How to Expand Your Research Materials with Amazon

Biblical scholars need materials for research.1 And you can access quite a lot through your libraries.

In addition, there are also several good places to go online when you need access something. One of these is Amazon.

Amazon as Bookseller

Of course, on Amazon, you can buy books. And the prices you’ll find there are often very competitive. But Amazon can also be a particularly helpful place to conduct research, even if you don’t buy something.

One of the best things about physical bookstores is cracking open a book and reading some of it for yourself. Amazon originally focused on selling books but has now obviously expanded quite far beyond that.2 Even so, they still try to mimick the experience of opening and previewing a physical book.

Looking Inside

So, here enters the “Look inside” option. “Look inside” isn’t available for every book—particularly if it’s a new or prerelease title.

But many titles will have this option. And when one does, you’ll see it over the upper-right hand corner of the book’s cover picture. To start previewing such a book, simply click the cover to “pick it up.”

Partial product page from Amazon showing the "Look inside" option for the book displayed on the page

Most helpful here are the search tool and the options under the menu button at the left. Sometimes these are a bit different, but generally what you’ll find are things like:

  • Front cover: This link takes you directly to the front cover of the book.
  • First Pages: Just as it sounds, this link takes you directly to the first few pages in the volume. This might be the frontmatter, preface, forward, introduction, or first chapter. It just depends on how the links are done for that individual volume.
  • Back Cover: If you’re interested in endorsements for the volume or information about the author, you can use this link to jump to the back cover, which will often have information like this. In hardbacks with dust covers, sometimes you might see links for the front and back flaps in addition to or instead of a back cover link.
  • Surprise Me!: This link mimics the experience of flipping open a book at random and looking at whatever you happen to find there.

Use Cases

As with Google, Amazon will only show you some of a book’s pages due to copyright law. Even so, Amazon’s “Look inside” option can give you helpful information about a volume or its contents in several scenarios:

  1. With the copyright page preview, you can confirm bibliographic data. For instance, you might inter-library loan a chapter from a book but not get all of its publication information. Being able to “look inside” it on Amazon can be a good way to fill in what’s missing for your citation or bibliography.
  2. From the table of contents, you might be able to navigate to various sections of a book or confirm where a particular section ends.
  3. If you use the index or have found a reference to a given page and want to see that page, you can try typing the page number into the search box. This won’t always give you the page you’re looking for, and sometimes you need to look through a longer list of places in the book where the same number occurs. But by searching for the page number or another keyword, you’ll often be able to turn up a page or section that you need even if it’s not directly linked to elsewhere.
  4. If you already have a copy of the book, you can use the search box to help you find that quotation you half remember but can’t seem to turn up again in your physical copy.
  5. You might find that Amazon allows you to preview different pages than Google Books does, or vice versa. So, if you can’t preview what you need with one, it might be worth searching the other.

Conclusion

In the end, the same caution applies to Amazon as with Google Books. You always want to be sure you haven’t inadvertently misunderstood an argument simply because you’ve only read the portions of it that are available in an online preview.

That said, Amazon’s previews can make it easier for you to access some parts of some of the books you need for your research.

A hammer isn’t a substitute for a screw driver, but that doesn’t mean you can only ever use a screw driver. Similarly, while neither Amazon’s nor Google’s previews substitute for having a fuller copy of an argument all together, they can be valuable in making certain kinds of research jobs easier than they would have been otherwise.


  1. Header image provided by César Viteri

  2. Jillian D’Onfro, “Look at How Much Amazon Has Changed since It First Launched,” Business Insider, 20 March 2015. 

How to Expand Your Research Materials with Google Books

Biblical scholars need materials for research.1 And you can access quite a lot through your libraries.

In addition, there are also several good places to go online when you need access something. One of these is Google Books, which aims to be “the world’s most comprehensive index of full-text books.”

As Google has pursued this aim, it’s had various challenges, twists, and turns over the years.2 But for all of that, Google Books can be quite helpful both for titles in the public domain and for those still under copyright.

Titles in the Public Domain

Google Books’s selection includes numerous full-text titles for works in the public domain. In these cases, you can download the books in EPUB, plain text, or—the probably most useful format—PDF.

For instance, let’s say you wanted to read William Sanday and Arthur Headlam’s International Critical Commentary volume on Romans (Scribner, 1899). You could search for and find the title on Google Books. Then, simply click the button for “Download PDF.”

Screenshot of Google Books showing how to download Sanday and Headlam's ICC commentary on Romans in PDF

Titles under Copyright

In addition, Google Books can be helpful for accessing titles still under copyright. For such titles, Google Books provides three levels of access:

  • Preview: Titles with previews available allow you to search and view select pages in the book. Google only shows you some of the book in order to comply with copyright law.
  • Snippet-view: Titles with “snippet” views allow you to search the book and view select portions of pages. In this case, you normally get a few lines of a given page immediately around a given search result.
  • No preview: Titles that don’t have a preview give you only basic metadata about the title. This information can be helpful. But it also often contains errors or inaccuracies (e.g., incorrect additional authors, wrong publication years, missing series information). So before you rely on Google Books metadata, you need to cross check it with the print title.

Of these, I’ve very rarely found snippet view helpful. But occasionally, it’s helpful to search a title that I also have in print. That way, I can find where to read more thoroughly (e.g., in the case of non- or poorly indexed volumes).

Working with Book Previews

Where Google Books provides a preview of a book still under copyright, however, the service is more useful. Often, the table of contents is linked to the rest of the text so you can jump to individual sections.

If this isn’t the case or if you’re feeling a bit geeky and want to jump to a particular page, click the Share option in the three-dots menu.

Google Books link illustration

Then copy and paste the link provided into a new browser tab. The link should look something like
https://books.google.com/books?id=qEsn-q1qOu8C&pg=PA257#v=onepage&q&f=false.

The portion of the link with the “PA257” indicates the page number of the link. Simply change the number portion (e.g., 257) to go to a different page (e.g., 232). Of course, if Google hasn’t made available the page you choose, the new link won’t open that page.

Also, sometimes book links will have more than one section that looks like the “PA257” in the link above. This seems particularly to be the case when you’re previewing a text that has two volumes in one or some similar situation. In these cases, play around with both portions of the link until you find the one that adjusts the page number.

Lastly, from the over-head menu bar (see above), you can search for text within a given volume. This can be particularly helpful if you have a print copy of a book that you’ve read, but you can’t seem to find a particular statement or section that’s relevant to your current project.

Searching Google Books’ Database

As with Internet Archive, searching Google Books’s massive database for what you need can take some time and patience. This is particularly true with older texts or series.

For example, sometimes the series name will display in the search results but without clearly indicating the contents of the particular volume for that link. So, you may need to click through several links or try different searches to identify the volume that’s actually what you’re looking for.

Other features that can be helpful are the “Other editions,” “More by author,” and “Similar books” sections on any given volume’s page. This section shows results based on similar titles, authors, or other metadata.

There have been a number of times when I’ve tried every search I can think of to find a given volume only to see it then listed among the volumes collected under these sections.

Conclusion

Especially if you’re using Google Books for accessing titles that are still under copyright, what you can get on Google Books is no substitute for the full text either in print or perhaps (if you need only a smaller section) electronically via inter-library loan. You always want to be sure you haven’t inadvertently misunderstood an argument simply because you’ve only read the portions of it available in Google Books (!).

Still, with this qualification in mind, Google Books can be an extremely helpful tool for getting access to a wide variety of research material—whether in the public domain or still under copyright.


  1. Header image provided by César Viteri

  2. E.g., see Scott Rosenberg, “How Google Book Search Got Lost,” Wired, 11 April 2017; James Somers, “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria,” The Atlantic, 20 April 2017. 

How to Expand Your Research Materials with Libraries

Researchers need materials.1 For biblical scholars, this most often means books and journals.

We’re responsible for interacting with relevant literature largely irrespective of how easy it is to access. But that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise some research savvy to access what you need more easily and cost effectively. After all, you didn’t get into biblical scholarship because it has the same upside potential as venture capital investing. 🙂

Current technology means that libraries aren’t the only places where you can expand your research materials. But libraries do have a wealth of materials that might not otherwise be at your disposal. Or you might not be able to access these materials as easily as you can through a library.

So, as you think broaden the research materials you have access to, your libraries are good places to begin. And depending on your situation, you might find yourself with access to several different kinds of libraries.

Your School’s Library

If you’re already at an academic institution, this suggestion might seem overly obvious. You’re likely familiar with your school’s library and, at least generally, its holdings.

As the saying goes though, sometimes “familiarity breeds contempt.” That’s not to say you don’t like your library. But you might not think to look there for a given resource because “of course, it won’t have something like that.”

Still, you should check. You might be surprised by what you have access to either by searching the catalog or browsing the stacks.

This has happened to me more than once, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what my institution’s library happened to have.

For instance, in working on the land(s) promised to Abraham, I almost assumed my institution’s library wouldn’t have W. D. Davies’s The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). But thankfully I looked in the catalog and happily found that it was actually already on there on the shelves.

Your Public Library

Even more likely to be overlooked is your local public library. It’s certainly true that public libraries cater to quite a general clientele. So, in principle, they’ll be less likely to have significant holdings of scholarly sources pertinent to biblical studies.

As with your institution’s library, however, it’s possible that you might be surprised by what’s on the shelves at your local public library. But your local public library is more likely to have holdings of interest in its own extended materials that are available either electronically or via interlibrary loan.

Other School’s Libraries

Even if you’re not a student, if you live near a theological library, you can almost always simply walk in and use materials in that library.

You can start finding them simply by searching Google Maps for “library,” perhaps along with the “near:[your address].” In addition to walking in and using materials at a library, you can often apply for checkout privileges at that library.

For instance, if you weren’t a Faulkner student but wanted to use Faulkner’s library, you could gain check out privileges for $25 per year. Though, in our case, a number of biblical studies-related resources are also held in the Kearley special collection, which doesn’t normally circulate. So, you’ll also need to learn the particular policies and processes of whatever local library you might find helpful to use.

Before paying even a nominal additional fee for check out privileges at a library, however, it’s worth looking into what reciprocal arrangements your school’s library may have with others that you might want to visit.

For example, if you attend a school that’s a member of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA), you already have check out privileges at all other libraries at all other ATLA institutions (non-circulating collections and other specific policies excepted). To look for what other ATLA libraries might be near you, you can start with this Google Map that ATLA has prepared to show all their participating libraries.

If you need a specific resource, you can also search for that source in WorldCat to see libraries near you that may have this resource.

Your Libraries’ Extended Collections

Aside from what you’ll find if you walk into a physical library, any given library where you have check out privileges likely also has access to ways of extending its own collection. Two primary ways of doing so are electronic collections and interlibrary loan.

Electronic Collections

For various combinations of reasons, your libraries likely have access to substantive collections of electronic journals and books. Such resources have come a long way in recent decades.

More often than not, you’ll probably find that a given book or journal, if it’s held electronically, is held in the form of high-quality PDF files. These files mean that, when you look at the electronic holding, you’re seeing on the screen exactly what you’d see in a hard copy of the text.

Of course, onscreen reading has its downsides. But if it comes down to trying to find a hard copy or using an electronic version to which you have instant access, you might well find that you often prefer the electronic text, all things considered.

Your libraries’ electronic collections may also well surprise you with what they contain. For instance, for the same project I mentioned earlier, I needed to get a copy of Jacques T. A. G. M. van Ruiten, “Land and Covenant in Jubilees 14,” in The Land of Israel in Bible, History, and Theology: Studies in Honour of Ed Noort, ed. Jacques T. A. G. M. van Ruiten and J. Cornelis de Vos, VTSup 124 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 259–76.

Besides me for this project, interest in this title might be quite low among current Faulkner library users. So, for all its wonderful scholarship, it might not be the best use of limited shelving space. Even so, our library had it available as an ebook that proved entirely adequate for what I needed from that essay for the project I was working on.

Interlibrary Loan

“Interlibrary loan” (ILL) is a service in which libraries cooperate to loan resources to each other’s patrons. No library is going to have everything. You can request an ILL through your institution’s library or another theological library where you have check out privileges.

But your local public library should also be able to provide some amount of ILL access. And you might be quite surprised at what you can borrow through the mail via ILL from a local public library—and the public librarians might be quite interested to see your ILL requests for what are, for their normal audience, some very obscure titles.

Continually requesting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has to get old. Surely a good request for Richard Bauckham’s The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses would help spice things up, right? Or, maybe a good scholarly French or German title? 🙂

So, if you have access to ILL services at a theological library, you can certainly use those. But don’t discount you can access via ILL at your local public library either.

Conclusion

So, for students and faculty, the moral of the story is: Your library is a gem for you—don’t let it be a hidden one. Even if you doubt there is anything helpful, still look.

Think about what libraries you have access to—theological and otherwise. Go by, browse the shelves, and talk to the librarians to ensure you’re not overlooking a bank of helpful resources just because something’s accessible to you in a bit different place than you thought to look. And while you’re at it, explore what you may have access to through your libraries’ electronic holdings or ILL.

Doing so can save you valuable time and effort in the research process, as well as expand the range of materials you have readily at your disposal.


  1. Header image provided by Jonathan Simcoe

The Ultimate Open Online Research Library for Biblical Studies

The Internet is a massive library. On it, there’s a huge number of resources useful for your work in biblical studies and legitimately available.

But it can sometimes be hard to find what you need because there’s simply so much there. And while you need to do your own researchyou don’t have to search on your own.

This open online library guide already contains more than 100 resources that are pertinent to work in biblical studies, and I’m continuing to add more.

That way, you have a ready reference for them that you can use to find what you need quickly—not spend hours searching again for things I’ve already come across.

How Do You Choose a Good Research Topic?

Everyone’s been there.1 Maybe you’re looking at a class assignment. Or maybe it’s the next conference paper or journal article. Or maybe it’s a larger-scale thesis, dissertation, or book project.

You have a sense of who you want your work to address. But you’re having trouble coming up with exactly what you want to discuss.

There isn’t a magic formula for invention. But a good approach begins with imagination and the hermeneutic priority of questions.

The Hermeneutic Priority of Questions

H.-G. Gadamer reflects,

Imagination … is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutical function and serves the sense for what is questionable. It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions….

As a student of Plato, I particularly love scenes in which Socrates gets into a dispute with the Sophist virtuosi and drives them to despair by his questions. Eventually they can endure his questions no longer and claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner. And what happens? They can think of nothing at all to ask. Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.

I draw the following inference from this observation. The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable.2

The ability to “see what is questionable” helps us to “break the spell of our own fore-meanings.”3 That is, it puts us in a state of openness to understand the realities we encounter in different ways than we do at first blush.

Good research answers a question. And the first step toward answering a question is “seeing what is questionable” so that you can ask the question.

You might not ask the question as such in your project. But the question you’re answering needs to undergird the whole project so that it has coherence as an answer.

Two Kinds of Questions

The questions you can ask are as infinite as the possible combinations of material involved in biblical studies. For all that breadth, though, the questions basically fall into two types.

Good research projects can try to answer questions that are

  1. known as such or based on known themes.
  2. unknown or unknown as such.4

Questions Known as Such or Based on Known Themes

An example of a known question would be “What is the nature of verbal aspect in Koine Greek?”

Similarly, once someone tried to answer the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in Romans?” the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in 1–2 Corinthians?” became a known permutation of the same theme.

Questions Unknown or Unknown as Such

Basing research on a question that’s unknown or unknown as such requires you to interrogate the basic assumptions undergirding a topic. It’s the kind of question that often gets formed through “a willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals.”5

To take a concrete example from biblical studies, by the late 1970s, the discipline of “Old Testament introduction” was well established, and writers of introductions to the Old Testament followed predictable patterns.

One of those frequent patterns was treating the topic of an Old Testament canon only at the end of the introduction or not at all. Canon wasn’t something central to the discipline. And that sense was the accepted status quo.

But in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Brevard Childs argued that this assumption wasn’t well founded.6 Canon wasn’t a subsidiary crater in the wider topic of Old Testament introduction—much less one outside it. The question of canon was actually part and parcel to the whole field.

Questioning the assumption of the irrelevance of canon opened a new line of subsequently known questioning. And scholars began asking, in varying ways, “What might it do for Old Testament interpretation if these texts were approached precisely as canon?”

When Will a Question Lead Somewhere Interesting?

Of course, not all questions that can be asked are good to ask. Simply because you have a “willingness to try [or ask] anything” doesn’t mean the question will lead anywhere interesting.

Gadamer’s description of Socrates’s interaction with the Sophists is again pertinent. Socrates’s interrogation ends in the Sophists’ exasperation—their “expression of explicit discontent.”7 They then “claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner.”8

But inevitably, the Sophists’ lines either don’t materialize or, if they do, they go nowhere: “Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.”9

This situation shows how not all questions, when formed, prove productive. Perhaps no question is “bad” in itself. But that doesn’t mean that all questions are necessarily “good” for the specific purpose of driving a research project. Good research must have a point. It must go somewhere. But—as in the case of the Sophists—not all questions one might ask are “worth while going into and trying to answer.”10

All of this then raises the question of how you can identify a research question that will lead somewhere interesting. Sometimes, you might come across a question that clearly will lead somewhere. When you do, that’s great.

But if you’re more ambivalent about whether your question will go somewhere or not, there are basically two answers. Namely, you can expect to find a research question that will lead somewhere interesting if you can show why your question addresses a problem and if you can keep asking questions.

Show Why Your Question Addresses a Problem

In this first case, the issue is essentially that of the “questions unknown or unknown as such” discussed above. If your question falls here, it’s your job to show your audience why they should share your question.

Initially, helping your audience share your question might mean you get to say nothing, or only very little, about where you think the question leads. If your question needs to unseat something “everyone knows,” it might take quite a lot just to show why your question is worth asking.

What problems are there inside what “everyone knows” that get glossed over? On the basis of what “everyone knows,” what next steps is it difficult to take, or what other questions is it hard to answer?11

Keep Asking Questions

Of course, any specific research question might actually not go anywhere. Like the Sophists, you might see only a dead end. Or you might only find that the end of a given question isn’t terribly interesting and isn’t something you can help your audience share.

In this case, the only thing to do is to keep asking questions. A sentiment like that often attributed to Thomas Edison is appropriate here. When asked about his string of “failures” in trying to invent the electric light, Edison is reported to have said something like, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”12

Similarly, Seth Godin observes how one often has to do a lot of bad writing to get that out of the way before better writing starts to flow.13

And so it is with research questions. Sometimes, you have to ask bad questions in order to see how they lead nowhere and get to better ones. And if you’re ever at a loss for how to continue asking questions, asking “How do I know x?” can often be a good place to begin.

Conclusion

To choose a good research topic, you have to start with a question. That question can be either known or unknown. But it needs to be there to unify your project.

That ability to “see what is questionable” and to ask questions accordingly is the first step in choosing a good research topic.


  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 12–13; italics added. 

  3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 281. 

  4. In distinguishing types of questions in this way, I’m indebted to the descriptions of “normal” and “extraordinary” science in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). 

  5. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50th anniversary ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 91; see also J. David Stark, “Reading (in) Biblical Studies: Thomas Kuhn’s Significance for Contextualizing the Discipline,” Journal of Faith and the Academy 5.1 (2012): 40–54. 

  6. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 1st American ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). 

  7. Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 91. 

  8. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  9. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  10. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  11. For these general angles of approaching problems with paradigms or what “everyone knows,” see Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions

  12. The actual number of attempts cited in Edison’s sentiment seems to be the subject of some disagreement and variation. 

  13. Seth Godin, Leap First: Creating Work That Matters, Audible ed. (Louisville, CO: Sounds True, 2015). 

How to Be Present Online

In theological education, serious criticisms have sometimes been voiced about online classes and degree programs.1

Do they adequately promote community? Do they adequately promote spiritual formation within that community?

By definition, don’t they run counter to the “incarnational principle”? Aren’t they the opposite of what formative community for theological education should be?

Doesn’t the “online-ness” of online education necessarily involve the kind of absence that impoverishes theological education?

Thinking Differently about Presence

These questions bear serious and careful reflection, not least in a world freshly scarred by a global pandemic.

Online and face-to-face education obviously differ. But their differences aren’t the absolute binaries of presence or absence.

Instead, each has at play different kinds of presence. And recognizing this fact paves the way for fostering rich community—even when that community gathers online.

Insights from Aquinas

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas observes that “a thing is wherever it operates.”2 So, “incorporeal things are in place not by contact of dimensive quantity, as bodies are, but by contact of power.”3

That is, we say physical bodies are in a particular place because they occupy that place’s space. But we say incorporeal entities (e.g., God, the soul) are in a particular place not because they “take up space” but because they exert power within that space.4

As it happens, cognitive, emotional, and social presence are incorporeal realities as well. They may, therefore, be genuinely present through “contact of power”—through using one’s ability to act. And that ability may play out physically or in some other way.

So, robust, formative community isn’t limited to face-to-face interactions. You can also foster and find it when you engage others online.

How communities interact online will obviously differ from how they will interact if everyone sat around a table together. But there are any number of intensely practical ways to foster community as something that genuinely is there online.

Resources for Thinking about Presence

For additional resources to help you consider what this may mean for you, drop your name and email in the form below. I’ll then send you a couple articles that you might find helpful.

One goes deeper in analyzing presence as I’ve summarized above.5 The other discusses how you can foster formative community in online education.6

In the end, if “online” is a means of “moving away,” then it clearly supports checking out and a lack of connection. But where it means “moving toward,” it too can be a powerful way of being present with and for others in meaningful communities of learning.


  1. Header image provided by Compare Fibre

  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols. (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1913), I.8.1. 

  3. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.2; see also Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.8.3. 

  4. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, A Summa of the Summa, ed. Peter Kreeft, trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 103n62. 

  5. J. David Stark, “Being Present at a Distance,” Didaktikos 1.2 (2018): 12–13. 

  6. J. David Stark, “Gaming the System: Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education,” TEd 52.2 (2019): 43–53.