Joining the fedi-blogosphere

To regular readers of this blog, this will appear as a normal post. But thanks to a significant move by Automattic (the people behind who host this blog), it can now be read directly by users of Mastodon and other parts of the fediverse. Users need only follow the feed at [at] to see posts in whichever app they use to see their feed. What’s more, comments made in those apps end up (once I moderate them) as comments on the blog itself; a very interesting reversal of the trend by which Twitter and Facebook sucked the interaction away from content platforms into their own walled gardens.

There are emerging a number of interesting discussions of what the arrival of millions of individual WordPress instances might do to the Fediverse (notably this one). How well do long-form posts land in a hitherto short-form space? What does moderation look like when each user has their own instance? We’ll have to see. But for now, here it is.

Visualising English theology in edited collections

Regular readers will remember that in recent years I have become interested in the history of religious publishing. It is the point at which religious history most closely meets a slightly separate interest in the history of technology. It is also an area in which digital tools and methods come into their own. Today I want to talk a little about a particular project, on the history of the edited collection of essays as a publishing format.

In other posts I’ve tried to show how edited collections present a unique angle from which to view the networks of scholars and their editors that come together, at a moment in time, around a certain subject, aided by a particular publisher. Some of them represent a group of scholars in one institution or organisation; others capture moments in ongoing debates and controversies about particular subjects. At other times, they are used as a way of kicking the tyres of a particular community, and policing its boundaries; others are an attempt to reach outside particular constituencies and to resolve points of dispute.

This work is based on what is now a large dataset of edited collections, their editors and their contributors, in the fields of theology, religious studies and Biblical studies for the period from the First World War until the millennium. Although it continues to grow, the data now records nearly 4,000 individual essays and chapters, from over 2,300 unique authors. I plan, in time, to write about the big picture that this data represents, of the changing shape of the discipline of theology over time: the subjects that are most salient at particular times; the institutions in which authors are based, their gender profile, and their international spread. But there is considerable interest in smaller corners of the graph, and it is one of these that is the subject of this post: the publishing career of Leslie Houlden, Anglican priest and Biblical scholar, who passed away on December 3rd.

Among these thousands of authors, Houlden is in fact the fourth most prolific contributor of all. Only a couple of dozen authors hit double figures; Houlden’s work appeared in some 16 volumes (that I have so far found). When I extract from the full dataset the contents of just those sixteen volumes, along with the volume published in honour of Houlden on his retirement, it produces a list of just short of 250 essays from 192 different authors.

The career of Leslie Houlden (1929-2022) took him through the whole range of situations in which an Anglican priest might find himself. Ordained as priest in 1956, he ministered in a parish before becoming chaplain, first to Chichester Theological College and then to Trinity College Oxford. He was then principal of Cuddesdon Theological College from 1970, and the first principal of the new college formed by the amalgamation of Cuddesdon with Ripon Hall. In 1977 he moved to King’s College London as a lecturer in New Testament studies, in time becoming professor, and retired in 1994. Viewed chronologically, the volumes show Houlden in the various stages of his career. In the Sixties his work was to be found in several volumes that were attempts to understand the identity of the Church of England, both its mixed traditions (such as Catholic Anglicans Today, 1968), and in ecumenical relation to the other churches. In the mid-1970s he was a contributor to the highly controversial symposium The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), and was a member of the Church of England’s doctrine commission. In the 1980s he continued to write on the theology of the New Testament, as part of a continued rethinking of liberal catholicism within the Anglican church.

Even this much data is rather difficult for the naked eye to interpret. Thanks, however, to Gephi, it is possible to visualise the network of authors and volumes, as in the chart above. Houlden himself appears at the centre of the network, as we would expect; I have also labelled those theologians whose work most often appears in the same volumes. Together they help locate Houlden in both the fields and the institutions in which he worked.

There are names associated with King’s College, most notably the New Testament scholar Graham Stanton. Other Biblical scholars represented include John Fenton (University of Cambridge), and Colin Hickling, also formerly of Chichester Theological College, and (later) another colleague at King’s. There is also a cluster of names associated broadly with the University of Birmingham and The Myth of God Incarnate – John Hick, Michael Goulder and Frances Young – along with Don Cupitt, another contributor to The Myth. But the graph also shows how closely Houlden was connected with those scholars who occupied the commanding heights of the discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. Dennis Nineham was at one time regius professor of divinity at Cambridge; Stephen Sykes was one of the later occupants of the same chair at Cambridge, as well as the Van Mildert professorship at Durham; Maurice Wiles was regius professor in Oxford for twenty-one years from 1970. Wiles, Nineham and Houlden were all members of the Doctrine Commission in the 1970s, as was the last of those named on the chart, John Austin Baker.

There is, of course, much more that could be said about these particular networks, and about the precise character of networks in edited collections in general, which I hope to write about before long. But I hope I have shown a little of the kind of analysis that tools for handling and visualising data can enable.

New article: Digital archaeology in the Web of links: reconstructing a late-1990s Web sphere

New this week, my chapter contribution to a collection of essays with the title The past Web : exploring Web archives.

One unit of analysis within the archived Web is the ‘web sphere’, a body of material from different hosts that is related in some meaningful sense. This chapter outlines a method of reconstructing such a web sphere from the late 1990s, that of conservative British Christians as they interacted with each other and with others in the United States in relation to issues of morality, domestic and international politics, law and the prophetic interpretation of world events. Using an iterative method of interrogation of the graph of links for the archived UK web, it shows the potential for the reconstruction of what I describe as a ‘soft’ web sphere from what is in effect an archive with a finding aid with only classmarks and no descriptions.

Read the Open Access version (PDF)
Publisher’s version of record (£) at

Full details: Webster P. (2021) ‘Digital Archaeology in the Web of Links: Reconstructing a Late-1990s Web Sphere’. In: Gomes D., Demidova E., Winters J., Risse T. (eds) The Past Web. Springer, Cham.

There is also a Open Access preprint of the whole book.

Archiving the “Jewish internet”: some opening questions

[Some words addressed to the fourth world Judaica Curators Conference, held on 4th May 2021 under the aegis of the National Library of Israel. My thanks are due to Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at the NLI, for the invitation.]

I’m not sure how generally familiar you are with Web archiving, but this year marks 25 years since the generally accepted beginning of systematic archiving of the Web on a large scale. And so, there is now a substantial literature on the subject, from the practicalities of the process to the growing and remarkably diverse uses to which archived Web materials are now being put by researchers. Some suggested ways into this reading are on the slide. [Links are given at the end of this post.]
Some selected reading on the subject under discussion, also listed at the end of the post.
What I can most usefully do to set up our discussion today is to raise some initial broad questions as to what a collaborative archiving project for the “Jewish internet” might look like: to, if you like, set up the sheets on the flipchart into which this group may start to add some thoughts.

There are here a set of four basic questions, which are interdependent in several ways. In one sense, the easiest of these is the question of how. Web archiving is a process which tends to cross the departmental divisions in most libraries and archives: it requires curatorial expertise in the selection of material; technical expertise (and also curatorial skills of a particular kind) in managing the harvesting of the materials and maintaining quality; further (and different) technical skills are needed in managing storage, preservation and access; and different skills again in orientating and engaging end users. But within the small but worldwide (and well-integrated) community of people in this space, this set of skills and technologies are well understood and documented. So, though I’ve listed this question first, it is (I suggest) the one that needs answering last.

The question also arises of which institutions should be involved, and how any collaborative project should be configured. Several models are possible:
(i) first of these might be a situation where several institutions agree to parcel out sections of the Jewish internet, and each works largely independently to archive that material in line with their existing collection remits and resources;
(ii) second might be a rather tighter model, in which institutions collaborate directly in the selection of material to archive, but delegating the harvesting, description, preservation and access to a single institution. And that institution might be one of the curating institutions, or (alternatively) an outsourcing partner.

To give some examples, in the UK, the responsibility for web archiving under non-print legal deposit is shared between six institutions, one of which (the British Library) deals with much of the process. Also in the UK Web Archive is the Quaker collection, the content of which was selected by a specialist library but collected again by the British Library. Globally, several libraries have collaborated (through the International Internet Preservation Consortium) on collections on the Olympics Games and most recently Covid-19, delivered via the Internet Archive’s Archive-It service. Within either of these models, there is arguably much to be gained from direct engagement with faith communities themselves, both to build consent to archiving, to guide selection, and to bring forward users and advocates for the final archive.

The third basic question relates to the law, particularly surrounding copyright (but not only that). Some nations have legal deposit frameworks in place for non-print materials, including the UK, France and Denmark, although only a small minority of countries have such a thing, and these dispensations are usually accompanied by very significant restrictions on access. Nations vary in how they construe the notion of fair use in such things, and it is within the relatively liberal regime in the US that the Internet Archive is able to work. Various ways of working are available. Firstly, there is the direct approach to site owners for explicit permission to archive, a slow, resource-intensive and only intermittently successful endeavour. Other institutions have operated on a notice-and-takedown basis, where the owner is contacted and the lack of any expressed objection is taken as sufficient basis to continue; others again archive widely and take material down on request.

The right option for any project has to be determined by a weighing of available resources against the general attitude of each institution to risk. And that risk very much depends on what it is that is to be archived, as different kinds of materials have very different risks associated with them. This is why, I suggest, the first question with which this whole discussion needs to begin is the last on my slide: what *exactly* is to be included and excluded; in other words, what exactly *is* the “Jewish internet”?

A schema for understanding religions online, taken from the chapter 'Religion in Web history', published in The SAGE Handbook of Web History. A link to the full text of this paper is given at the end of the post.

I’m not about to begin giving specific answers to this question to an expert audience such as this. But I offer this organising schema written as from the perspective of an historian of modern Christianity, with now several years experience both on the archiving side and as a research user of the archived Web. What I set out in this particular article was quite tightly restricted to specifically religious texts, activities and organisations. But right away, further questions arise.

First is the question of how far the “Jewish internet” encompasses the Israeli web, given the (I think) unique relationship between state, ethnicity and religion that the state of Israel represents. What does that particular Venn diagram look like? Secondly, there is the broader question of culture, and the issue of language. The Danish legal deposit framework allows for archiving of content in the Danish language, regardless of subject and of where it was published. This kind of framework clearly makes little sense in a British, Spanish or French context, where the language has long since ceased to be the possession of the country in which it originated; what about material in Hebrew published outside Israel?

Consider, too, how far the net should be spread into areas such as the arts. Would an archive of the “Jewish internet” include material relating to the artist Marc Chagall? If so, should it include only his religious works, or the portraits and street scenes too? Just the works created to public commissions, or also the private works? Just those in Israel, or in other countries too, not least the window in Chichester cathedral on the south coast of England? In the case of Leonard Bernstein, should West Side Story – a fairly “secular” work – be set aside, but the ‘Kaddish’ Symphony included? What about Chichester Psalms, settings of the Hebrew scriptures commmissioned for an Anglican cathedral in England? I don’t have ready answers for these questions, but I hope to have helped to set them up as a useful place to start your deliberations.

Further reading

The SAGE Handbook of Web History (2018, ed. Brügger and Milligan)

The Past Web: Exploring Web Archives (Springer, 2021, eds. Gomes/Demidova/Winters/Risse)

Webster, ‘Users, technologies, organisations: towards a cultural history of world Web archiving’, in Brügger (ed.), Web 25 (Peter Lang, 2017). Download the PDF.

Webster, ‘Religion in Web history’ in The SAGE Handbook of Web History. Download the PDF.


Reconstructing a late-Nineties web sphere

I was very pleased to take part this week in ‘Engaging with Web Archives‘, originally supposed to take place at NUI Maynooth in April, but which instead took place online. My thanks to Sharon Healy and Michael Kurzmeier for the original idea, and for their remarkable perseverance in making the final event take place. It’s very good to see an event of this kind happening in Ireland, and I expect it will come to be regarded as a highly significant moment in Irish engagement with the archived Web.

My presentation is available on YouTube. It’s a shortened version of ‘Digital archaeology in the web of links: reconstructing a late-90s web sphere’, forthcoming in Gomes, Davidova, Winters and Risse (eds), The Past Web. Exploring Web archives (Springer, 2021)