What SBL (apparently) doesn’t “get”

I have been forwarded a copy of the email the Society for Biblical Literature sent to its members about moving the Review of Biblical Literature into its members-only space.1 I will comment on that email here, trying to point out why I see this as a significant and retrograde move.

But first some background. I have been an SBL member since the early 80s, I retained membership for a few years after I retired from Carey thanks to the generosity of SBL who allowed me to pay as a Student Member. I recently allowed that membership to lapse, though if the new means-tested membership fees had been announced at that time I would probably have renewed. I have attended a number of International (since 1986) and annual meetings of the Society (since the mid-90s), usually giving papers. I stopped attending after retiring from Carey because of the cost of airfares. (I never used the official expensive hotels). I greatly value the Society for its role as the largest and often the most innovative scholarly society in the discipline of biblical studies.

The email opens “In order to solidify RBL’s status as a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members, we will be moving RBL behind the SBL member login.” The heart of this sentence is largely true. RBL is “a valuable resource produced primarily by SBL members for SBL members”. However, the key word is the adverb. Since RBL moved to free open publication on the web it has not been  used exclusively by SBL members. Biblical scholars in majority world contexts, who cannot afford to attend the Society’s meetings, or even perhaps membership in the society, used the resource. Students, at least the good clever sensible students we all love to teach, used it. (How better to evaluate, and get a feel for, a new area of study than to read a few reviews of key texts?)

Such users are now banned and access is only for those willing and able to pay for SBL membership. 2

Apparently the reason for the move is to increase funding for RBL. “Our hope is that, after this period,3 these individuals will join the SBL at least at the public membership level, if not full membership. In addition to significant investment from SBL, the increased financial support thus provided will help fund a number of highly desired upgrades to and expansions of the RBL architecture.

I doubt those students I mentioned, or indeed many of the majority world scholars will follow this perhaps wise hope. I wonder if SBL is measuring the flood of new memberships? A question on the application form would be informative!

Yet my core objection is not that the move will probably fail to achieve its stated objective, but rather what such a move says about the Society which makes it. What shall it profit a scholarly society if it gain the whole Google, but lose its soul?4 If “scholarly information exchange” continues to be privatised with ownership increasingly divided between big international publishing companies5 and scholarly societies then those societies that get in on that act will have lost their raison d’être and may as well shut up shop. If learning is privatised they become mere secret societies for rich-world bible scholars (with a few charity cases on the margins).

Meanwhile biblical scholarship in the two-thirds world will become more and more indebted to the Fundamentalists or dilettantes :(

  1. I have not seen any explanation for the new closed status of RBL on the RBL’s website, though I did not hunt for it when I was refused entry. []
  2. In other news the membership fee has been scaled according to reduced income and is only US$45 for those earning $10,000-25,000. This reduction does allow more majority world scholars to join the society and is a welcome move.  []
  3. Of continued access for individuals who subscribed to the RBL email newsletter but are not SBL members. []
  4. If, in the interests of literary allusion, my non-religious readers will permit this word, if not just read “spirit”. []
  5. I note the recently announced closure of Sheffield Phoenix Press []