The New Sommervogel: The Digital Humanities and the Jesuit Bibliographic Tradition

The Boston College Jesuit Bibliography

From its very beginnings in the sixteenth century the Society of Jesus has maintained a unique tradition of bibliographic recordkeeping. Saint Ignatius of Loyola insisted that the growing order's business be conducted through written correspondence. The resulting paper trail led to the creation of a large archive, which was carefully maintained by Ignatius's secretary, Juan Alfonso de Polanco. The first true bibliographic volume of works by and about Jesuits was Pedro Ribadeneira's Bibliotheca Scriptorum Societatis Iesu, which was compiled and published in 1608 at the request of then-Superior General Claudio Acquaviva. Ribadeneira's impressive work was further expanded and updated in 1643 and 1676 by Philippe Alegambe and Nathanael Southwell, respectively.

The Society's traumatic suppression in 1773 temporarily cut the bibliographical thread, but it was resurrected following the order's restoration in 1814. In keeping with the newfound historical sensibility of the era, Auguste Carayon and the brothers Augustin and Alois de Backer published Jesuit bibliographies in the middle of the century. The bibliographic tradition was brought to even greater heights by one of the De Backer's collaborators, and their eventual successor, the Alsatian Jesuit Carlos Sommervogel. Sommervogel's Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésu was truly a monumental work. Published in twelve volumes, it encompassed three and a half centuries of Jesuit history, from the order's 1540 founding through 1914. (To see a digital scan of one of the Burns Library's volumes, click here.)

Sommervogel's work was carried into the twentieth century by the Hungarian Jesuit László Polgár, who served as the librarian for the Jesuit Historical Institute in Rome. For many years, he published annual bibliographies in the journal Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu (AHSI). He also created the three-volume Bibliographie sur l'histoire de la Compagnie de Jésus (1901-1980), which covered much of the 20th century. In addition, whereas Sommervogel and his predecessors had only covered works by Jesuits, Polgár began covering works about Jesuits as well—something Sommervogel had intended but was ultimately unable to do. Polgár's move reflected a shift in Jesuit historiography from being primarily an internal, institutional matter to one engaged by a growing number of non-Jesuit historians, which reflected a general increase of interest in what would become the field of Jesuit studies.

Following Polgár's death, bibliographical duties fell to Paul Begheyn, who began publishing annual bibliographies in AHSI in 2006, including bibliographies for the years 2001-2005. Continuing the trend begun by Polgár, Begheyn's bibliographies further shifted their focus from Jesuit spirituality to Jesuit history.  More recently, the Catholic University of Leuven has also begun collecting bibliographic citations about the Jesuits. The fruit of its efforts can be viewed here.

A photo of a bunch of book ends.

This long tradition of Jesuit bibliography has recently crossed the Atlantic and come to the Heights of Boston College, where the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies and the Boston College Libraries have come together to continue this effort with the new tools afforded by the digital humanities. Whereas previous Jesuit bibliographies were bound printed volumes, the New Sommervogel: Boston College Jesuit Bibliography is a comprehensive online bibliography. Transcending the limitations of print bibliographies, the project creates a searchable database covering books, book chapters, journal articles, dissertations, and book reviews.

The New Sommervogel project builds upon and will eventually incorporate the work of all of its predecessors. It also continues the transformation initiated by Polgár and Begheyn, as it systematically catalogs items that are about rather than by Jesuits and includes almost exclusively academic, peer-reviewed works. In addition to standard bibliographic information, the New Sommervogel includes abstracts, direct links to items available electronically, and links to items' WorldCat records (which show where the items may be found). The most innovative feature of the bibliography is the creation of up to four detailed custom subject headings for each entry. The "When" field provides the century or centuries with which the item is concerned; the "Where" field gives the geographical setting of the article, down to the lowest applicable level (usually at least the continent and current country are specified, and sometimes the location is further detailed down to a state or region, a city, or even a particular institution); the "Who" field lists the key Jesuits referenced in a given piece; and finally, the "What" field identifies the subject or aspect of Jesuit history with which the entry is chiefly concerned. These additional fields will greatly enhance the database's utility.

A photo of Dr. Robert Maryks. Dr. Robert Maryks

The chief architect of this massive digital humanities project (which currently draws from over 1,600 periodicals and will eventually include over 100,000 entries) is the New Sommervogel's chief editor, Robert Maryks. Dr. Maryks is also the associate director of the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, an associate professor of history, and the editor for the Institute of Jesuit Sources. Much of the spadework of collecting bibliographic information, inputting it into EndNote (an intermediate reference management program), editing the entries, and populating the custom search fields has been done by his team of associate editors. Cristiano Casalini is a current fellow of Boston College's Jesuit Institute who hails from the University of Parma. Kasper Volk and Chris Staysniak are Ph.D. candidates in the History Department, and Michael VanZandt Collins is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology. To assist in the collection of bibliographic information from journals that are not available at Boston College or are printed in languages that the editorial staff is not familiar with (such as Mandarin or Hungarian), the team has recruited a global network of contributing scholars. From the project's beginning in 2013, its editors have also received valuable guidance and input from library staff Jonas Barciauskas and David Richtmyer.

The database, set to launch this summer, will be hosted and maintained by the publisher Brill. Thanks to the generosity of Boston College, the database will be open access, and as such will be available to any interested party with a computer and internet access. Ultimately, this rich online resource will allow a wide spectrum of scholars, from amateur laypersons to undergraduates to senior professors, to more rapidly familiarize themselves with Jesuit studies, a field that has seen particularly explosive growth over the past decade. Scholars from around the world have flocked to explore previously understudied areas of the Society's influence, such as Jesuit ethnohistory, mathematics, science, and theater. Interest in the Society has further surged since Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, ascended to the papal throne. The creators of the New Sommervogel hope to catalyze additional progress within this already burgeoning field and thus enhance Boston College's role as an institutional standard bearer of Jesuit mission and identity.

If you would like to become involved in the New Sommervogel or wish to know further details, please contact Chris Staysniak at Christopher.Staysniak@bc.edu.

Chris Staysniak
Ph.D. candidate in History, Boston College

Kasper Volk
Ph.D. candidate in History, Boston College