WMU wins $779,072 grant, partners with Oxford in Web project

contact: Mark Schwerin
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University has been awarded a $779,072 grant by the John Templeton Foundation to assemble a digital library and interactive web portal of historical religious philosophical writings in partnership with University of Oxford, the oldest and one of the most prestigious universities in the English-speaking world.

Also joining the project is Texas A&M University, which will handle much of the digitization of historical philosophical materials. The John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization working as a catalyst for discoveries relating to the big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality, is appropriating a little more than $2.3 million to the project altogether.

The project is essentially the brainchild of Dr. Timothy McGrew, WMU professor of philosophy, who will work closely with Oxford's Bodleian Library to access philosophic religious writings from about the late 1600s through the early 20th century. The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library with more than 11 million items.

Photo of a Greek Orthodox Bible.

The project

A key element of the project is not just the digitization of records, but the linking of writings with other writings that influenced them or they were responding to, placing them in their proper historical context, McGrew says. People involved in the project have referred to it as "uploading Tim's brain."

"There are some issues that are always interesting, always sort of hot-button issues--existence of god, miracles--that's always going to get people going from one side or another," McGrew says. "What the Templeton Foundation said was, 'Look, what's the current state of discussion on this, professionally speaking, and what could be done to make it better, more interesting and more available to people?'"

McGrew was among a group of researchers summoned to Oxford a little more than a year ago. It was there that McGrew floated the idea of unearthing philosophical and religious writings that have not been refuted, but have long since been forgotten, leaving gaps in the historical record.

"We've got people like Richard Dawkins talking with no sense of history at all," he says, "and making mistakes that could be corrected if we went back and looked at the history of the discussion."

Thanks to Google Books and Microsoft's Internet archives, researchers have a better idea of what's out there, McGrew says. The trouble is finding writings of interest from among the hundreds of millions of manuscripts.

"How do you find the 5,000 or 2,000 resources you really need?" McGrew says. "Where's that needle in the haystack?"

For quite a number of years, McGrew has been searching those out, combing archives and libraries, obtaining copies through interlibrary loan, scanning writings and amassing a database. The database includes all sides of a given issue, so that the writings of Christian theologians are included along with skeptics, atheists, deists and others.

McGrew noticed webs of interconnectedness within the religious writings, so that one author was responding to, refuting or was being influenced by another.

"What I said to Templeton was, you should make this conversation something that's available and can be mapped and traced by people who have just a personal interest in it or a scholarly interest in it," McGrew says. "And they bit."

Indispensable resource

The grant will fund the three-year, online digital humanities project, paying for a visiting assistant professor for two years, one-quarter of the cost of a sabbatical year for McGrew, as well as hiring a graduate assistant and research assistant. McGrew has worked at WMU for 19  years and never put in for a sabbatical until now. It is hoped the database will be up and running in time for McGrew to use it as a tool in a class for religious and philosophy scholars that he will teach next summer.

"If we do this right, no one will be able to do scholarship on this issue without using our tool ever again, because the interconnections will be mapped out so thoroughly," McGrew says. "Not that we're going to replace what other people have done, but we're going to supplement it in a way that it will become indispensable and could become a model for digital humanities projects."

McGrew says researchers investigating a particular topic will be able to conduct searches and from there be able to navigate straight to the particular page they are looking for.

"So you don't have to go for an interlibrary loan or hope that Google Books has it," McGrew says. "We're going to have them all, straight from the Bodleian Library at Oxford… We're providing the background, the context, and a way of very intuitively maneuvering through this, so you can find what you need and discover what you didn't even know was there."