Libraries have long served as public gathering places in which people freely discuss their varying viewpoints, challenge the status quo, and explore the historical archive in search of expanded knowledge and deeper understanding. I often think that unique to the LMU experience are librarians who go beyond their charge to serve the students, faculty, and staff of the university, and find a particular resonance with this history of libraries as agora.
As such, when evaluating resources to add to the collection, our librarians seek out resources that provide access to content that will highlight varying viewpoints, challenge the status quo on a topic, or that open the archives on primary source material. Religions of America, a Gale Primary Source database, [MyLMU login] manages to provide all three while contextualizing the history and unique character of religious movements that originated in or were re-shaped by the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
More than a mere presentation of theological doctrine, Religions of America presents researchers with opportunities to explore revealing intersections of religion with economics, political science, history, law, sociology, psychology, gender studies, and many other fields. Whether it’s the redefinition of race that inspired the Moorish Science Temple of America, the countercultural sentiments that underwrote the Free Peoples Temple, the conflicts to established law presented by Mormon practices, or the separatist energy that invigorated Pentecostal Christianity before its transformative engagement with American politics, Religions of America traces the history and unique characteristics of movements and religious groups’ expressions of faith through manuscripts, pamphlets, newsletters, ephemera, and visuals.
The materials upon which this collection is built will be familiar to students of the library’s information literacy classes. The characteristics of these material align with that which we would describe as primary source material. Invaluable when conducting scholarly research, primary sources are unique in the way they should be approached. As one of our reference and instruction librarians, Alexander Justice points out,
“When we search in libraries for sources, especially secondary sources, we’re guided by our definition of a topic or research question. A primary source collection, however, can’t be very useful to us until we’ve become somewhat familiar with the subject around which it’s constructed. Students will need to make sure they’ve properly digested their course readings, and then will need to review definitions and uses of primary sources (our research guide makes a good place to start)” if one is to make full use of this voluminous collection.
Despite this collection’s vastness, Gale provides users with unique tools to aid both in searching the collection and visualizing connections between search terms and topics. As serials and electronic resources librarian Marie Kennedy explains, Gale’s Topic Finder “takes the titles, subject, and approximately the first 1000 words from a subset of your top results and feeds them into an algorithm” then presents the user with a visual representation of their search, highlighting connections between otherwise seemingly disparate topics. Can you imagine how the English occultist, Aleister Crowley, well known for his sensationalist stereotype as a Satanist, is connected to yoga? Doing a search in the Topic Finder of Religions of America reveals that connection.
While Religions of America provides exceptional coverage of the expression of and reaction to various religious movements, including Pentecostalism, Mormonism, modern Judeo-Christian organizations (Christian Science, Messianic Judaism), and non-Christian New Thought and neo-Pagan religions. It also provides robust coverage of alternative, lesser-known but culturally important religious traditions, including New Age, neo-Pagan, Wicca, neo-Christian movements (Adventism, Christian Science), and Fundamentalist movements. Examined closely, this collection might challenge one’s embedded theology or even stimulate a reformation of one’s own definition of Religion in the twenty-first century.
The William H. Hannon library invites you to be challenged by our resources, explore the new and interesting ideas they hold, and then present your understandings, through your scholarship, in the public square. When scholarship is at its most valuable, it is not a mere recitation of facts or a disambiguation of the historical record. Instead, scholarship should be challenging of established norms, embodying of various viewpoints in all of their complexities, and provide opportunities for its developments to be shared, challenged, and reshaped time and time again.