Thursday, March 25, 2010


A More Recent Dismal Confirmation

I invite the comments of my sage historian colleague at OLSWA, Dr. Ryan Freeburn, on this one (as on any matter at all, of course!)

Because my relationship with the University of Toronto has ended, I have lost the only thing I have really cared to maintain in my relationship with them - my access to their subscriptions to on-line journals. I made good use of it while I could. Subscriptions to these on-line journals are expensive for a school. OLSWA subscribes to a modest package, and yet it is a pretty penny relatively speaking - but necessary to supplement our insufficient library holdings.

All of the above is a mere preamble for saying this: this loss has crystallized a realization that has been in long ferment: there is surprisingly little free academic content on-line. You may be thinking to yourself: 'Who cares!'

Let's consider the meaning of this. Was not the Internet conceived of as a means of sharing information? We know how effective it is at sharing pornography, useless information about celebrities and the doings of various imbeciles at the local high school. There was no need of additional means for that - we already had the T.V., the telephone and the radio for those things. But you know, this rant reminds me of what my father said to me about T.V. when it first came out - and yes, he was there. He said there was likewise great hope for what the T.V. could offer in terms of education. But alas, what we ended up with was Oprah, Oprah and much worse, usually.

You know that I am an Augustinian and as such that I don't really care what the mass of society does - I expect bad things from it. I am, however, directing this criticism to scholars. They do not do enough to share knowledge. They do not do enough to share their knowledge on-line. In my opinion, that is a travesty of the first order.

Over the years I have made great use of a few sites that have provided free textual content: esp. New Advent with its Fathers of the Church and Summa, the Newman Reader with its large offering of the works of J.H.N., and, even, I admit, and I defend, Wikipedia for quick referencing. A hero for on-line scholarship is Dr. O'Donnell from Georgetown U, who has put his magnificent, second-to-none commentary on Augustine's Confessions on line. (This forgives much to Dr. O'Donnell who has written the worst biography of Augustine in modern times - not terrible scholarship per se, but, for the most part, full of sensationalism worthy of the National Enquirer.) Also in the context of Augustinian scholarship, the good people at the Augustine Heritage Institution at Villanova U provide some scholarly articles on Augustine. Indeed, if you can read French, the Oeuvres Completes (complete works) of St. Augustine are on-line as well. Occasionally a professor will offer an article or two of his on his site at his university.

That's my experience with free content. And what is the unifying character of all the above stuff? Copyright. Most of the above stuff is out of copyright since it was written over 70 years ago. That is why O'Donnell is a hero - he made his text available, and it is a new text, and this must have cost him in potential sales.

Money is the big (only) factor here. But academics are supposed to love knowledge for its own sake. In this light, I challenge academics to recover their own roots: knowledge was never viewed as a commodity before the invention of the printing press. Even plagiarism as a byword is a modern concept. Authors have always been honoured when their ideas were taken. I think every single scholar should make a significant contribution to the Internet: put your best lecture notes on-line for the world, or a few of your essays, or whatever. It won't cost you much, and it will make the world a better place.


My lovely one just reminded me that today is the Feast of the ******. I noted that that should not be its name. It is Hypostatic Union Day. As I reminded the Senate the other day, it is more proper to relate something to its primary cause than to its secondary cause. Thus, referring to this day as the Annunciation is equivalent to calling the Feast of the Nativity, Feast of the Bright Star or the Feast of the Crib. Are my Protestant roots showing? NO!

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