Gorichanaz, T. (2016). Experiencing the Bible. Journal of Religious & Theological Information, 15(1/2), 19–31.
Abstract. This study uses interpretative phenomenological analysis, a qualitative interview methodology, to examine the information experience of Catholic readers of the Bible. It presents a detailed, individual-focused account of how Catholics experience the Bible, in its diverse oral, print and digital manifestations, as a source of religious information. Participants in this study were found to experience the Bible as God's Word, with which they interface in three thematic ways: Connections, Journey and Practice. These themes are, in turn, linked by the processes of sharing, repetition and interpretation. This work extends previous research on the religious reading of believers and numinous document experience, and it contributes to a budding conceptualization of reading as an example of document work rather than a merely cognitive activity.
Information science has long been dominated by concerns for what Kari and Hartel call the "lower" (1131) things in life, such as cognitive problem solving. Meanwhile, the "higher" things in life, such as pleasurable and profound experiences with and through information, have been largely ignored. The budding sub-discipline of religious and theological information would seem to lend itself well to studies of such "higher" things, but thus far scholarship in this area has also been largely limited to the "lower" concerns that prevail in information science generally. However, this is changing. Just as the larger information science community has begun to acknowledge the affective aspects of information (Nahl and Bilal), including the individual experiences of information use (Latham), so the interests within religious and theological information science are broadening.
This study contributes to the growing body of research in human information interaction generally---and information use specifically---by considering how spirituality and religious practice relate to engagement with religious information. In particular, it presents a phenomenological, holistic account of how Catholics experience the Bible, in its diverse analog and digital manifestations, as a source of religious information. Participants in this study were found to experience the Bible as God's Word, with which they interface in three thematic ways: Connections, Journey and Practice. These themes are, in turn, linked by the processes of sharing, repetition and interpretation. This understanding of religious information experience is useful to: religious information professionals as they seek to better understand their publics; publishers of religious information as they make choices regarding analog and digital media; and believers and clergy as they seek to understand their own ways of being.
The livelihood of any religious tradition depends on the exchange of information. With this in mind, we can conceptualize religious information landscapes as the networks through which religious information is exchanged, including sites of worship, social networks, traditions, sacred texts and other information sources (Gorichanaz). Indeed, a look at the religious information landscape of any faith tradition reveals a numerosity of ways through which believers can exchange information. For many religions (Catholicism, for instance), the sacred text serves as the central hub of the religious information landscape. In this way, examining interactions with sacred texts is a prudent starting point for research in religious information use.
While there is vast scholarship on sacred texts from a number of academic perspectives, there has been little research into how sacred texts impact the lives of believers. Svensson, in a paper exploring the digitization of the Qur'an, reminds us that sacred texts play important roles both for their content and their existence as sacred objects, particularly in areas of low literacy. There has also been some scholarship on religious material culture for believers of other faiths, even when literary information access is not a problem (Engelke). Notably, in non-religious areas of information science, physicality has also been identified as an important factor that contributes to numinous---that is, aesthetic, emotional and spiritual---experiences with documents of all types (Latham).
Regarding the content of the sacred texts, research has largely assumed that the text exists only for cognitive information purposes, such as relaying dogma and giving historical accounts. Again, this reflects the natural bent of information science toward the "lower" things, as well as the ongoing influence of the "conduit metaphor" in our understanding of information, which posits that information exists as mental content that can be simply transferred via a conduit from a sender to a receiver (Day). A more holistic view of human information interaction takes into account the embeddedness of information within its "container" and the human practices surrounding it. For instance, Lund and Dolatkhah argue that reading is document-based rather than information-based, and that, in reading, meaning is constructed through dialogic practices rather than merely the extraction of the cognitive content of the words on the page. Another recent study has examined religious reading from this perspective: Vamanu and Guzik explore the reading practices of Christian and Muslim converts through textual analysis and interviews and find that this reading is not only informative, but also formative and transformative. "Informative" relates to the cognitive information interaction described above, while "formative" relates to education and "transformative" relates to enlightenment or other fundamental changes in self-conception. Because Vamanu and Guzik examined the information behavior of converts, the question arises of how such practices might differ in individuals with non-convert backgrounds.
The conceptual bifurcation of content and form in books pervades scholarly discourse (Velagić). As demonstrated by the studies reviewed above, content and form are experientially intertwined. This raises questions about the role of digital books in religious information behavior. Digital versions of the Bible have become widely available in recent years, and they exist alongside traditional, print versions of the Bible. In such a world, how do Bible readers experience the Bible? Does the experience of reading the Bible in print differ from reading it in electronic form? If physicality is taken to be an important factor in aesthetic experiences with information, how do digital versions of spiritual texts work?
This study begins to address these issues by asking two research questions. First, how is the Bible experienced by modern Christians? Second, is there any difference in the experience of a print Bible versus a digital one; if so, why?
To address these questions, I employed interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), a qualitative methodology that reveals an understanding of participants' experiences of a phenomenon. IPA has been demonstrated as an effective mode of inquiry in library and information science, particularly regarding questions of information use (VanScoy and Evenstad). IPA can be understood as phenomenological, hermeneutic and idiographic (Smith, Flowers and Larkin 4). In being phenomenological, it describes human experiences, drawing on philosophical work regarding perception, intention, meaning-making and modes of being. In being hermeneutic, it functions through interpretation; it presents a researchers' interpretation of participants' interpretations of the phenomenon under study. In being idiographic, it privileges the individual, and its theoretical findings are grounded entirely in the data rather than any preexisting theory. Through semi-structured interviews with a small group of individuals, IPA provides a coherent and holistic account of a phenomenon. IPA was selected as a suitable methodology for the research questions in this study because of its capacity to describe economically the complex processes underlying phenomena of experience without requiring a preexisting theoretical stance.
Because IPA, as described by Smith, Flowers and Larkin, calls for participant groups that are relatively homogenous and for whom the research questions will be meaningful, it was important to recruit all participants of the same locality and faith. I was raised Catholic and am most familiar with the sacred text in that faith tradition, and so I elected to conduct this study with Catholics; having this background helped me to establish rapport with my participants as well as interpret the data during the analysis phase. I selected participants through a combination of convenience sampling (selecting participants who lived in my area) and snowball sampling (allowing participants to refer other participants to my study) from the Catholic community of a single East Coast U.S. city. Prospective participants were asked a short series of questions via email to determine whether they regularly used the Bible. Those who demonstrated that they regularly use the Bible (in any format and for any purpose) were interviewed. Typical IPA studies include three to six participants (Smith, Flowers and Larkin 51). In this study, I interviewed six participants. These participants were given the following pseudonyms: Basil, Herb, Jasmine, Marjoram, Rosemary and Willow. Though all the participants were Catholics who engaged with the Bible regularly, they differed in a number of respects that would allow for diversity in their perspectives: they ranged in age from about 40 to about 70; they ranged in faithfulness from "shaky at times" to "strongly Catholic"; four were female and two were male; they had varying careers and orientations toward new technology; and they attended Mass at differing frequencies.
The crux of each interview in this study began with the open question of, "Tell me about the last time you read from the Bible," and I probed further based on the participant's responses. After this most recent experience was discussed, I asked each participant about their experiences with the Bible in other formats. Each interview lasted between 15 and 90 minutes; they averaged 35 minutes. With the permission of each participant, I recorded each of the interviews and later manually transcribed them.
Data analysis proceeded iteratively. In IPA, each participant's account is first analyzed individually. As such, I began analysis before all the interviews were conducted. During analysis, each interview transcript was first read twice and then open-coded individually for any topics that recurred or seemed relevant to my research questions. After this initial round of coding, I abstracted the codes into more general themes, which were meant to characterize that participant's experience. When each interview was coded in this way, I compared and contrasted the themes across participants. Though, of course, each participant's perspective was unique, there were threads of cohesion that ran through all six accounts. These threads served as the basis for the findings presented in the next section.
Through my analysis, I found that the Bible plays an important role in the personal and spiritual lives of each of the participants. This in itself is an interesting finding, considering that the participants echoed consensus that they viewed reading the Bible as more popular among Protestants than Catholics. Through this lens, several of the participants viewed their Bible reading as atypical Catholic behavior; still, they described the Bible as fundamental to their personal faith. All the participants read the Bible regularly, ranging from a few times a week to several times a day. Some of the participants read according to the Liturgical Calendar, while others read according to their own systems. Similar variation was discerned in the frequency of Mass attendance and orientation toward new technologies. These findings will be described in detail in the following sections.
Experiencing the Bible
My first research question sought a detailed description of how this group of Catholics experiences the Bible---that is, what they understand the Bible to be, what place the Bible takes in their worldview, how the Bible reveals itself to them as an element of their consciousness, and what role the Bible takes in their meaning-making activities. Data analysis revealed that the participant group experience the Bible as God's Word, and that the participants interface with God's Word in three key ways---Connections, Journey and Practice---which are connected through linking processes. This framework is presented in Figure 1, and each of these elements will be discussed in turn.
Figure 1. How the participants experience the Bible.
Five of the participants explicitly described the Bible as God's Word, and this notion was extended to associated concepts, such as presence, talking and conversation. Herb, for example, said:
And that sort of clicked in my mind: It is God actually talking to us. And something's in there when you read it and you think, "Well, it can't be me. I'm not that good... Why would he say that to me?" And it's kinda thrilling in a way, or kinda exciting when you read something like that.
Words, of course, are associated with the sense that they convey. For this participant group, the sense of God's Word was chiefly conceptualized as narrative. Rosemary, for example, described how certain narratives from the Bible stick in her mind; she reflects on these narratives from time to time, and she sees their themes surfacing in her own life. She and others recited phrases that they had committed to memory which served as touchstones for the associated narrative.
The notion of the Bible as a touchstone leads to one of the key ways the participants interface with God's Word: through Connections.
The notion of Connections proliferated in the data, making it clear that the participants experience the Bible as connections in multiple ways. First, several participants mentioned how the readings presented at Mass are often thematically connected. Even outside the liturgical context, participants cited connections among Bible passages---for example, Old Testament prophesies of events that are borne out in the New Testament---which are elucidated via footnotes. Participants described following these connections from passage to passage throughout the Bible. As Willow put it:
I always think the Lord leads you, because you\'ll read something, and He leads you to that, and then you start investigating, and you read more, and you go deeper and deeper... And it takes you to another scripture... It's like a little journey.
Notably, these connections were not only described within the Bible, but across media. Basil, for example, mentioned using Wikipedia as part of his experience of the Bible; information on the website spurred him to consult a Bible passage, which led him back to a different Wikipedia page. Other participants mentioned books (religious and otherwise) and films as achieving a similar dialectic. For instance, Rosemary described reading the Bible story of the Prodigal Son, which led her to a book about a man's spiritual journey after encountering Rembrandt's painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, which led her to a book of that and other paintings by Rembrandt. Moreover, these connections were not only textual: Participants described seeing connections between the Bible and their own lives. Marjoram, for example, recently reread the beginning of the Book of Genesis and, in so doing, reflected on how she, as a younger woman, easily fell into doing things she knew were wrong, just as Eve did. Interestingly, these connections can have a delayed onset; participants described reading something and only days or weeks later, in an epiphanic moment, seeing how it connected to their lives. Willow described it this way:
[At the time] you probably think it doesn't mean anything, but somehow, during the week or a week later, something will hit you what somebody said, and it's like, "Oh, that's what that person meant." It always comes out like a really good thing to hear everybody's take on what their experience is or how they take it. You don't think at the time, but it does somehow come all together, weird as that sounds.
The examples above illustrated how reading the Bible led these participants to discover Connections between the Bible and other parts of their lives. A final sort of connection that emerged in data analysis, however, is that between one person and another: A number of participants discussed how sharing with others was an important part of their experience of the Bible, particularly through informal discussions with friends and formal Bible studies. This sharing constitutes the bridge between Connections and Journey.
Another important theme related to the participants' experience of the Bible was its importance on their journey of life. All six participants were born and raised Catholic but described going through periods of waning interest in religion; for most of them, this began in their teenage years and extended to their mid-twenties. For all the participants, their engagement with the Bible has grown since then. Several of the participants verbalized this trajectory as their Journey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the growing role of the Bible on the participants' journeys was related to their blooming faith; for these participants, the two continue to grow together. Having faith and reading the Bible seem to be united in purpose; participants described reading the Bible as a way to enhance their appreciation of the Mass, build their relationship with God and find inner peace.
The notion of Journey implies the passage of time. Accordingly, participants described ongoing Bible practices related to repetition and evolution across time. Willow, for example, in discussing how she highlights passages in her Bible as she reads, described how those annotations play a role in her spiritual growth as she encounters them later on:
As you do reading, you kinda flip through it every now and then, or... and again we read the same things pretty much over and over, three years you're doing the same thing all the time. So you do see what you highlight, and when I see it, I think, "Oh, wow, that was important to me back then. Let me read it again and meditate more."
Other participants described underlining, writing notes in the margins and keeping separate journals, which they would later revisit for much the same purpose. (It should be noted that all but two participants annotated their Bibles: Rosemary said she is not organized enough to do so and instead keeps her notes in her head; for Marjoram, writing in the Bible is a sign of disrespect.) Particularly in the case of writing notes, the very act of annotation can also be seen as a form of repetition. Thus repetition can be seen as forging a link between Journey and Practice.
All of the participants described ongoing Practice through which they engaged with the Bible. This Practice included engaging with the Liturgy at Mass, which will be explored in the following section, and reading the Bible on their own. Independent Bible reading was expressed through daily rituals, spontaneous reading and active information seeking.
Most of the participants' daily rituals took place in the morning, before the start of the day, so that they could engage with the Bible uninterruptedly and without rushing. This practice is used to frame each day. Jasmine described her morning ritual in this way:
My alone time in the morning is at my coffee bar, and I have a picture of the Blessed Lady and Our Lord with a candle, and I sit there and I have my cup of coffee with the Lord. So I sit there every day and I look over and I say, "Saluto, Lord," with my cup of coffee, and we sit.
The particulars of these daily practices, of course, varied with each participant's lifestyle and schedule.
In terms of what they read, most participants followed the Liturgical Calendar---that is, they read the same readings as would be read at Mass that day. Herb and Willow in particular found value in engaging with the Liturgical readings prior to Mass so that they would be prepared and have a deeper, more meaningful experience when they heard the readings again during Mass; this reflects yet again the importance of repetition described above. While most participants followed the Liturgical Calendar, some participants described opening their Bible at random in order to determine what they had read, and others adopted self-determined reading schedules. Jasmine, for example, embarked on a project wherein each morning she read and then transcribed one of the Psalms into her journal until she had done them all.
In addition to these regular readings, some participants described reading the Bible at other times throughout the day when a desire to hear God's Word struck them. At these times, the participants engaged in active information seeking in order to determine what to read. Some described going online to find Bible passages related to certain keywords; others described using indices in their Bible or other print resources to locate relevant passages; still others described flipping through the Bible directly in order to let God guide them to what He wanted them to read at that time.
It is also notable that these participants described reading not only the Bible, but also a number of commentaries associated with that day's reading. Indeed, most of the participants incorporate several information sources in their morning rituals, ranging from multiple Bible editions which have different footnotes, to separate commentaries by the popes and other religious personalities, some of which were found online. All participants expressed finding value in this multiplicity of interpretations of any given Bible passage because these diverse viewpoints revealed new layers of meaning that they had not considered on their own. These layers were important, it seems, because they allowed the participants to forge further Connections, which relates to the first experiential theme described above.
The Bible in Format
Words convey content, and words are also always conveyed in some form. In this study, the participants discussed the multiple ways in which God's Word is manifest in their lives. For them, "the Bible" was not any particular object, but rather something that transcended any material form; they accessed the Bible in a multiplicity of oral and written forms, all of which were seen as equally legitimate. Still, some participants did describe the importance of particular manifestations of the Bible as physical objects, even though they did not use these Bibles for reading.
When asked to recall the last time they read the Bible, many of the participants recounted hearing the Bible read at Mass (particularly if they attended Mass daily). In this way, orality is understood as a valid and salient mode of accessing the Bible. For these participants, Biblical orality was related to the priest, even though laypeople might take part in some of the readings during the Liturgy. This may be because the priest always reads the Gospel and gives the homily, which often synthesizes all the day's readings.
Outside Mass, all of the participants engaged with the Bible in written form, which was described as an individual, reflective activity. Reading, participants could engage with the Bible at their own pace, whereas during the Mass they described not having enough time to absorb or reflect on the readings. Participants engaged with the Bible in both analog and digital formats. Data analysis revealed that, for this group, analog (print) formats of the Bible were associated with being at home and practicing their daily rituals, while digital (smartphone, tablet and computer) formats were associated with work and on-the-go situations. All the participants described using printed Bibles as their primary Bibles, and most of their Bible reading was done with that print Bible at home. They would, however, turn to a digital Bible if they did not have their print Bible with them and wanted to hear God's Word. Basil, for instance, said that he sometimes reads the Bible on his smartphone while waiting in line or at the doctor's office. Jasmine described the difference between analog and digital Bibles this way:
The biggest difference with me is when I'm sitting there with the hard copy and it's in my private time with the Lord, I feel much more relaxed. Much more like we're there together. When I'm on this thing [gesturing to her phone], it's like, "Okay, be quick." I get distracted easily. If I'm on the computer at work, say, and we're talking, and I say, "Wait, wait, let me look that up." But then: "Okay, wait, I gotta get this," and, "Oh, yeah, can I help you?" When I'm there with the hard Bible ... it's just me and Him. I don't find it so on the electronics. I'm distracted more easily.
None of the participants described taking notes, highlighting or underlining when reading the Bible on their electronic devices; these practices were reserved for their printed Bibles, even though the participants acknowledged that they knew it was possible to do digital annotations.
Information seeking and format were not found to be related in this participant group. When participants wanted to find a particular passage but didn't know where it was (e.g., searching for passages related to a given theme, or if they knew a story or motif but didn't know what chapter it was in)---that is, they engaged in cognitive information seeking---they did not necessarily turn to digital media. Half the participants used the search function on their digital Bible or conducted an Internet search in such situations, while the other half used print resources, such as indices or commentary books that are organized thematically.
A unique aspect of the print Bible is that it can exist as a dedicated object, whereas digital Bibles represent only one of many uses for the electronic devices that present them. The persistence of print allows for print Bibles that exist as objects whose value is derived from their existence as a physical object rather than for their content. Two of the participants described having such Bibles at home: large-format and leather-bound with gilded pages, which are used not for reading but display. Such Bibles can be understood for their symbolic and keepsake value rather than for their practical utility.
This thick description of how Catholics experience the Bible demonstrates that the Bible can be informative beyond its surface-level content; this supports and extends Kari's finding that information can be acquired through spiritual means (957), outside bodily senses, thus contributing to a more holistic understanding of human information behavior.
As described above, the Bible as God's Word was seen largely for its narrative power. As such, its spiritual potency was not tied to any particular textual manifestation. This may be because the Bible is known to English speakers only in translation; this finding may have been different in, for instance, a study of Arabic-speaking Muslims. This helps us understand how the Bible can exist comfortably in an ecology of editions and formats, and how the participants demonstrated seeing God's Word even in other media, such as film adaptations of Bible stories, commentaries, popular books, historical treatises and more.
This discussion builds on Vamanu and Guzik's tripartite conceptualization of religious reading in converts. Vamanu and Guzik identified informative, formative and transformative modes of engaging with sacred texts. Their informative mode relates to the theme of Connections that emerged in this study, and their formative and transformative modes form part of my Journey. Vamanu and Guzik focused on people's conversion narratives; thus my theme of Practice, as well as the linking processes of sharing, repetition and interpretation, can be understood as contributing to a more holistic understanding of the use of sacred texts outside the context of conversion. The diversity of Bible formats and Bible-related media that formed these participants' ecologies of Bible reading also reflect Vamanu and Guzik's inclusive concept of reading, which included "reading" texts, conversations and the world at large.
My second research question sought to explore how different formats of the Bible---particularly spanning the analog--digital divide---are used in different ways. In this participant group, there was a clear preference toward the printed Bible for reflective and ritual purposes. Prior research suggests that deep reading (Baron 166--168) and emotional involvement (Baron 147--149) is facilitated by analog text compared to digital text, and my findings in this study are consistent with this research. However, this preference for print is perhaps due, at least partly, to proclivity and custom rather than something inherent in the technology; several of the participants verbalized this, saying, for example, that they are "old school" that way. For this participant group, electronic devices were predominantly associated with work; because engaging with the Bible is not work-related, these participants may not perceive electronic devices as suitable for Bible reading outside particular on-the-go and search scenarios. This issue arises because devices used to access digital versions of the Bible are inherently multipurpose, which has another ramification: the device can distract users from single-minded tasks, if not because of relentless notifications then because of the ever-alluring home button---the rest of the world is only a tap away. In this sense, the single-purpose and materially-persistent nature of the print Bible may also have contributed to a preference for print in religious information use.
This study, as an exploratory and descriptive account, opens the doors to a number of avenues for further investigation. Participants described turning to the Bible in times of emotional need; when would they turn to the Bible versus other sources of information to satisfy such needs? It would also be fruitful to examine the role that the Bible plays as a physical object in evoking and shaping emotion around religious practice. We saw Marjoram's respect for the physical Bible manifest in her not writing in it, whereas others saw no harm in highlighting and underlining profusely. Likewise, two participants mentioned keeping Bibles at home that were never used for reading. In an introductory essay on material culture in religion, Kieschnick highlighted the need for more research in this area; the findings of this study underline his call for further investigation in order to better understand the perspectives and practices of religious information users.
This discussion also raises a few important limitations of this study. Though the small participant group allowed considerable depth of analysis, it was necessarily limited in breadth. Particularly to address the question of how Bible readers experience the Bible in different print and electronic formats, it would be informative to study different age groups, which may have different relationships to digital media. Additionally, this study only considered Catholics who self-identified as readers of the Bible. It would also be illuminating to explore how different faith traditions experience the Bible. As mentioned above, several of my participants said that they considered Bible reading to be more popular among Protestants; it is unclear whether this is a regional, temporal or idiosyncratic attitude, and further study, particularly with Protestants, could shed light on the matter.
Incidentally, I interviewed two non-Catholic participants during this study (this was revealed to me while the interviews were already in progress); their data was not considered in the above analysis. One was Dill, a man around age thirty, who identified as "spiritual" but did not practice any religion; still, he read the Bible from time to time. For Dill, the primary draw of the Bible was its narrative value (though, notably, he does not see the Bible as God's Word). Accordingly, he has read the Gospels in particular several times, from start to finish, as one might read any book. Indeed, his emphasis on narrative was not far off from the Catholics who composed my participant group. The other non-Catholic participant was Anise, a woman around age fifty, who was a nondenominational pastor. In Anise's interview too I saw reflected many of the themes discussed above: the importance of connecting the Bible to one's own life, ongoing practice as building a spiritual knowledge base to draw from in times of need, information seeking on particular themes, and the richness of Biblical commentaries. These two interviewees point to the potential richness of findings waiting to be discovered in studies of the engagement of other faith groups with their sacred texts.
This study sought to shed light on how Catholics experience the Bible, taking into account all the forms in which the Bible is available today. For these participants, the Bible is experienced primarily as God's Word. Through engaging with the Bible, the participants interface with God's Word in three thematic ways: seeking Connections, continuing their Journey and cultivating Practice. Additionally, linking processes were found to tie these themes together through sharing, repetition and interpretation. This phenomenological account of religious information behavior contributes to a number of research areas: phenomenological information studies, information experience, document work and religious information studies, among others.
This study and further research in these areas will prove useful to religious information professionals as they seek to better understand their publics, as well as to individuals and clergy as they reflect on and seek to better understand their own ways of being in the world. Moreover, this research is directly useful to publishers of religious information as they make choices regarding analog and digital media. Indeed, this research has the potential to inform the design of technologies for Biblical information access, ensuring a future of continued and meaningful information access for the individual believers and religious communities that rely on it.
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