On the Limits of Digitization

I’m knee-deep in the 1920 volume of the Gospel Advocate at the moment. This seemed like a good time to pause and talk about a few things I’ve noticed.

I heard recently that the digitization of the entire GA is getting closer. That’s exciting news. It will be a real boon for anyone doing anything with the history of the Churches of Christ. For the first time, the journal will be truly searchable. The Advocate has never had even a truly useful index, so if you want to find something you have to proceed page by page looking for what it is you want to find. Undoubtedly, it will be nice to be able to plug “John T. Lewis” or “Birmingham” into a search engine and watch as the results pop up.

Even so, paging through (so far) several thousand pages of the journal — that’s about 1500 pages per year — has taught me something. You can miss a lot by relying on the results of a search engine. Now, I don’t have any insight into how exactly the people responsible for the digitization will set things up, so what I’m saying here is not meant to be a criticism of them or their work. What I mean, instead, is that one of the greatest benefits of running my finger down every single column of text looking for Lewis’ name or references to Birmingham has been that it has given me a good sense of the atmosphere of the churches in the years I’ve surveyed so far. It’s given me a good handle on a lot of contingent factors I wouldn’t have understood had I been relying solely on the results page of a search engine.

Emma Page Larimore (1855-1943)

I’ve learned what people were arguing about in those years — the most contested doctrinal issues and the conflicts with Baptist and Disciple church leaders (among others). J. M. McCaleb’s “Missionary” column has introduced me to the work of William and Clara Bishop in Japan and John Sheriff in Rhodesia. McCaleb and J. C. McQuiddy have shown me the great extent to which a place like Alabama was seen as a mission field in those years. Emma Page Larimore’s “Children’s Corner” is an unqualified delight (that I’ve had to stop myself from reading on many occasions). Lipscomb and Sewell’s “Queries and Answers” have given me a window onto the kinds of conversations being had in congregations all over the country. Careful reading has also allowed me to note the significance of the changes made to the journal’s format (not all for the better, in my opinion) by A. B. Lipscomb in the 1912-13 volumes.

And there’s more: the outbreak of the premillennial controversy in the Spring of 1915; the lead-up to World War I; the Coca-Cola ads, the patent medicine ads, and much more.

I could go on, but my point is this: I likely wouldn’t have gotten any of this through an electronic search. Being forced to submit to the slow process of research has allowed me to read Lewis’ articles and reports in context rather than in isolation. To be sure, I’m grateful that the Advocate will soon be digitized, but I’ve also come to appreciate being forced to do things the old-fashioned way.

5 responses to “On the Limits of Digitization

  1. Could not agree more; and I’m one who loses sleep with delight about the possibilites of a full-text searchable GA. In the best of all possible worlds we will have the GA full text in PDF or some other format with benefit of searchability and full context. Yeah, I admit to day-dreaming about such things.

  2. There is no substitute for turning one page at a time and thinking about what you see. You will discover much that others will miss and have a lot of fun too.

  3. Agreed about serendipity and reading surrounding articles for more sociological and historical context. One concern I have about only using the “dead-tree” copies of resources is accessibility. In my case I have only a few scattered issues (not to mention volumes) of the Gospel Advocate. Since I do not currently have digital copies, I can only do significant reading in the GA by visiting a library that owns the volumes. And, in some cases, the years of interest are in such fragile condition that handling them is not possible (acidic paper; fragile bindings). So, hasten the day that full runs of significant periodicals are available in fully edited/corrected digital editions. And hasten the day that scarce, rare and obscure S-M periodicals are digitized as well.

  4. Chris, do you know who is doing the digitizing?

    • I believe the man heading it up is Tom Childers, who is somehow affiliated with Freed-Hardeman University (maybe another reader here can be more specific than that). In the past year or so, he has gained the cooperation of the Gospel Advocate and has been able to get started since then.

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