Galway in a couple of weeks:

Date:  Tuesday June 23rd, 3pm
Venue:  Moore Institute Seminar Room, G010, Hardiman Research Building ( map )
Title:   ‘A new class of scholarly resource? Prospects and pitfalls in using web archives for research’
Abstract:  Viewed globally, the process of archiving the web and providing access to that archive is some way ahead of scholars’ and archivists’ understanding of the uses scholars will make of this new class of resource. This lecture will make the case that scholars of contemporary life have a stake in the successful archiving of the web, and in helping determine its shape. After then examining the current state of web archiving in the UK and Ireland, it will present the results of recent and ongoing research into religious discourse in the British and Irish web domains, presenting both substantive conclusions and proposing methods and approaches that are more widely applicable to other scholarly issues.
[Update: the slides are now available on Slideshare ]

Web Archiving 101: a new course and podcast

It was a great pleasure to work with former colleagues at the University of London Computing Centre this week to deliver Web Archiving 101, a day course which forms part of ULCC’s highly successful Digital Preservation Training Programme. My thanks to Steph Taylor and Ed Pinsent, my fellow trainers, and also Sara Day Thomson from the Digital Preservation Coalition who taught the module on social media archiving.

To get a taste of the day, see the programme. A few days before, Ed, Steph and I also had a very enjoyable talk about the issues the course would raise: it’s available as a podcast in Soundcloud.

Understanding the web of faith: forthcoming book chapter

I’m very pleased to say that an essay of mine has been accepted for a forthcoming volume: The Web as History: the first two decades. It is edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder, and will appear Open Access with UCL Press in 2016.

Here’s my abstract:

‘Much of the discourse that historians of contemporary religion until recently tracked in correspondence, periodical publication and print ephemera has migrated online. But the task of understanding religious discourse in the UK web space has hardly begun. The task is hard to undertake at the highest level since there are no second-level domains that serve as useful units of analysis — there is no to match or

‘This chapter represents a first step towards understanding the evolution of the UK religious web space, by means of two interrelated case studies, which between them point to the agenda and content of a larger research project. Both studies utilise the JISC UK Web Domain Dataset for the period 1996-2008, as held by the British Library.

‘Firstly, it will examine the web archive footprint left by the public controversy in 2008 over the comments made by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the matter of sharia law. Using both the link graph and a direct qualitative analysis of archived content, it will explore both the shape and the content of the controversy and show the degree to which religious debate had not only migrated from print to the web, but in doing so had engaged different actors and lost others, and changed in its tone.

‘Secondly, it will consider the growing tension in religious discourse between faith groups and organisations with a secularist agenda. Again, using the link graph and some qualitative analysis, it will explore the patterns in which linkages grew and shifted between the web estates of key but opposed organisations in relation to issues including faith schools and creationism, the reform of the law on blasphemy, and the place of the bishops in the House of Lords.