CEBTS - Consortium of European Baptist Theological Schools


Finding theological information on the Internet

Author:
Alan Linfield

This workshop, and these notes, are based on an online Internet tutorial created specifically for students of religious studies and theology. This has been produced in the UK by Intute, a service that provides a guide on how to get the best out of the Internet for academic learning and research. These notes should therefore be studied in conjunction with this tutorial in order to get the maximum benefit. The tutorial is equally suitable for both group or individual learning, and could also be used as a useful framework or model for preparing your own presentations on effective Internet use.

The URL of the Intute tutorial is: http://www.vts.intute.ac.uk/he/tutorial/religion

Major sources of theological information on the Web

  • Organisations (formal and informal) - libraries, universities, colleges, churches and religious organisations, chat-rooms, email lists
  • Publications - eBooks, eJournals, electronic texts
  • Media - web-sites of TV/radio stations, newspapers
  • Individuals - many scholars now have personal web - sites and blogs

Primary resources

The Internet offers many repositories of electronic texts. These include sacred texts and other religious works, fragments and manuscript images, translations and commentaries. For copyright reasons many editions and translations date from at least a few decades ago and are thus not usually the currently recommended scholarly versions; citations will therefore need to be cross-checked. But a major benefit of the online texts is that they can usually be searched, and can thus be used to locate a citation which can then be referred back to in the authoritative versions. The tutorial provides links to some of the key sites providing such texts.

Secondary sources

There is a growing array of secondary source material available. Many scholarly journals now have an electronic version. While some offer free full text access, many limit the material available to non-subscribers to tables of contents and abstracts. The quality of online periodicals varies enormously, (especially the free ones) so it's essential to check the academic credentials of a work before using it as a reference source. Other secondary resources can provide information in such areas as statistics, historical backgrounds, religious tolerance / persecution, and articles with comment and perspectives on ethical and social issues. If you are looking for introductory material, there are a number of useful electronic encyclopaedias.

Gateways

Gateways provide subject-specific lists of links to websites, and can be an excellent way to find out what resources are available. Maintained by organisations and/or individuals, gateways select resources for inclusion on the basis of their relevance and quality. No gateway can ever be completely comprehensive, but the good ones bring the best of the Web together in one place, and can greatly reduce the time you spend searching for information.

Bibliographic resources

Many searchable library catalogues and bibliographies are now available online. The tutorial gives links to some of the most useful sites for these.

Websites devoted to individuals

If you are looking for information about a particular theologian or scholar, (eg Aquinas or Luther) it is worth seeing if there is a homepage devoted to him or her. Such sites often draw together primary and secondary resources, perhaps along with biographical information, a bibliography, and a list of relevant links. These can be located using search engines or gateways (see below).

Teaching and learning resources

A huge amount of this type of material is now available. The most obvious use of this is to provide inspiration and ideas for those involved in teaching, but students may also find them helpful for many purposes. Teaching material can often be particularly useful to those needing bibliographic information for a specific subject, for learning more about some of the key questions and discussions surrounding a discipline, and for those who wish to study a topic independently, (you can now learn NT Greek online!).

Newsgroups, blogs and discussion lists

These can help you communicate with other scholars who share your academic interests. They provide forums for sharing ideas and information, allow you to post (and offer replies to) questions, and can help you keep up to date with developments and news in your area. Be careful! Lively debate may be fascinating and informative, but does not guarantee academic rigour!

Churches and religious organisations

Today almost every active religion and spiritual group has a website. Such sites can provide a valuable insiders' perspective on religious traditions.

Academic organisations

There are many academic societies for those involved in the study of theology. Their websites usually offer news items and details of conferences, and some also provide other resources. These might include directories of researchers working in a particular field, details of job vacancies, access to journals and other publications, and teaching materials.

Searching

There are three common mistakes people make when they search the Internet:

  • They use the wrong search tool for the job
  • They don't plan a good search strategy
  • They don't choose the best keywords to search on

There are different types of Internet search tools, such as

  • Search Engines (eg Google)
  • Web Directories (eg Yahoo)
  • Specialist Search Tools (usually gateways)

all of which offer something slightly different. These need to be properly understood before deciding which is most suitable for a specific purpose. The tutorial looks at examples of these, explores their various strengths and weaknesses, and shows how to get the best from them.

Evaluation

Don't trust everything you read! There is no control on what goes onto the Internet, so the quality of the material on it can vary enormously. No quality checks are required - anyone can publish anything they like. So it's important to be careful about which information you use. It's up to you to judge what is trustworthy! Making judgements about the quality of information on the Internet can save you time and effort. Learn to make quick decisions about websites and whether they can help you. So how do you decide what to trust?

Examine the evidence Ask questions Consider the motives of people providing information Trust no one until you have found good cause to do so

Use the WWW technique

When looking at a website ask yourself the "three WWWs":

Who?
  • has written the information?
  • has published it?
  • Are they a trustworthy source of information?
  • Are they trying to persuade me / sell me something / inform or misinform me?
Where?
  • is the information coming from?
  • is it held?
  • Does the origin affect the slant of the information?
When?
  • was the information originally produced?
  • Is it still useful?
  • Has it been updated?
  • Is it going to be updated?
  • Is it being preserved in its original form?

The tutorial will show you the important clues that can be found on a website and which will help you to answer these questions.

To summarise, the methodology which this tutorial outlines will help both you and your users to be become more efficient and savvy in the use of the Internet, and enable you to avoid many of the pitfalls that can often make using it a frustrating and time-wasting experience.

Conference for theological librarians 2007


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