Society of Biblical Literature's Online Books Program

For the Society of Biblical Literature, in particular, the modern frontier reveals new possibilities for a unique mission and specialty. Innovation means expanding access and pushing back geographical frontiers of the physical book. It's about getting material to a variety of people – including those for whom expensive new technology often isn't an option.

And like most university presses, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) has a mission to cultivate the exchange of ideas and foster scholarship. Their mission is also emphatically international, seeking to bridge "the divide that has existed between the more traditional areas of biblical academia—North America and Western Europe—and other regions of the globe."

Until recently, these goals of the Society could not be realized to their fullest, because their mission was bound to the logistics of the physical book. Scholars in nations with relatively low GDPs often had no access to keep in touch with the work of their western counterparts. A 2007 survey of academics in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Indonesia, India, and the Pacific Islands confirmed this truth: neither scholars nor libraries had the budget to purchase American and Western European works.

Motivated by the survey's conclusions, the Society brainstormed how the evolution of publishing technology could help extend the reach of their books. Thus the International Cooperation Initiative, or ICI, was born. The ICI is a three-pronged program, including the Online Books Program along with two online, open-access book series, International Voices in Biblical Studies and Ancient Near East Monographs. Whereas the Online Books program increases non-western access to western scholarship, the open access programs encourage western access to non-western scholarship—bringing the project full circle, and building a truly international conversation.

One of the obvious barriers to access was, of course, the additional price burden of shipping costs on physical books, which can cost many times the price of the book itself. Early on, SBL explored the idea of working with foreign publishers to print Society books from electronically transmitted in PDFs; local printing could also catalyze local distribution and marketing.

However, finding foreign publishing partners proved to be an obstacle in itself. So the Society went back to the digital drawing board. A better solution was soon found. Leigh Andersen, Managing Editor at the Society, read about a new technology being used by the National Academies Press's Michael Jensen. That technology would evolve to help launch the now-thriving Online Books Program, in which several Society titles are posted online each month in PDF form, and are protected by a filter that only allows access to users with an IP address originating in a low-GDP country—eliminating both the need for shipping and the need for foreign publishers.

Other American university and scholarly presses have supported the program by partnering with the Society and allowing a selection of their titles to be posted, including Baylor University Press, Brown Judaic Studies, Catholic Biblical Association of America, and Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Thanks and positive feedback has reached the Society from every corner of the map. A Fiji scholar writes that he "has a heart for SBL." Another notes that "ours may be the best theological library in Zambia (and perhaps neighboring countries), and yet we have very few books compared to seminaries and colleges in America." Even in Russia, which the scholar describes as "not absolutely barren of books, the modern ... reference is in fact rare in our libraries." Statistics collected by the Society show that Brazil and India have logged the most hits across the site, with Montenegro, Indonesia, and South Africa also near the top.

Andersen enjoys sharing the following story to illustrate the program's impact: "At our Annual Meeting in Atlanta in November, a clergyman who teaches at a Christian college in the Caribbean came to our ICI Advisory Board meeting for the first time. His goal was to learn more about ICI and what SBL has to offer through this program. I was able to take him to a computer and show him how to access the Online Books. It was amazing to see the smile on his face when he understood the resources that are freely available. He is now working to spread the information among his colleagues in his region and is also putting together an international symposium on 'Perspectives on Paul and the Politics of Identity.' Scholars from the 'first world' will be involved with 'third-world' scholars in a dialogue on reading the Bible from different economic spheres. This is the sort of two-way conversation that ICI was formed to facilitate, and we are pleased to see that it is working."

Regan Colestock
Communications Coordinator, AAUP