St Andrews University hopes to spare researchers unnecessary visits to its campus to trawl through key church papers by creating an internet database.
St Andrews has the world's finest collection of material on the British Roman Catholic modernist movement, which emerged at the end of the 19th century.
The movement of Catholic scholars argued that as the emerging social and psychological sciences began to impinge on traditional academic disciplines, the church should draw on these to present faith to the contemporary world.
Norman Reid, the university's keeper of manuscripts, said: "It was an attempt to update theological thinking, to take account of scientific advances in theological teaching. It was viewed as fairly radical and, in some cases, probably close to heretical."
There has been a burgeoning international interest in the papers that has been partly fuelled by tensions between current scientific advances and religious thinking.
The internet database will allow researchers to see what material is available. Dr Reid said it was well known among church historians and theologians that St Andrews had a vast amount of modernist material. He said: "But if they wanted to access it, they had to come up to St Andrews and spend a long time rummaging. Now they can find out to a very great degree what we hold, and this will tell them whether it is worth coming to see the original material.
"We have designed the database ourselves, it is not off-the-shelf. The programming is relatively novel in that we are trying to combine the virtues of the old-fashioned archive list with the benefits of modern free text searching."
Researchers who are interested in letters between two individuals, for example, could search the database to see if the collection includes any of their correspondence. They could discover how many letters there are, references to other letters mentioning the individuals and also a brief description of each letter's contents.
A project, funded by Follett money for academic collections, has already allowed Dr Reid's team to prepare database entries for several thousand letters, notebooks and diaries of Baron Friedrich von Huegel, an Oxford-based leader of the modernist movement.
The university has won £50,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Board to catalogue the papers of Wilfrid Ward, who was another leading figure in the movement.
An independent evaluation of the project for the AHRB praised it as "a particularly powerful and interesting tool for those working on Roman Catholicism at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries".
"With the Ward material, we are going to create something like 5,000 online database records," Dr Reid added.
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