SELA - Scholars Press and the Emory University Libraries

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The SELA project is another product of funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Scholars Press and the Emory University Libraries have worked together to produce this collection of online print journals, which was projected to include three years' worth of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Critical Review of Books in Religion, and Biblical Archaeologist (now renamed Near Eastern Archaeology), plus the entire run of Semeia (only about half of the issues of Semeia are actually present in SELA, but the balance are slated to appear in ATLAS), as well as a single issue of Semeia pre-prints (E-Semeia).

Unlike the previous projects, which are ongoing, SELA is by design experimental and of limited scope, covering primarily the years 1996-1998, except for Semeia. The experimental nature of SELA is the reason for the use in the collection of a variety of digitizing formats, and this variety is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. SGML, HTML, and GIF images are all used to digitize the journals. Users may find this variety annoying, but from a research point of view the use of various formats has allowed the designers (i.e., the Offline editors) to calculate the costs involved in preparing texts in different formats and to observe the advantages and disadvantages of each format from a user's perspective.

Users view those volumes digitized as SGML (JAAR, most Semeia, CRBR) with regular Web browsers, thanks to a program called DynaWeb that translates SGML to HTML on the fly. DynaWeb also has a sophisticated search engine built in, allowing scholars to do both simple and complex searches of the full text of individual articles, particular issues, and even the entire document collection. Translating SGML into HTML loses many of the advantages of encoding in SGML in the first place, especially in terms of complex searches and custom displays based on the greater richness of tagging possible in SGML, but until XML browsers become commonplace, conversion on the fly to HTML is perhaps the best that users can hope for.

The issues of Biblical Archaeologist/Near Eastern Archaeology, as well as some issues of Semeia, are available as page images, but each page is surrounded by an SGML "envelope," allowing users to view the table of contents of an issue and jump to a specific page from any other page (the Electronic Binding DTD, or Ebind, developed at Berkeley was used). Page images were chosen for BA because of the numerous photographs, charts, maps, and drawings that appear in the journal. The obvious drawback of images is that the text in them cannot be copied and pasted into a word processing document. From a production standpoint, however, an entire issue of a journal can be prepared in a usable format in a single day. The preparation time necessary for this format is anywhere between one-tenth and one-fortieth that of the time required to produce fully validated SGML.

All of the journals digitized in the SELA project relate directly to the field of religion, so the usefulness of having them accessible is undeniable. It is an added benefit that they are available at no charge to users. Obvious drawbacks include the limited scope of the project and the fact that, like the journals used in Project Muse, they are the products of a single publisher, Scholars Press. Another weakness of the SELA journals is the unevenness of the encoding, not only among the various formats, but also--and particularly--among those journals encoded in SGML. On the other hand, one of the strengths of the project is the presence of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic (and the occasional Coptic) words in their original scripts rather than transliterated.

Over the past three years those of us involved in the SELA project have learned a lot about how to do digitization projects, and, of equal importance, we have learned just as much (or more?) about how not to do such projects. The expertise gained in working with SELA and other local projects has laid the groundwork for a new, bigger, and better journal digitization project: ATLAS.

From: "OFFLINE 64: Online Print Journal Collections and the Academic Study of Religion," published in Religious Studies News Volume 14, Number 1 (February 1999). American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press. See Offline Online! and SELA Journals Project.