Building A Theological Library (Part 1)

by Jeff Straub December 6, 2017

Recently I read an essay on theological library building written by someone from a software company that sells good materials for digital Bible study. This brought to mind a lecture I have given to students and pastors on theological library building for about 15 years. I thought I might pass on some ideas on how to accomplish this important ministry task.

I am going to assume for the sake of this essay that readers appreciate the value of having a good library. Books do not replace either personal piety or adequate theological training, but they can supplement good ministry if we make their acquisition and assimilation a part of our personal objectives. Charles Haddon Spurgeon addressed the importance of a good library.

“In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scriptures without assistance from the works of divine and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves should think so little of what he has revealed to others” (“Lecture One: A Chat about Commentaries,” Commenting and Commentaries [London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1876], 1.).

Assuming that Spurgeon is correct, how then does a minister, especially a young minister, go about building a good theological library for a lifetime of ministry? The amassing of a broad, serious collection of theological literature doesn’t simply happen. The first thing to remember is that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Building a library takes time, planning and resources. So, plan your “work” and work your plan. In time, you might end up with a decent theological library.

Digital or print? Or both?

Depending on what you prefer, you will have to decide early which direction you will go. It wasn’t an option 40 years ago when I started buying books. Likely you will not have the funds to go with both print and digital so you will have to choose between them. Or you may choose to have some of both as I do. I have a blend of paper and digital for a couple of reasons.

First, I started with books and had a lot of them before digital became an option. When digital came around, it took time to get certain titles. Moreover, not everything I want can be found in digital although that is rapidly changing. So, I have ended up with a combination but I prefer digital for the most part. As I write this, I am in Nairobi, Kenya and on my computer. I have access to more than 6,000 titles in various digital formats. I also brought along two books, one not available in digital. (This brings out one of the great challenges to an all-digital collection. Some books still under copyright will likely never, or not in my lifetime, be made available in a digital format. Print is the only alternative for some books.) Assuming you are starting out as a novice library builder, consider the pros and cons of books vs. digital. I will summarize things along three points.

The tactile experience – there is nothing like to feel of a good book. You can own it, lend it, write in it, sell it or give it away. But if you have never moved even a modest collection of 2500-4000 books… you don’t know what you’re missing! The weight and bulk of books can be hard to manage! So, while print books bring a certain pleasure in holding and possessing them, there may be good reasons to go digital.

Portability – When I travel, I have on my computer something like 6000 titles. No, I don’t use them all the time. Some I don’t use them ever. But I have them if I need them. When I travel, I can study and work. This portability is fantastic for missionaries especially. But for a pastor, he can have ready access to study materials in multiple locations. It just seems like digital is the way to go on this point.

Longevity – I have books in my print library that date to the 17th century. That is endurance. Will digital be around that long? Who knows. Many fear investing in a digital collection because of the rapidly changing nature of electronic forms is risky. But the portability far outweighs the potential loss. I really think the virtue of digital outweighs the possible downside of this fear.

Replacement – Suffering the loss of a library through water or fire damage can be a staggering thing. Losing one’s computer with one’s library, assuming proper computing practices including regular backups, means that your library is not really lost. It may take a while to reload, but it can be recovered, down to the last volume. Conversely, I have books in my print collection, many of which are old and are not yet available online that I simply would never be able to replace if I lost them. There are just too few copies around. I have a former student that lost his library when his church burned to the ground. It happens. If he had a digital collection, he would have been up and running in short order.

So, I am arguing here for a digital collection. I think this is the way to go. But even here, time and planning will be necessary to build a good digital library. As I end this short essay, let me leave you with the words of A. T. Robertson, Southern Seminary Greek scholar of a bygone era. “One can usually tell the quality of a preacher’s work by looking at the books in his library” (The Minister and His Greek New Testament, 24). In my next post, I will discuss how to amass a good, working collection.

Editor's Note: This originally published at Credo Magazine blog. 

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