Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Future of the New Testament Gateway

On Codex Blogspot, Religious Studies Review: Religion and the Internet, and now on Sansblogue, Online Biblical Scholarship, there is a discussion of the latest Religious Studies Review (Volume 32, number 4, October 2006), a special issue on Religion and the Internet. One of the articles in this journal is written by Matthew Mitchell, "Biblical Studies on the Internet". The article focuses on the following four resources:
I have reason to be delighted with Mitchell's review because he says some great things about The New Testament Gateway, a site I have run for almost a decade now, for example:
For the study of the NT, the choice is extremely easy. Bart Ehrman (2004) recommends this site in his work The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings as his only Web resource, stating that it is one of the few that “will be around for a very long time and which provides trustworthy scholarly information” (xxix). There is little disagreement on this point. The New Testament Gateway is an exceptionally good resource and can be recommended with very little reservation . . .

. . . . This site is easily the best resource for biblical studies on the Web, even if simply as a gateway to other sites, and it is constantly evolving. Secondary materials are continually being added to the Weblog section . . . .
And so on. All very encouraging stuff. But Mitchell appears to be a thoughtful and critical observer, and he makes the following remarks that require some serious thinking:
The recurrent problem with this site, if it can be called such, is that it is ultimately the work of a single person. Thus, “energy” issues are the only shortcoming as the sheer number of links inevitably results in some dead or broken ones no matter how energetic or dedicated Goodacre is. (Some links to the University of Birmingham remain.) Goodacre is a publishing NT scholar with full-time teaching duties and is also serving as the series editor of the Library of New Testament Studies. The credentials that make him well suited to create such a site must also make him occasionally wonder about the number of hours available in a given day for what is, all accolades aside, a professional service.
In the past I have tended to answer points like this by reasserting my energy levels and saying that I continue enjoy working on the NT Gateway, and that the enjoyment is the stimulus to continue. Ultimately, though, that answer is of course inadequate. The sheer volume of on-line resources now makes it virtually impossible to keep up with everything, and I have to prioritise. It is no longer the case that one can cover the majority of good academic NT resources available free-for-all on the net, which was certainly the situation for the first few years of the site. And as the internet resources expand, my time to spend on the site diminishes. There is an academic career curve whereby one becomes ever more busy as one becomes better known, and every day more requests for one's time are made. I am actually quite good at saying "no" these days, but even then I have decreasing amounts of time to spend on the site, which I regret. A site that is so closely associated with just one person's efforts is only as good as that person's efforts. If the NT Gateway is still going to be around, and still found useful, for years to come, it's important to think about the future.

The internet keeps on changing, and it is important to change with it if one's site is to stay current, to take advantage of new ways of doing things if a site is to mature. Blogging has definitely helped me with maintaining the NT Gateway, not least because the blog combines several elements that I was doing on the main site in a more clumsy way, e.g. Featured Links, Logbook and so on. When I began this blog three and a half years ago, I folded several of those elements into the blog. But what is next? What current trends on the net could help with the development of the NT Gateway? Given the issues mentioned above, there is no question now that the NT Gateway is only going to survive in good shape if elements of collaboration are added. For the NT Gateway to get bigger, I need to get smaller.

Over the coming months, I will be exploring ways of adding more collaborative features to the site. I would like at least some Wiki functionality so that people can go in and correct a broken link, for example, rather than emailing me to change it. There are, of course, issues about going wiki, and one of them is quality control. But I am not worried about that. My role would become more overseeing, and I can devote my time to that role. Nor would I simply open up the site to everyone indiscriminately. The big question, though, is how to achieve added wiki functionality. If I were starting the site from scratch, it would be straightforward. But it is much less straightforward to add wiki functionality to an existing site, especially one as large as the NT Gateway. I am still at the exploration stage with this, but I will be reporting back as time goes on. I have accepted an invitation to speak to the Computer Assisted Research Group at the SBL Annual Meeting in November on the future for internet resources on the NT, and I hope to have made significant progress on the transformation by then.


J. B. Hood said...

At the Xian non-profit where I am "senior researcher," we have found that a team approach to be a massive help in maintaining a large, unwieldy database. But we have to hire (and supervise) interns for this!

Your best bet as you say is getting more involvement. But I would suggest doing this on a non-wiki basis as well. You probably need someone (perhaps several persons) with a decent grasp of NT world and data organization/presentation issues who would be willing to take this on. (May I nominate Danny Zacharias as a potential candidate for your consideration?)

Tim said...

nd almost every aspect of the previous comment. Except... I wpould not rule the Wiki approach out, as long as people with write access are vetted in some way. Which could be positive - you or a team approve editors in advance based on CV - or negative - anyone with an email address can get a login, but anyone messing things up gets excluded... I'd just not go the whole Wikipedia totally open route (coward that I am ;-)

Brandon said...

I would suggest storing the data in a database and editing the pages with some sort of content management. This way, the appearance of NT Gateway would remain the same (not having that ugly wiki look), but making changes would be much easier. You can also create accounts for approved users to make edits as well. If you're interested in some options, I'd be happy to help--after all, this is what I get paid the big bucks for!

James F. McGrath said...

I'm trying for the first time using wikibooks.org as an educational tool, having my students write a paragraph's worth of material in an open-source commentary/textbook on the Gospel of John, rather than simply write a page that they send to me. The advantage is the possibility for peer feedback as well as interaction outside the classroom (and potentially with people beyond the class). The disadvantages include all the usual wiki-related issues.

I've also got a blog at http://blue.butler.edu/~jfmcgrat/blog/ and am just learning some of the things one can do with it. I'm debating whether it is worth losing all posts I've made thus far so as to switch to software that allows for comments on each individual entry, and how else I might make the blog more useful.

Mark Goodacre said...

JB and Tim: thanks. Brandon: I'd love to talk. James, thanks. I've added your blog to my blogroll.

Anonymous said...

While a layperson certainly vouchsafes an opinion on such a subject with humility and trepidation, don't putz with a working product!

Yes, agreed, it's a massive undertaking to maintain a site like this with the quality standard you've set but there's an unity of thought and purpose that I find to be of great advantage.

To put it another way, many of the source materials that underly theological scholarship are "all Greek to me (except when they're Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin or whatever)" and a readable presentation of a particular scholar's view is of great value. You are also very careful to point out links to other views on the subject so to a limited point I can follow some of the "conversation" around the issues.

So, FWIW, I really appreciate the opportunity to read "what Mark thinks" and think that a group approach would lessen that benefit to those lurkers like me with an interest in Biblical scholarship but who have not made it our life's work.

Tim said...

On your blog, Mark, I agree with "anonymous" - but I suspect they were not thinking of the NT Gateway site itself... (Or were you?)

Mark Goodacre said...

Anonymous [please sign your comment]: I was talking about the New Testament Gateway proper, i.e. the gateway / links site, and this has less of my stamp on it than the blog, though I appreciate the compliment very much. Under the new plan for the New
Testament Gateway, my idea is to continue directing it / editing it, so my stamp would remain on that too. It's just that I would have others involved to bring their expertise, energy and time -- so the aim is to have my cake and eat it!