Imagine telling Blessed John Henry Newman or Venerable (!!) Fulton Sheen that it was possible to carry the entire Summa Theologica, the writings of the Church Fathers, and hundreds of Church documents wherever they go, on a device that fits in their pocket. They would have been flabbergasted, jaws dropping to the floor. And if we know them at all, they would have immediately offered their right arms for such a technology.
Thankfully, us moderns don’t have to sacrifice life or limb for this gift as thousands of foundational Catholic texts have been digitized and made available free online at NewAdvent.org.
Kevin Knight, webmaster at New Advent, is the man behind it all. In addition to his digital repository, Kevin also collects the most popular articles and news stories each day and shares them on his site. Over the past decade, he’s grown New Advent into a one-stop shop for all things Catholic, whether you’re looking for ancient texts or fresh new blog posts.
Kevin recently sat down with me to discuss his website, the intriguing digitization process, and the potential this work has for the rest of the Catholic world. Listen or read below!
Listen to interview with Kevin Knight (mp3) (8 minutes)
Brandon: Welcome to this special interview, where today I have the great pleasure of talking with Kevin Knight. Kevin runs the really popular Catholic website NewAdvent.org, and has joined me from Denver, Colorado to talk about his background, his work at New Advent, and how he got into this incredible field of digitizing Catholic texts. So Kevin, welcome; it’s a great joy to be talking with you!
Kevin: Thank you, Brandon! Happy to be here!
Brandon: Now, tell me a little bit about yourself. When I discovered all the work that you’ve done through New Advent, one question that has always piqued my interest is, how did you get into this field? How did you end up digitizing and collecting Catholic articles and content from across the web?
Kevin: Well I didn’t go to school for it, that’s for sure. I really fell backwards into it and it was a mixture of Providence and circumstances. I was going for a career in meteorology, in fact I was working as a research assistant at a research facility that had early access to the world wide web, right around the time that here in Denver the Holy Father came for World Youth Day. That was about 1993, and a combination of that call to a New Evangelization, the excitement for World Youth Day, and being exposed early to this kind of technology really came together. It was strongly on my heart for a couple years until I finally took the plunge and went right into it.
Brandon: At New Advent you’ve digitized hundreds and hundreds of texts, everything from St. Thomas’ entire Summa Theologica to the Catholic Encyclopedia, and even the . That’s a monumental task. What inspired you to specifically focus on these great, almost epic documents in Catholic tradition?
Kevin: Well my big inspiration was the fact that I didn’t have access to them myself, especially when I was coming back into the practice of my faith and reading my way back into the Church. I realized that for a significant portion of the population, [especially those who are] anonymously reading while [their] friends and others might not realize how interested [they] are in the faith, this kind of access could be revolutionary. So I wanted to make it available to others as well.
We went from an environment of having these [documents] collecting dust on a library shelf to being able, within ten years, to be on everybody’s desktop or laptop. I just thought it would be revolutionary if I could help in some small way to get these out there.
Brandon: Now you mentioned it took about ten years to get everything up there on the site. What is the digitization process like? Are you doing this yourself or do you have a team of others helping you out?
Kevin: Well, it’s evolving. I started out with a team—a large team—of volunteers [who] came forward. There were 400 people who helped in one way or another, and so much of that was manual work, especially because we were working with texts where the type setting was blurry and didn’t scan well.
Even to this day it doesn’t scan that well. There’s a lot of manual proofreading to get it right. But what’s exciting is the technology that’s just coming forth will allow us to really push forward on this. That combined with things that will gradually go out of copyright and into the public domain. There are so many diamonds buried out there just waiting to be discovered.
So we’re pushing forward with new scanners. I want to get the high-speed [scanning] to really get [these documents] out there so that we can build this small lake into an ocean of material.
Brandon: NewAdvent.org is not just known for this collection of Church documents. It’s also become one of the most popular destinations to find new and popular articles every single day. What’s the typical day look like in terms of collecting and posting? How do you do this? And, a question I’ve heard asked by a number of bloggers is, what kind of articles is Kevin looking for?
Kevin: The way I do it is first thing in the morning. Since I’m in the Mountain time zone, I’m at a disadvantage—a couple hours behind the East Coast when everyone’s waking up. So I have to get cracking right away to see what happened when I was sleeping. These were always things I was doing anyways (i.e. reading the news) so I just built some tools that would allow me to link to others and it evolved from there. As I go through the day, 90% of [the content I post] is stories I have pushed to me. I also have people giving me tips now from different sources.
One thing that does help is if there is a special post that a blogger or writer has, or if somebody sees something out there worth considering, I always welcome email to bring it to my attention (email@example.com). That’s probably one of the best ways to make sure a story is considered.
Brandon: You and I recently joined forces for the Africa eBook Project, and it’s been a tremendous success. You know this, I’ve told you, that I couldn’t have done it without you. You provided so much of the good content that we packed on these CDs that we’re now sending over to all the seminarians in Africa. So far we’ve raised enough to get a CD into the hands of every single seminarian in Cameroon, and the goal is to bring it to other seminarians throughout the [continent].
But that’s kind of just a drop in the bucket in terms of what this digitization of texts enables us to do around the world. You sell your own CDs through New Advent, through which people can buy the material and access it offline. I think that has tremendous potential for Catholics all over the world. Why is this so important? What kind of potential does this digitization have for the global Church?
Kevin: I think we can hardly imagine the impact this would have because, as the journalist John Allen has pointed out, we are living through a historic period in which the Church really has boomed like never before, especially in Africa. The growth there is tremendous. They’re in a position where they’re already sending missionaries to the rest of the world to bring the sacraments to countries that really don’t have that.
What they need most, though, are formation aids. It’s expensive to build the kind of libraries that we’ve spent decades building here in North America and Europe, or centuries even. But to be able to get a head start on that, to take all of these materials and get them in a compact, offline format and into countries that really have very poor connectivity and otherwise would be left out of the loop, that’s just going to bear fruit for the next one or two centuries and beyond. It’s just astounding what you’ve been able to do with this, Brandon.
Brandon: Likewise, Kevin. Your whole site is astounding and all Catholics who have seen it online I think would agree. Thank you so much for all that you do, now and over the years, and thank you for joining me for this interview.
Kevin: Thank you, Brandon!
UPDATE: The same day I post my interview with Kevin, Sarah Reinhard has her own excellent discussion with him over at CatholicMom.com. Check it out!