Log on to Princeton Theological Seminary’s Theological Commons website at commons.ptsem.edu, and you will discover a wealth of theological writing. Anyone in the world can search the database and look at more than 76,700 documents such as hymnals, prayer books, and liturgies going back centuries, including important historical documents like the 1611 Geneva Bible.
With a newly announced $1.5 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the commons plans to expand its offerings into the realm of video and audio recording and even physical objects. The database, powered by the nonprofit Internet Archive project based in San Francisco, currently consists of scanned documents going back to the ninth century.
Donald Vorp, the librarian at the Princeton Theological Seminary, has led the Theological Commons project since it began in 2008. Vorp says the grant will allow the commons to greatly expand its collection, offering lectures recorded at the seminary and perhaps even laser-scanned 3D models of the library’s artifacts. Among the collection of physical objects at the library are a statue of Buddha and an old African spear.
Under this new aspect of the project, a researcher or just a curious person in a faraway place could go to the website, pull up the entry for the spear, and then rotate the 3d model to view it from all angles, as though handling it in a museum. It would be the next-best thing to being there.
In its current form, the library offers unparalleled convenience for theological scholars. “I have heard from researchers from around the world that they’ve been looking for certain publications, and instead of having to visit a library physically, and look through a library within the physical walls, they can go online and just read this material,” Vorp says.
Vorp has developed much of the collection himself. He has worked at the library since 1985, serving as collection development director and other roles, including most recently, director of the library. Vorp grew up in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, where his mother was a homemaker and his father was a steelworker. A graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and the Graduate School of Drew University, he has spent his career working at theological libraries.
Vorp says the commons was made available to the public in 2012 with around 50,000 titles, including many scanned from the seminary’s own library, and has grown steadily since then. In addition to offering its own documents, the website serves as a portal to other theological institutions that have digitized their own collections. The oldest item in the commons is a ninth-century book called the Homiliary on Gospels from Easter to first Sunday of Advent, by a French Benedictine scholar named Heiric of Auxerre, from the University of Toronto.
Research databases like this are common across all academic disciplines. Many research universities publish their scientific findings under open-access terms, so that anyone in the world can access them for free.
“The creation of scientific databases is aided by wide development in the scientific community of open access agreements among publishers and authors, which enables scientific databases to bring online much more recent published material than what is enabled in a theological or religious database,” Vorp says.
The world of theology has lagged behind in this regard. Vorp says most of the material in the commons was written before 1923. That’s because anything written after that point is still copyrighted, and therefore the commons has no right to publish it. Most theological schools still copyright their publications, including the Princeton Theological Seminary. There are no recent PTS publications in the theological commons database, Vorp says.
Of the tens of thousands of volumes in the commons, only 526 were published after 1926, despite a huge amount of material that has been generated since then.
“Copyright law permits only materials that are in the public domain or in the public domain by reason of author and publisher agreements to be digitized and made available online,” Vorp says. “There are a few theological institutions that have open access policies. For example, Harvard Divinity School, as part of Harvard University, has open access arrangements, but Princeton Theological Seminary does not.”
The seminary, established in 1812 by the Presbyterian Church, and the Luce family have a long history. Henry Winters Luce studied at the seminary while preparing for his work as a missionary in China. He graduated in 1896 before pursuing his ministry for more than 30 years. The foundation established by Luce’s son, Henry Robinson Luce, the founder of Time magazine, has endowed a professorship at the seminary, developed the now independent Center for Theological Inquiry, numerous fellowships and the seminary’s Asian American Theology program. The $1.5 million grant, announced in August, is one of several grants made by the foundation for its 75th anniversary.
The commons was designed with students, pastors, and theologians in mind, and will seek to create partnerships with theological libraries around the world to continue to offer more and more material. It currently offers sufficient resources to enable study for a theological degree in places where such resources are too expensive for students to acquire, a press release from the seminary said.
The database also offers curiosities for casual browsers. Want to see a bill of divorcement, written in Aramaic, from the 11th century? Go to the Theological Commons. Visitors can view the ancient documents complete with tears, smudges, and burn marks. The collection has a Protestant focus, but there are also many books on Catholicism and non-Christian religions such as Islam and Buddhism, and non-religious subjects such as theology and history.
With the new infusion of money, Vorp hopes to expand the Commons’s offerings even further. “We are enormously grateful to the Henry Luce Foundation for the grant, which enables us to further develop multimedia content in the theological commons,” he says.
Michael Gilligan, president of the Henry Luce Foundation, said the Theological Commons represents a convergence of this historic relationship with 21st-century innovation. “With a major grant to support the development of the Theological Commons, the Henry Luce Foundation is honored to support Princeton Theological Seminary’s pioneering efforts in scholarship and service,” he said.