|A Global Mapping International Newsletter||Fall/Winter 1996|
Researching missions is not what it used to be. In the past few years, we've seen a rapidly growing array of research resources available via digital media.
Today, computer databases, CD-ROMs, on-line libraries, Internet discussion groups, and the World Wide Web offer real value for the mission researcher. (See the "World Wide Web Sites for Mission Research" insert in this issue of GMI Info.)
The Internet is just one--certainly the most talked about and perhaps the most rapidly changing--of the new digital research resources. Deemed "the world's largest library," it is simply exploding. For decades, the Internet was the domain of research scientists. Now it is teeming with oceans of information of every kind. While much of the content on the Internet is of questionable value, we are starting to find missiological material there.
Need to learn about the Sudanese people in Indonesia? Or find out what's been written on the subject of mission in India? Or dissertation topics from Yale? Or which mission agencies are working in Zaire? Or national religious statistics for Peru? Or maybe you need to get in contact with the people who know the answer to your question.
It just might be on the Internet.
The trend toward making serious mission research resources available on the Internet is just beginning. We expect to see it rapidly increase.
Researching mission today requires a new way of thinking. Instead of being concerned with library shelf space, card catalogs, and shipping books, increasingly the focus is on web sites, on-line library catalogs, URLs, bookmarks, browser software and telnet access.
The modern researcher needs to be connected. Internet access_being able to connect to the Internet with your telephone line through an "Internet Service Provider" is the essential prerequisite.
You don't need to store lots of information on your computer's hard disk. Rather, you focus on knowing where to find the specific information you need. So pointers to information, the digital paths to find your way around the information superhighway, are important. (See GMI's World Wide Web site http://www.gmi.org for dozens of "links" to mission research.)
You need to be able to quickly find the specific information you are looking for, without having to weed through tons of irrelevant noise. (The Internet, as a very public place, is full of unimaginable trivia and junk.) Powerful, easy-to-use "Internet search tools"--master indexes that can quickly find any word or phrase in any web site or newsgroup--make all the difference in making possible fruitful research on the Internet. So, learning to effectively use these tools--and they, too, are rapidly improving--is important.
Mission research centers are beginning to provide training in using these emerging tools. Overseas Ministries Study Center is hosting a training conference on "Researching Mission in the New Information Age" (see page 3).
The Internet certainly is not yet a dream-come-true. Serious issues remain in the quest to make this digital medium truly serve mission research.
1. As more remote places get access to the Internet, more and better research becomes possible without moving to a major university city. Yet it seems we will always have with us the inequality of access to information. New technology seems to broaden the gap between the information haves and have-nots rather than eliminate it. There is some reality to the slogan "information is power," and inequality of access to information will continue to affect how the global church does mission together.
2. For many, access to the Internet is still far too expensive to allow extensive research. Yet major new advances in global communications, including satellite networks, promise to force on-line charges down. In the meantime, much of the Internet's material can be accessed via e-mail and read off-line, thus sparing exorbitant telephone charges.
3. As more serious mission content is put up on the Internet, on-line research becomes more worthwhile. Yet the amount of "noise" and the number of users vying for a share of the access time are surely increasing faster than the amount of valuable content. Some fear the Internet may become more of a clogged rush-hour freeway than an open thoroughfare.
4. The content of the Internet, huge as it is, is almost completely different from what is found in conventional published sources. Until there is a generally-accepted way of charging for information delivery over the Internet, much of the best work in any field of study is likely to appear only in print. For the time being, it will be necessary to balance most Internet material with information from the library. Fortunately, the Internet is an excellent tool for locating print works, even if getting the full text takes a trip to the library. For more on searching library databases, see http:// www.gmi.org/resarch/library.html.
5. Nearly all of the material currently on the Internet originated in the West. That makes the Internet of limited value for the African, Asian or Latin American researcher. Yet--slowly--the electronic publishing capacity of Two-Thirds World researchers, writers and publishers is increasing.
The convergence of important trends--the rapidly broadening availability of Internet access around the world, the energetic emphasis Christian ministries are placing on making their own information available on-line, the growing sophistication of Internet search tools, the increasing confidence information owners are placing in the Internet, and the budding electronic publishing capacity of Two-Thirds World researchers--inspire hope that the Internet will be a serious medium for missiological research.
That's good news for the seminary professor in Philadelphia, the PhD student in Nairobi, the mission executive in Wheaton, and the church mission committee chairman in St. Louis.
Dreaming big dreams is easy in the information age. Making things happen is harder. That is what we are committed to. How do we work together to provide the best access to on-line mission resources to the church around the world? We'd love to hear from you.
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