The Library has about 14,000 unique documents composed of 65,000 distinct files, so easy navigation is important. The site is designed with two principles: (1) most documents are no more than 2 clicks deep, and (2) the design is minimalist — inspired by Google's homepage, my rule is: not one extra character or design element.
1. The first way to browse the Library is by "Collection." Collections can be either a document type (e.g. poetry vs. article vs. screenplay) or provenance (e.g. compilations by individuals vs. compilations by the BWC). The main Collections are what you see listed on the front page, bahai-library.com. The second way to browse or search the Library is via the Site Map, bahai-library.com/sitemap, which lists all the ways of interfacing with the site.
[The following two paragraphs are copied from About.]
A few times in 1996 friends asked me to email them copies of some of my grad school papers. When I was asked for copies of one paper twice in one week in January 1997 I decided to figure out how to publish for the web. That being done I thought, "well, now I might as well post my other papers!" It then occurred to me that, since I had been collecting all the documents posted on Talisman 1 and other early internet groups, I must have one of the larger collections of articles, translations, and letters from the Universal House of Justice in digital format. Spring break was coming up and I had a week free, and before I knew it or could stop, the Bahá'í Library had sprung. From spring 1997-2002 I sometimes worked on it as a full-time job, alternating with mentoring for the Wilmette Institute and web-hosting/design.
In 2003 I converted the website from a manually-created, HTML-based site (Version 1) to a dynamic database-driven site, custom programmed in PHP with a MySQL backend (Version 2, aka "Web 2.0"). Brett Zamir then completely rewrote and improved the backend in 2005-06 (Version 3), overhauling and streamlining the code, adding security features and language packs, and creating a template/cache system. I took a vacation from the library through 2009 while my second child was at home, while Brett grew it and improved the programming. I returned to the project in 2010 to add new content and interface tweaks. I then reprogrammed the backend in 2012 to make numerous updates to the site's appearance and functioning (Version 4). The site is again in need of a complete overhaul, which will be done in 2022 and 2023 (Version 5).
I did not intend to start a "library" for the general public. The site's first two names were Bahá'í Academics Resource Page and then Bahá'í Academics Resource Area — titles emphasizing that the site was for "Bahá'í academics." By 2003, though, so much content had been added (including the Sacred Writings, which were not yet on bahai.org) that it needed a broader name. Peter Terry suggested "Bahá'í Library Online." That I did not foresee the site becoming a general library explains why the site's architecture doesn't have the formal structure of a library: my code always played catch-up to the content, which grew faster and more widely than I foresaw.
Out of historical curiosity, let's compare the last Version 1 with the first Version 2. The Bahá'í Faith was in the news in July 2003 when whistleblower David Kelly, a recent convert to the Bahá'í Faith, died of disputed causes after criticizing the Iraq war. By coincidence, the following month is when the wholesale rewrite of the Library went online. Compare the snapshots of August and September 2003: this new interest in the Faith, and questions from journalists about suicide, inspired the new top section "featured pieces."
That the site grew from a personal page to what it is now is the result of four necessary conditions: the right time, the right place (in my life), the right interest, and the right ability:
Right time: while I was late to the internet compared with many, I was early compared with most. I had just become active online when the email list Talisman was created; this was before there were Bahá'í websites. Email is where the students and scholars began actively sharing their translations, their articles, and their research drafts. Because I happened to be in university studying Bahá'í-related topics, I saved much of it. So I was lucky to already have a large digital collection.
I was at the right place in my life — I had the luck to be a student in those years, and was already in a university where I had computers, internet, books to scan, and peers to share with. Most important, I did not yet have children or a career filling my time.
Right interest: I was one of those kids whose idea of playing with toy cars was lining them up on the carpet to make patterns. And I've always had a collector's mentality; when I was 16 there was an article in the town newspaper about my scholarship-earning insect collection. For my own needs I had to organize the digital collection I'd amassed from Talisman and elsewhere, so collecting and organizing online was just the next step. If I did not have a collector's addictive personality, the Library would not have happened.
Right ability: this is, I think, the most important set of characteristics: this job requires a diverse set of skills, jack of all trades if expert in none. (1) The first quality the job requires is neutrality and calmness. I was never one to join online debates; I had no agendas to push, scholarly or otherwise; I encouraged contributions to the Library by using a light editorial hand and deferring to the content creators; I accepted most criticisms or suggestions with a sincere "I agree." (2) Running the library obviously requires familiarity with many aspects of computing: from document formats for PC and Mac, audio conversions, basic skills in Photoshop and Acrobat, the server environment and Apache, to all the little tools like multi-file edit scripts, etc. (3) I needed a willingness to learn new languages, mostly html and php. (4) The job requires a degree of reliability, e.g. responding to all emails, keeping to project commitments, respecting deadlines, and keeping the server running smoothly, with a good IP reputation, and off spam blacklists. (5) Finally, I would not have attracted so much content for the Library were it not for professionalism, and an eye for detail bordering on OCD.
Our goal is simple: to make available any and all material on or related to the Bahá'í Faith which is either historically relevant, academic in origin, or of potential use in scholarship.
The Library is not intended to be a teaching site, or a site "for" Bahá'ís. There are hundreds of high quality sites already online that do a great job of deepening Bahá'ís or presenting the Faith to the world. I am not interested in promoting the Faith — presented neutrally, it speaks for itself. Conversely, and in contrast to some early websites, the Library has never had an agenda critical of any Bahá'í teachings or practices. We do not post anything contemporary that is critical in any way other than academic (by "contemporary" I'm excluding things like, e.g., old articles on Babism from Christian missionaries in Iran).
It is important to emphasize that the Library conforms to both Bahá'í and academic standards: it 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 or confidential documents. It also does not include material which does not have a direct scholarly or historical application, such as contemporary photography or basic deepening materials.
The Bahá'í Library Online is not intended to be a "Bahá'í" site. Most of the Library's contributors are Bahá'ís, but a few are not. The majority of the visitors are Bahá'ís, but many are not (a 2002 poll showed users to be 88% Bahá'ís, 5% ex-Bahá'ís, 4% from other faiths, and 3% seekers). It is important for the Library to state clearly that it is not an official site, nor even a Bahá'í-promoting site, partly to prevent confusion but also so non-Bahá'í readers can see its transparency and objectivity. With most of the world never having heard of the Faith, non-Bahá'ís are the most important audience!
As mentioned above, after Dr. Kelly died I'm sure many non-Bahá'ís came to the Library in search of information. I would like to believe that its scholarly appearance and neutral tone encouraged them to read more and know the Faith better. (See more in my now-outdated 2003 Vision Statement.)
4. Uniqueness / value
The Bahá'í Library has a somewhat unique place online in its neutrality and its flexibility:
As discussed above, it is not presented as a site designed to "sell" or promote the Faith, and is not overtly even a faith-based site. This can prevent conflict between mandates, e.g. a site run by a Bahá'í institution would not be as free to post items by non-Bahá'ís or items with scholarly criticism.
A second important aspect is that the Library has the flexibility to post any type of content, which could be harder using e.g. WordPress or Wiki software. For example, when other websites go extinct the Library can absorb their content, e.g. bahailib_archive. Or when Steven Kolins needed to collect a variety of material and media in one place for his History of the Bahá'í Faith in North Carolina seminar, we could provide a single location with a static URL.
The quality of the Library is partly a function of consistency and metadata, navigability, minimalism, interlinking, and professionalism:
Consistency: every file at the site has an identical appearance, and every index listing looks the same.
As well, each file has consistent metadata: all give a date (or "n.d."), all state copyright or ownership, all cite the original source, all published documents give publication data, each file has an Abstract and Tags, etc.
Navigability: each page has breadcrumb links, Collection and tag links, and a consistent header and footer. Navigation links are visible text on the page, not hidden in drop-down or pop-up menus.
Minimalism: interacting with the site itself should never be a chore; the design should be "invisible" to the user and not an obstacle. There is not a single extraneous character or design element in the site navigation (headers, footers, index pages). The larger the site got, the simpler its interface became. One can see the evolution of this minimalism — growing from a "busier" design to more simple — at the 20+ version snapshots from 1997-2022. The current design stabilized around 2010, and has changed only incrementally since then.
Also important is balanced cross-referencing and interlinking: enough links to be helpful, but not so many as to be confusing. One very early description of HTML envisioned every word of the future internet being linked in an infinite web — but having too many links dilutes their quality. See for example the link chain at the top of this document: the three links above point back to the others in the chain, plus no more than one or two others outside the chain.
Professionalism: The site itself has no obvious typos or lazy grammar, permissions and citations are explicit, I reply respectfully to all emails, keep to deadlines, keep the server running smoothly, etc.
The Library also helps facilitate online discussion. We run six email listservers for private academic discussion, and these need to be managed. We had one of the first "bulletin board" forums in 1997, bahai-library.com/wwwboard/archive.html, which is how people asked questions online before social media (I say "used to" because the current forum gets only a few posts per year now).
We have also helped distribute Bahá'í material in new media. In the late 1990s, when the entire Library was under 700MB in size, one person's chosen project was to distribute it on CD-ROM in Africa. At various times I've shared my archive on BitTorrent, with both a sanitized public version and a 25GB complete version shared privately. Starting in 2015 I kept the Sacred Writings alive on Freenet for a couple years.
Finally, an example of how others have valued the Library. Every 2-3 years I get an email from someone late in their life wanting to share their life's work or archive the work of a parent. The first such life-opus collection was in 1999 when Barbara Sims and her family worked with me to scan and OCR all of her histories before she passed: east-asia. The most recent was in 2021 when Ernie Jones and a team of volunteers worked to scan, OCR, format, and proofread his late mother's collection of Bahá'í historical material: emma_maxwell_jones_collection (this project is ongoing).
Scholars have also asked me to preserve their unpublished writings when they were in their last years, e.g. Ahang Rabbani and Kamran Ekbal in 2013. Or as Marlene Macke emailed in 2020 when sending her life's collection of Dramatic Readings, "Looking for a home online that can be accessed by other Bahá'ís, it seems this website is the best venue for such a collection. I find myself anxious to find such a site because I've been diagnosed with a terminal illness and wish to have my dramatic readings endure beyond my passing to the next World of God" (qtd. with permission).
5. Editing process
There are four main activities that comprise this job: answering questions, coordinating work, maintaining old documents, and preparing new ones:
This website attracts a lot of inquiries (which is why our contact page says "We are not staffed or funded to answer research questions or general Bahá'í inquiries"). Most of these I can answer, and the rest I forward to the appropriate Bahá'í agencies. Questions tend to be along the lines of "where do I find quotation X or source Y or book Z," but are sometimes general inquiries about the Faith or specific questions regarding things like pilgrimage or finding some long-lost friend. And of course there's unending correspondence with content creators — both authors or people doing scanning etc. — both for new content and existing content.
Coordinating projects is one of the more valuable aspects of the site; in 2020 I set up a Facebook workgroup to help, but most of it is done behind-the-scenes by email and Zoom. These collaborative projects are usually for organizing volunteers to scan, OCR, proofread, and format. An example of one of the larger collaborations was Violetta Zein's recent initiative sohrab_diary_letters_1912-1915 which involved cataloging and OCRing thousands of image files, which 5-6 volunteers were involved in. Starting in 2021 I began hiring as well, for specific tasks: programming, adding locations and tags, and adding abstracts.
One might assume that the work we do is reflected in the What's New list, but that's only a small part. Old documents are continually being revised or updated. With so many existing documents people often report typos or scanning mistakes that spellcheck won't catch (e.g. "bad" for "had"). As well, people like Mike Thomas are regularly preparing improved versions of old scans, or proofing old documents. Some of the more significant updates are listed at featured_updates.
Posting new items is not just a matter of taking a PDF someone emailed us and uploading it. In rough order, here's a list of some tasks that go into online publishing:
back-and-forth emails with authors, publishers, scanners, proofreaders
adding title, author, date, or relevant footnotes to Word documents where missing
standardizing document formats: font face, font size, page size, line spacing, margins
proofreading, spellchecking Word documents
converting various file formats, and/or standardizing file formats in collections or archives: .odt, .pages, .docx, .epub, .pub, .xls, .wpd, .tif, etc.
converting to PDF and/or OCRing, editing, optimizing, cropping PDFs
adding metadata to new entries: citations, publication info, OCLC, DOI, cross-references
reading the document carefully enough to write an abstract, condense that abstract to under 256 characters, and compile subject-index tags and locations
HTML formatting and/or HTML clean-up
near-constant finessing of the code for the backend admin interface, the frontend user interface, and site functions
The Library's most urgent need now is a thorough reprogramming, which is covered below.
Its next important task is adding more Tags. Arjen Bolhuis has done a masterful job of tagging any documents posted in recent years, but about 3,000 documents still have no, or minimal, tagging. Tags will eventually become a sort of master subject index. (Dat Thai will add Locations where missing, and Peter Smith recently completed adding Abstracts where lacking.)
As I've been collecting documents since the early 90s and have always had more to post than time to post, my computer's to-do folder currently holds 17,500 items. Many of those are duplicates, or multiple versions of the same document, but that still leaves about 10,000 items waiting to be posted.
There are still about 500 items from the Web 1.0 system, pre-2003, that need to imported into the modern system.
The entire Library can use more metadata: books can have an OCLC number and ISBN where missing, many items have a DOI that can be added, Phelps Inventory #s can be added, etc.
Catalog records: the Library needs metadata added to each item as necessary for exporting EndNote and MARC citations.
Finally, see another 300 specific tasks or updates in our running To Do List.
7. Future / ownership
Details about the Library's upcoming changes will be posted at version_5 when available.
The Library is in desperate need of a complete reprogramming. It needs a new backend structure, new backend code, and new frontend code for both desktop and mobile interfaces. The site can not take advantage of true crowdsourcing until two things happen: the code needs to be open-sourced, which will allow for both evolution and security; it needs an improved user/editor interface, so the public can more easily contribute.
I tried to fund and crowdsource the library twice before: in 1999 I set up donations page, a sponsored projects system, and a cohort of "managing editors." By 2002 I'd gotten only $150 in donations and 2 editors, so I discontinued both and did not ask for or receive any further donations (until 2020). In 2003 I set up a multi-level editors access system for the Version 2.0 site and a couple more people came on board, but it was hardly a crowd and I gave up on the idea.
The workgroup on Facebook has helped coordinate a number of projects. In early 2021 we started initial discussions on Version 5 and some programming began later that year, but it's a slow process involving many people and we have no time estimate for completion.
I/we plan to register as a non-profit with a dedicated bank account, so that donations can be collected and then paid out to individuals we hire for specific jobs, from programming to editing to design. This will also ensure that the Library not be under any one person's ownership or editorial control.
I/we also needed an informal "council" of advisors and a "board" of directors to take collective ownership of the site. With a project as large and complicated as Version 5 I don't know what I don't know, so I also needed to invite experts in the relevant fields: programming, library science, mobile interfaces, non-profit law, etc.
We now have a council of seventeen people who have agreed to take an advisory role, and a subset of four people which forms the board. These 17 advisors have a vote on the Library's board members, ownership, general use of funds, and mandate. Some advisors will offer expert oversight of specific areas, like database architecture, mobile design, or citation import/export. The 4-member board will oversee the day-to-day running of the site and actual expenditure of donations. [Update: some things in this paragraph are now outdated. -J.W., 2023 Feb.]
As of May 2022, the Library is no longer owned or controlled by an individual, and I (Jonah) will continue as managing editor only so long as elected.
"On 7/8 May 2022 Jonah Winters spoke about his website Bahai-library.com. This leading independent Bahai Studies portal has been online for almost three decades. The session provides insights into the website's origins, purpose, structure, usability, challenges, maintenance, management, and future directions."