Hymnary Nears 10-Year Anniversary

On July 19, 2008, a small repository of online hymnals moved from its beta phase into prime time. 

A short welcome message noted that the new website aspired to be "a comprehensive resource for hymns and worship music, useful for planning a worship service, researching hymns, or finding arrangements and media files for a favorite hymn."

That welcome message noted too that the Hymnary, as it was first known, offered almost 30 hymnals, almost 15,000 hymns and information on more than 5,000 authors and composers.

Now, as Hymnary.org gets ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary, suffice it to say things have changed a little in the last decade (though those initial aspirational goals have stayed relevant).

Hymnary 10 years later

Today, however, Hymnary.org offers almost 6,000 hymnals, up from almost 30, and has data on almost 1.3 million hymns, up from almost 15,000. And Hymnary.org users now have access to information on 36,527 people, including authors, composers, arrangers, translators, hymnal editors and others.

And all of these resources are accessed by some 700,000 users a month, people who come to the site from around the globe. 

Indeed, Hymnary.org now has served some 27 million users since 2008. And those users might not be who you would expect. 

In fact, the two biggest age groups are the two youngest demographics. Users between the ages of 25 and 34 represent 34 percent of all Hymnary users. Close behind are people ages 18 to 25 who represent 28 percent of all Hymnary users. So a little over half of all Hymnary.org users are under the age of 34! In addition, users come from 225 countries and territories and only about half are from the United States.

Roots in CCEL

It can be a little overwhelming to consider those numbers admits Calvin computer science professor Harry Plantinga, Hymnary.org's creator. He began the site as a bit of an add-on to another website he had created, a website of classic Christian books called CCEL.org

To buttress the CCEL content, he added a few hymnals. However, these hymnals weren’t easy to search or really to use. Not wanting to offer a half-baked product, Plantinga reached out to others to see how online hymnals could be made better, including discussions with his friend Greg Scheer, a minister of worship and hymn author/composer who wanted to create a website for global hymnody. Together Plantinga and Scheer applied for and received a small grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and they started building Hymnary.org. From those few original hymnals, the project grew (and grew). 

"We got additional small grants from CICW," Plantinga recalled in June of 2018 as the 10-year anniversary of Hymnary.org drew closer. "Substantial resources from CCEL.org helped build the website. In partnership with the Hymn Society we added the Dictionary of North American Hymnology (DNAH), the Hymn Society's index of the first lines of hymns contained in 5,000 hymnals published in North America. We got a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to incorporate the DNAH data and to work with Princeton Theological Seminary to scan over 2,000 hymnals and include the page images.”

Currently supported by a grant from the Lilly Foundation, by advertising and product sales and by gifts from supporters, Hymnary.org is now the largest index of hymns and hymnals, along with background information about hymns and hymn writers, suggestions for worship leaders, recordings, scores, hymnal page images, and more in the world. 

A loyal fan base

And users rave about it.

During the site's June 2018 fund drive (which saw 750 people donate just over $20,000), Hymnary.org fans often took the time to pay homage to the site as they made a gift. A random sampling of compliments received gives a sense of the loyalty users feel for the site:

  • As a church musician working with a frustrating hymnal, I rely on hymnary more and more. Thank you for your work!
  • As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, I often find hymnary.org a helpful database to consult in the preparation of worship. 
  • As a pastor who does his own bulletins, this site has saved me hours of typing as well as research.
  • As a pastor who doesn't read music, Hymnary is invaluable to help me choose hymns for Sunday morning. Thank you!
  • Hymnary is a great resource that helps me with background information on hymns for my articles in our church magazine.
  • Hymnary is often a blessing in my devotions. I can learn a new tune, research a hymn writer, find a half-remembered hymn, etc. I appreciate this!
  • Hymnary.org is an invaluable resource to anyone interested in church music. It is the most comprehensive source of hymn information available.
  • I support Hymnary because it is my 'go-to' source when I am stumped on what hymns to use for a particular service. Thank you!
  • It's an invaluable resource that I use multiple times a week. 
  • It's part of my essential worship planning toolkit!
  • Our church has recently started doing a Sunday service in a care home and Hymnary.org is a great source for the words & tunes of old hymns. Thank you.
  • Thank you for your fine work of research and organizing the information in such a way that is easily used! 

Such words of praise are immensely gratifying to Plantinga, and to the Hymnary.org team which now includes nine full and part-time employees, including three full-time web developers who work hard to ensure that all of that hymn data is easily found!

"It’s a blessing to see the extent to which Hymnary.org is being used," Plantinga said. "Hymns and songs are a fundamental way we worship God, so it’s important to bring the means by which we find and use these hymns into the twenty-first century. We’ve learned a lot these past ten years, and we have big plans for the future."

Searching is key at Hymnary.org

Plantinga noted that searching is key at Hymnary.org. Several person-years of work have gone into the search engine in the last decade, and more is to come (the next rewrite of the search engine, Plantinga said, will make better use of machine learning.) 

One of the things that Plantinga and his team are especially proud of is the FlexScore option for Hymnary.org users. The FlexScore system enables users to customize scores by transposing, adjusting text and music size, hiding parts and more. A recent addition is a yearly subscription to all of Hymnary's public domain FlexScores. For just $34.99 per year, subscribers can print out as many customized, transposed instrumental scores, large print, or other versions of public domain FlexScores as they want (currently 2,123 of Hymnary's 2,872 published FlexScores qualify for the plan). 

Said Plantinga: "If you transpose hymns, need large print versions, or use instrumental accompaniment more than about 3-4 times a year, this could be a great option for you, a real money saver. And this is a great option for hymn authors as well. For example, using our FlexScore program, you can easily set a hymn text to any public domain tune for which we have a FlexScore."

As Hymnary staff looks toward the future, the next 10 years and beyond, Plantinga wonders how things might change, as they did in the last 10 years.

Use of songs and hymns is changing

"The use of songs and hymns in churches is changing," he noted. "New hymnals are printed much less frequently. Many churches have moved toward projection, printing hymns in a liturgy or handout, or other means of presenting hymns to congregants. I think it likely that other new means will appear. We want to try to serve the church by working in that domain."

Hymnary is also looking to add an often-requested feature: a worship planning component that can enable a congregation to plan worship services with multiple people, store resources such as scores and recordings, track the songs a congregation uses, report usage to licensing agencies.

And there is work afoot to give Hymnary users their most-requested feature: the ability to show texts and tunes that are copyrighted, not just those that are in the public domain. It’s a difficult problem because it involves license agreements with perhaps 10,000 copyright holders.

But, if the last 10 years are any indication, it's a difficult problem that will be solved. Check back in July 2028!