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Survey of religious studies scholars reveals many embrace 21st century study habits but are unsure how to utilize them.

Armstrong Browning Library - Stained Glass - Interior - 10/04/2013

In the early days of the Christian church, scholars would study sacred texts and handwritten epistles in cloistered, holy spaces, shielded from the outside world. A recent national study conducted by Ithaka S+R reveals that, in many ways, those early scholars’ modern contemporaries prefer to conduct their research in a similar way: with primary resources, in familiar spaces and without significant impediments between themselves and the Word.

Modern religious studies scholars find themselves with one foot in the old world and another in a rapidly evolving information landscape, with almost-instant access to a mass of raw data unimaginable to previous generations, and new resources coming online literally every day. And despite new avenues for data collection and dissemination, many scholars find themselves in the awkward position of feeling required to publish their findings in traditional print journals, a process dating back to the earliest days of scholarly publishing that can take months – sometimes even years - to complete.

Beginning in 2016, Baylor joined with 17 major institutions across the country in order to analyze the study habits of modern religious studies scholars. The results of the study were released under the title, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Religious Studies Scholars.” The research conducted with Baylor religious faculty was gathered by two scholars from the Baylor University Libraries: John G. Bales and John Robinson. Bales and Robinson interviewed faculty from the Baylor University Religion Department and the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and the information gathered from those interviews was then anonymized and pooled with data from  the other participating institutions to create the source material for the report.

In many ways, the study’s findings on religious scholars reflect similar issues faced by other faculty in the humanities. Like their peers in history and art, for example, religious studies scholars find themselves facing a set of pressures different from faculty in the “hard sciences” — physics, chemistry or biology. The humanities scholar relies on access to primary sources that often reside in collections that are available only in physical form, necessitating travel to far-flung and occasionally poorly organized archives. Humanities scholars are often expected to present their findings in book-length form, rather than as stand-alone articles in peer-reviewed journals.

But even even as they knew the general landscape of the state of humanities research, Bales' and Robinson's research provided opportunities to gather new insights. As Bales put it, “On the one hand, it was thrilling for me to hear some of the intriguing, interdisciplinary areas of research that our faculty are exploring. Their research confirmed to me how essential the University Libraries are to their cutting-edge scholarship. Because of the Libraries’ robust print and electronic collections, the Libraries are prepared to serve the current needs of our faculty and students.

“On the other hand,” Bales continued, “I also realized that due to the interdisciplinary nature of current research, I needed to become better equipped to handle the way that I was supporting their research.”

Bales’ sense of needing to do more to assist his faculty charges is not unique. The Ithaka S+R study revealed that a majority of religious studies scholars felt overwhelmed with new avenues for finding primary and secondary sources in their field of study. Beyond a simple Google or Google Scholar search, some only felt comfortable navigating a small set of online databases with which they worked on a regular basis; new resources and tools like data analysis sites were viewed as too difficult to master for a limited return on the time invested.

Robinson reported that one faculty member said, “We are really getting past the point where you can have one scholar writing a monograph about something…. There’s too much for one person to undertake, too much data, too much information.” But there is an upside: this feeling of inadequacy can be seen as an openness to collaboration, both with library and information specialists but also with faculty from other disciplines whose expertise can augment the religious scholars’ work.

Beth Farwell, Director of Central Libraries, said of the study, “It’s a perfect example of the new roles the library plays in the academy.  Libraries are partnering with scholars and colleagues to research and master interdisciplinary research methods, new technologies, economic impacts, scholarly publishing trends, and digital literacy.  I’m proud of our Baylor Libraries professionals for their participation in this important national study that helps identify methods for supporting our Baylor faculty.”

Read the full Ithaka S+R Report

Read the report of Baylor’s study findings