Why I Joined Marginalia

By David Lincicum
Mansfield College, Oxford
January 2013

Like most early career academics, I feel acutely the various pressures of entering the guild: the need to conduct research that is innovative and significant, but also publishable sooner rather than later; teaching requirements that entail moving beyond a primary field of specialization; administrative responsibilities that involve stretching one’s normal skill-set; and the ever elusive search for balance between personal life and university vocation.

So when Michael Law, my friend and erstwhile colleague in Oxford (now Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow in Göttingen), shared with me last May his idea for a new site for open access book reviews in biblical studies, I had my doubts. Would this be one more dead-end distraction that I would later come to look upon as a false start? And how many false starts could I afford in this perilous quest for solid ground in my new position?

As our conversations unfolded, however, I became increasingly convinced that there was a gap to be filled, and that we could do something with real intellectual frisson. Over time the vision broadened to include not simply biblical studies but a range of sub-disciplines along the nexus of historical, theological and religious studies. And we began to shift in thinking of this as a ‘book review site’ to being a review of books, taking inspiration from some well-known and literary models like the Times Literary Supplement or The New York Review of Books, and dreaming about including not simply reviews but essays and interviews that could push the boundaries of normal academic publishing. What has emerged over the better part of the past year is Marginalia: A Review of Books in History, Theology and Religion. The site goes live today, 29 January.

So what won me over in the end? What possible justification can there be for yet another place for online book reviews? In what follows, I’d like to offer a few personal reflections answering those questions, hoping along the way to persuade some frequenters of The Bible and Interpretation to join us as readers and/or contributors.

We’ve all enjoyed and benefited tremendously from the pioneering efforts of online review sites or email subscription lists like the Review of Biblical Literature, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, H-Judaic, The Medieval Review, and others. We see ourselves as grateful heirs to this tradition of open-access reviews, and hope to share in the important work of the free distribution of scholarship. As anyone knows who has, like a nervous parent, sent out a monograph into the cruel world, it is always useful to have reviews in multiple venues and from competing perspectives. There is no sense in trying to pit one review site against another.

At the same time, I personally (not reflecting any official stance of Marginalia, it should be said) harbor the anarchic hope that print journals will slowly over time come to relinquish their book review sections to online, open-access venues. JBL famously did this, of course, and it makes good sense for others to follow suit: people pay subscription fees for peer-reviewed articles rather than book reviews (we need more open access to peer-reviewed articles too, of course, though that is a discussion for another day). It makes less and less sense for authors to have reviews of their work hidden behind pay-walls, with sometimes long lags between publication and review. And while few have made their reputation from reviewing alone, it is clearly in the reviewer’s interest to have the broadest possible dispersion of their written work. There are a few journals that have always been notable for the quality of their reviews (JTS comes especially to mind), but there are many others which could forfeit their review sections to make more room for articles without detriment.

With the explosion of blogs devoted to biblical and theological studies, we have seen in recent years a democritization of the review. From the perspective of access, this is a clear gain, though one sometimes wonders whether the consistency of quality has suffered. It’s not to say that there aren’t fantastic blog reviews of books, but simply that there is a wild vacillation in quality and one never quite knows what will be on the other end of a Google search. The problem is, of course, not limited to online reviews, though it is endemic there. Speaking personally, I know I have sometimes written less than stellar reviews simply because the industry standard is relatively low. Others are better souls and write with consistent eloquence and verve. But why not take a chance at trying to raise the bar of expectation and then to let everyone, subscription-free, have access to the results?

We have, moreover, assembled a uniquely talented group of scholars to help achieve these goals. With over 35 senior scholars on our Advisory Board and over 40 impressive early career academics as Subject Editors, we have introduced an organizational structure in which each Subject Editor selects one important book in his or her subject per month, and then assigns it to a qualified reviewer. We aren’t hoping to compete with the massive volume of RBL, which publishes hundreds of reviews in biblical studies each year. Rather, we hope to create a common conversation by a judicious selection of the most important books across a broader range of sub-disciplines, ranging from Ancient Near Eastern studies and Semitics to Hebrew Bible and New Testament to Philosophical Theology and Dharma Traditions.

In the end, we hope that our attempt at a digitally native, open-access review of books in our field can become a fruitful space for intellectual cross-pollination. Needless to say, we’re eager to hear from our readers about what’s working and what needs work. And we are delighted to join sites like The Bible & Intepretation as a place for intelligent and critical diffusion of the results of academic study, as well as discussion and debate of the most important currents in recent scholarship.

Comments (1)

I hope your enterprise may live long and prosper. It should of particular use to amateurs like me who have to choose a few books to buy rather than have the resources of an academic library at their disposal.

#1 - Martin - 02/02/2013 - 18:42

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