Dictionary of North American Hymnology Overview and History

Overview and History

The Dictionary of North American Hymnology is a comprehensive master bibliography and index of hymn collections published in the United States and Canada from 1640 to 1978. Hymns from 4,875 collections are indexed by collection code, year the collection was published, first line, author/translator/adaptor, refrain, and title. Hymnals and collections of hymns are indexed by collection code, title, compiler/editor, and place-publisher-year of publication. Hymnals related to a particular denomination or religious group are identified by a three-digit prefix in collection codes with a hyphen. Begun in 1952 by a group of scholars affiliated with the Hymn Society of America, now the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, the work was envisioned as an American revision of John Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology first published at London in 1892 with an appendix of North American hymns added in 1907. However, the American scholars felt that the body of North American hymns had grown large enough to merit a separate Dictionary of American Hymnology.

A "Bibliography of American Hymnals," a "First-Line Index," biographical entries for hymn writers and essays related to particular denominations or religious groups and movements were compiled under the general direction of Leonard Ellinwood and his assistant, Elizabeth Lockwood. Beginning in 1956, an attempt was made to index all hymnals published in the United States and Canada, except for those in non-Roman script and collections of individual authors. The great bulk of these hymnals were housed in the Library of Congress, but a number of important collections owned by other libraries and individuals were incorporated. By 1978 the enormity of the task led the compiler and the Society to call a halt to the indexing if publication were ever to be realized.

The Early Years

Realizing that a print version of so enormous a database of more than one million entries would be unrealistic, the project's directors set about to enter the data on IBM punch cards. Although the intention was to have the cards punched at a later date, that type of computer technology was soon out of date and the cards were never punched. Some seven hundred boxes of these cards were stored in Washington, D.C. until Mary Louise VanDyke became project director upon Ellinwood's retirement in 1984 and the boxes and files were moved to Oberlin, Ohio. In 1983 a microfilm version of the cards for the first-line index was made available at a cost of $4,000 for the set of 180 reels, along with a thirty microfiche set of the bibliography of hymnals at a cost of $80. Only twenty-four sets of the microfilm were sold so that the master index was available only by traveling to Oberlin or finding one of the microform sets at various academic institutions. From 1984 to the present, Van Dyke has also researched queries directed to the office in Oberlin. It should be noted, however, that access to the cards and microfilm was by first line only.

By 1994 when the project had been ongoing for more than forty years, frustration by scholars and Society members with lack of any real progress toward a computerized version of the database led to a proposal that the Society either get on with computerization or scrap the project. A committee was appointed to make the determination and bring a recommendation to the next year's meeting. The vote in committee was close, but a recommendation was made to proceed utilizing volunteers for data entry since the Society had little money to devote to the project. Under the direction of Paul R. Powell who had been elected Director of Research for the Society and to whose supervision the project fell, software options were explored in Fall 1986 and by Spring 1997 software had been developed and volunteers throughout the United States and Canada began entering the data. By 1999 more than half the cards had been entered, but it was obvious that paid assistance would be necessary to complete the data entry. With excellent progress being made, the Society's Executive Committee authorized funds to employ several persons in the Princeton, New Jersey area where Powell was employed to complete the data entry. Substantially completed by Summer 2000, the daunting task of editing the database for publication was begun by Powell and VanDyke. Rather than publishing The Dictionary under the Society's direction, the Executive Committee made a decision to pursue a commercial publisher with the Society maintaining copyright ownership.

Editorial Challenges

During the editing process a number of issues came to light. Most importantly, it was obvious that a print publication incorporating all the files would not be feasible. Additionally, the biographical and hymnological essays were now dated for the most part and therefore not appropriate to be included in whatever publication was forthcoming. A CD-Rom would allow maximum flexibility for searching and sorting the data and conversion to an online format in the future.
Early in the editing process it became apparent that the data needed major revision to make each of the indexed fields consistent within all entries of a particular first line. Sometimes numerical data in collection codes and dates had been entered incorrectly resulting in a lengthy and tedious review. Authors' names were particularly challenging since many collections did not give authorship and others, particularly from the nineteenth century, used pseudonyms, initials, attributions, or names of adaptors and translators rather than the authors' names. This was particularly true for women authors who were often assigned initials or their husband's names. There was no way to reconcile authors' names until the whole of the database was available in electronic format and authorship could be verified from both internal and external sources.


A particularly disappointing discovery was that the compiler's original intent had not always been met. Quite a few hymnals had been missed and discovered by various scholars over a period of time, some too late to be incorporated here. It was decided by the editors that issuing a disclaimer would be better than trying to include all such omissions in this first version, or else even a CD-Rom would never be realized. One such glaring omission was the very popular Broadman Hymnal published by Southern Baptists in 1940. Thankfully, that hymnal was indexed and incorporated. Likewise, gaps in first-line entries were uncovered and entered from the microfilm. Certain hymnals that were periodically reprinted with additions had only those additions indexed rather than the whole contents of the reprints. Likewise, a few collections by single authors were included although that had not been the intention of the compiler. Furthermore, the software did not allow for insertion of diacritics in non-English language entries, and capitalization rules for these entries was not consistent either. Such matters will, however, be addressed in future versions.

One of the great benefits of having The Dictionary of North American Hymnology in an electronic format is that future versions can be corrected, expanded and enhanced. Scriptural, metrical, topical and tune name indices would be particularly usetul additions. I re tacility to search by language would also prove helpful, as well as inclusion of hymns published in Mexico, making the database truly North American in scope. With the explosion of hymn writing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, expanding the database to incorporate all collections omitted from the original indexing as well as those published since 1978 would make The Dictionary even more attractive, as well as the inclusion of biographical and hymnological data or links to other databases such as hymnal companions and tune indices. Furthermore, as technology progresses it may be possible to link users to an electronic view of each hymn as it appears in every source.

As a first version, the CD-Rom of The Dictionary of North American Hymnology provided users with greater access than any other source to the hymns published in the United States and Canada as well as the flexibility to search fields other than first lines, which have been the only point of access in card and microform formats. The CD-ROM also allowed users to search by keywords. The ability to browse and sort by each of the indexed fields provided a thoroughness of hymnological research never before possible. Collection codes with hyphens include a three-digit prefix denoting denomination or religious body that allows users to identify collections related to such groups.

The CD-ROM version of The Dictionary of North American Hymnology will make it possible to find hymns and hymnals more easily and completely than ever before. Once users have found desired hymns and the hymnals in which they appear, online searches of library catalogs and other databases will identify sources from which the hymnals or copies of hymns may be obtained through inter-library loan. It is anticipated that future projects to mount The Dictionary online and to scan the collections indexed will make possible online linkage to the full texts and tunes of every occurrence of every hymn it indexes.

From the Dictionary of North American Hymnology CD