Where I Ruminate on How Communication Technology has Changed the Scholarly Life

My friend and former parishioner Martin Langeveld has been encouraging me to start a blog, so here goes.   Martin, the former publisher of the Berkshire Eagle, our daily paper here in Pittsfield, is himself a blogger for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, where he has regular insights into the rapidly changing fate of newspapers.

I have been a sometimes blogger for several years on the site of The Confessing Christ  movement in the United Church of Christ.  There I have limited myself to matters theological, so here I can expand the lens a bit and include other interests.

I have been reflecting on how information has become available during my adult lifetime.  This is the 20th anniversary of my first sojourn to Britain to study.  I went to the University of Oxford to study the British Theologian, P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921) at Mansfield College.  All my arrangements were made by phone or mail, and letters often had a turnaround time of two months.  Phone calls meant waking in the wee hours to catch people in the UK during business hours.

To study Forsyth’s writings I had to go one of the libraries, and the books for the most part had to remain there, so I spent a great deal of time in reading rooms.  I also scoured secondhand bookshops, most notably Blackwell’s, for Forsyth’s books.

The card catalogue at the Bodleian library was in huge leatherbound ledgers, and you had to fill out a call slip for items to come out of the bowels of the library.  I remember one of the books, a collection of Forsyth’s prayers, had the name of a former reader on the list in the back of the book: Robert McAfee Brown, who did his Ph. D. Dissertation at Union Theological Seminary under Reinhold Niebuhr and John Bennett.  It was dated 1949, the year I was born.  Sitting in the Duke Humphrey room at the Bodleian, built in 1488, four years before Columbus hit the Americas, made time slow down.

Six years later I went to St. Andrews University to do more on Forsyth, and that time there were fewer letters and more e-mails, and I brought a laptop with me, a Mac PowerBook, albeit with a very slow dial-up connection through CompuServe, remember them?

Six years later (another sabbatical) I was in Cambridge University and most communications were done by e-mail.

Today most (perhaps all) of P. T. Foryth’s writings, once so hard to find, are available on-line, and also many have been cheaply reprinted by Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Today I wouldn’t have to drag my family across the Atlantic to study Forsyth.  I can sit in my kitchen in my pajamas and read his stuff on-line, which is so much more efficient, but also way less cool than sitting in the Duke Humphrey room.

So by the new communications technologies distances of time and space get compressed, and one finds interlocutors as never before.  Twenty years ago a number of my United Reformed Church friends at Oxford thought I was just a little off to have come to study this old theologian from their tradition that most of them didn’t really know or care about.  But today I have a handful of on-line interlocutors I have never met, in the flesh, but who share a passion for this insightful figure from our past.  And now a blog, a word I never heard until a few years ago!

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2 thoughts on “Where I Ruminate on How Communication Technology has Changed the Scholarly Life

  1. >A wonderful first post Richard. Welcome to your own blogdom. I really look forward to reading more, and hopefully to meeting ‘in the flesh’ one day. Every blessing.

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