Mandate of the Bahá'í Library Online
This was prepared for Dharlene Valeda's presentation of her thesis "Organizing Digital Collections: the Case of the Bahá'í Academics Resource Library, at the Landegg International Conference on Bahá'í Libraries and Archives, January 2003, and expanded for my presentation What Is a Content Management System? at the ABS conference in San Francisco, August 2003. See also Notes about and history of the Bahá'í Library Online. Updated 2010.
The Bahá'í Library Online is the Internet's largest collection of Bahá'í-related digital texts, and the second most-visited Bahá'í site after bahai.org (as measured by alexa.com). It is located on a dedicated web server. I also offer free hosting to any individual or non-profit group with a collection of documents or materials to share.
The content and organization of the Library were initially assembled over six and a half years, from 1997 to mid-2003, by myself with occasional assistance from as many as 100 volunteers, including the steady work of Brett Zamir. In 2003 I took a 6-month certificate course in Internet Technologies at Bodwell Internet School, Vancouver, and developed a custom program to automate document submission, formatting, cataloguing, retrieval, and re-editing. (To understand this new technology, see What Is a Content Management System?) This new "dynamic" website allows people to register and then begin editing or uploading. Registrants are classified into four categories: Contributors (those who upload documents but don't have any further access); Reviewers (those who approve new items for publication); Administrators (those who can edit and delete anyone's documents); and three Superadmins (myself, Brett Zamir, and one member of the Institutions, who have full server access). My own function in the Library has shifted from assembling and formatting content to programming, management, and editorial oversight.
Content and Languages
The Bahá'í Library Online includes or will include material in any digital medium. It currently has 1829 distinct text items, from books to pilgrims notes to letters from the Universal House of Justice, and a few hundred audio files and photographs [as of 2010, this number is about 5500 distinct items].
Most items are in English, because the site was English-only for its first six years, but now users can upload or view files in any language. Thus far mostly documents in English and Spanish have been uploaded, but more languages can be added. When users select a language to browse, e.g. Spanish, they not only see all the Spanish documents that have been uploaded, but the website's own navigation and instructions also appear in Spanish. This means that people can browse the site without having to know a word of English. (This feature has been temporarily disabled, pending full translation of other interface languages.) Persian and Arabic can be incorporated into the site as well.
Experienced users of the Internet know to be cautious about what they find online, largely because most material on the web has not been edited and fact-checked like print publications are. Bahá'ís have the extra concern of avoiding the small but vocal Covenant-breaker community, many of whom are Internet-savvy and sometimes attempt to covertly spread their opinions through Bahá'í channels (e.g. posting messages on bulletin boards under a pseudonym or sending email to Bahá'í listservers).
It is thus important to emphasize that the Bahá'í Library Online is careful to conform to both Bahá'í and academic standards. The Library only includes material that is informative or historical, is written in a respectful manner, and is not intentionally deceptive. It does not contain any material which is proscribed in Bahá'í practice, e.g. Covenant-breaker materials, personal or confidential documents, or photographs of Bahá'u'lláh. It also does not include any material which does not have a direct scholarly or historical application, such as "Teaching" manuals, contemporary photography, or basic deepening materials.
To respond to a frequently-asked question, the Bahá'í Library Online is not intended to be a "Bahá'í" site per se. My own personal beliefs are just that — personal — and are not stated on the site. Most of the Library's contributors are Bahá'ís, but a few are not. The great majority of the Library's users are Bahá'ís (an informal poll shows users to be 88% Bahá'ís, 3% seekers, 5% ex-Bahá'ís, and 4% adherents of other faiths). It is important for the Library to state clearly that it is not an "official" site, partly to prevent confusion but also so non-Bahá'í readers can see its transparency and objectivity. Given that there are 5 million Bahá'ís and 7 billion non-Bahá'ís, I think the latter is the most important audience: though Bahá'ís find the site useful, I am especially interested in helping the world's non-Bahá'ís come to know and understand the Faith. Recent events illustrate this. After Dr. David Kelly died many journalists came to the Library in search of information on the Bahá'í Faith, and it is my belief that the scholarly appearance and neutral tone of the Bahá'í Library may have encouraged them to read more material at the site and hence know the Faith better. Conversely, and in contrast to some Bahá'í-oriented scholarly websites, the Library has no "agenda," either covert or explicit, that is in any way critical of Bahá'í institutions.
The above considerations should have no bearing on the Library's content or editing, though, because editorial judgments are easy to base on objective academic or historical criteria, with reference to the Compilation on Literature Review when necessary.
Involvement of the Institutions
The function of Literature Review is explicitly not extended to Internet content, which means that I can not request regular input or assistance from any Review office. However, my custom publishing system does include a Review function such that all Reviewers must approve any new submission before it appears publicly on the site. I hope to set up a Review board that parallels the institution of Literature Review, and so far only lack other committed Reviewers. I have begun a dialogue with the Institutions, starting with my LSA, on this matter.
The Library is independent of the Bahá'í institutions, in that it is not sponsored or endorsed by any Bahá'í body and I have received no external editorial input. I frequently request guidance from the United States Bahá'í National Center Literature Review Office and the USBNC Research Office, and questions regarding the site's content have been submitted to the Universal House of Justice by other people, but I have never received unsolicited editorial suggestions. I hope to work more closely with the Institutions, possibly by giving Review status (and hence editorial input and veto) to an individual nominated by the Institutions.
From its humble origins in early 1997 as a venue for personal academic work — i.e., a typical grad student homepage — it has become the Internet's largest collection of Bahá'í academic material and primary sources. In 1999 the Library grew to encompass all published Sacred Writings and a number of related primary source items, from provisional translations to original compilations to transcriptions of talks by notable Bahá'í figures. As well, it has either published or re-published thousands of secondary-source items, including academic articles, essays, books, and book reviews. Finally, a number of resource tools such as bibliographies and academic study guides have been contributed, including materials prepared for the Wilmette Institute. As well as "premiering" works online, the Library seeks to mirror any and all academic or primary source material appearing at any other website online. As there is still relatively little such material on the internet, I believe that we have been successful at mirroring at least 95% of all such material posted at other sites.
The Bahá'í Library Online's mandate is simple, if ambitious. It seeks to make available any and all material on or related to the Bahá'í Faith which is either academic in origin or of potential use in academic research. The four criteria I use in deciding what to include are whether an item is (1) scholastically useful; (2) historically significant; (3) is a primary source, e.g. the Sacred Writings; or (4) has been published by reputable, scholastically-oriented agencies. This is usually regardless of content. That is, materials are neither accepted nor rejected on the basis of the author's belief or the relevance of the material to promoting "entry by troops." However, the four criteria outlined above do tend to exclude deepening material, promotional items, and the majority of apologia on the one hand, and polemical or excessively tendentious material on the other hand. The Library's mandate is not exclusively an "academic exercise," if the double entendre will be forgiven. Exceptions to these four criteria have been made when it was deemed necessary to favor community sensibilities over academic utility. For example, material that might pass one or even all four of these criteria that could yet be excessively controversial or inflammatory, or of a highly personal or sensitive nature, has been omitted. I do not view this as renouncing academic principles, but rather as necessary deference, a bow to the delicacies of working in an intra-faith environment in which one must honor both the primary audience and the contributors.