Building A Theological Library (Part 2)

by Jeff Straub December 13, 2017

This is part II of a three-part series. You can read part I here

How many books does a pastor need? My answer . . . just one more. There is always something new, important, interesting, controversial, or edifying. Purpose to become a lifelong “collector” of theological and biblical books. Building a library may get a boost by purchasing a digital package, but a well-round collection takes time to build. So, start now and keep at it.

In my last essay, I argued for the value of a digital collection over a print collection, though you will likely have print books even if you opt for digital. It will be necessary to own some paper simply because certain books are not yet available in digital. Books that are published today, for the most part, come in both digital and print formats, so it may be possible to go either direction. But many of the titles of the last seventy-five years before the move to digital are not yet in a digital format. Many publishers who hold the copyright have been reluctant to go to the effort of making out-of-print books available in digital. Companies like FaithLife are addressing this issue, so most of the important books will be available through them soon if not already. But you may find that you want a book that you cannot find in digital so you will opt for print.

However, there may be some reading this series who are not convinced of the value of a digital collection or simply prefer a print collection. This particular essay will address some of the mechanics of building a good print collection. Principles I give here may also apply to a digital library but I will offer a separate essay on building a digital collection because of the unique opportunities available with digital books.

Let me suggest four preliminary steps as you plan to build a solid library. I recommend these steps because most of us will not have the funds to buy everything that comes on the market even if it is offered at a great price. We will have to be selective.

Start by assessing your needs

What do I have? What do I need most? What areas of my library are the weakest? Are these areas important enough to invest major resources in them? What can I afford to pass over? Not every cheap book should be purchased! You will have to take stock of what you possess and determine from that what you need. Commentaries, theologies, histories, works of practical theology, devotional literature, biographies, books on special topics all need to be considered for your library. One question you will want to ask at this point is what do I need for the immediate future? Am I planning a sermon series that will need resources for me to acquire to help me prepare my sermons? Accessing your needs can help. Start making a list of “Books to Be Acquired” that will help you in your buying so that when you have available resources, you will remember just what you thought was most important. Some online sites allow you to make a “wants lists” on their website to plan your future potential purchases.

Define your objectives

What do I want my library to look like? This is a big picture question. You are building for a lifetime of ministry, so give some thought about the future of your collection. What books will you want for the long haul in ministry? There are just so many books to buy, so little money to buy them, and less time to read them. Most of us will read less than 5,000 books in our lifetime. More like 2,500 if we are diligent. That’s 50 books per year times fifty years of adult life. Some will read more while others less. Buy some books to read, some books to reference, and some books against a later time. I don’t need this now, but I know I will in the future.

Evaluate your ability

How much can I spend? Who can help me? My church? My family? Ask for books rather than socks, for Christmas and your birthday. You can buy your own socks when and if you need them. Encourage your family to help you by explaining to them why books are so important. When you are in seminary, you have access to a good library. But when you leave seminary for the pastorate, you will likely not have at hand good materials unless you buy them. This is when the rubber meets the road. What will you buy when the money may be limited? At this point, I encourage you to think about buying something regularly. One or two books per month, or more, if possible. If you bought five books per month or sixty books per year, how many books would you own in twenty years? You will need help in building a good collection. This may be an argument for going digital as you can buy “in bulk” which I will address next time.

Chart your course

How will I get to where I want to be. Is there a plan I can follow? Consider the following tips for book buying, whether digital or print.

Buy deliberately – don’t buy a book because of the cover or even the price, unless we are talking about really cheap. Impulse buying when it comes to books seldom helps you build a good theological collection.

Buy systematically – come up with a workable system to build your whole library. Having fifteen good books on Romans, but only one book on Philippians may not be in your best interest.

Buy regularly – If your church gives you a book allowance, this will help. If not, set a line in your family budget for your library. It may have to be modest at first, but you can afford it if you try. Skip the lattes and buy the books if necessary.

Buy selectively – be intentional about what you buy. Know why you are buying a particular book and, if the book does not meet a need, skip it. When I go into a bookstore, I only buy what I have to have—what I cannot live without (hyperbole here). I only buy what will help me in what I am doing.

Buy theologically – do you know the position espoused in the book you are buying? It is ok to buy books with which you will disagree but do so intentionally.

Buy economically – For me, the rule of thumb is to buy a book used if I can and if it is in good condition. Obviously, a recently published book will have to be purchased new, but an older book may be available on the used market in good to excellent condition. Why not buy it at a discount?

Buy contemporarily – Generally, I prefer recent works about a topic rather than older works, generally. There is much to be said about reading the Puritans but when it comes to commentaries, the newer ones are usually better than those that are dated.

Buy intelligently – know what you are going to buy. Research the author, the series, the topic. Don’t just buy a book because it will look good on your shelf.

Buy exegetically – I prefer exegetical help in sermon work rather than homiletical help. I buy books that will tell me what the text says not books that tell me how to apply it.

In the end, if you work at library building, you will have a collection that will be helpful in your ministry. In my next essay, I will speak to the issue of building a digital collection and offer some suggestions that you might not have thought about.

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

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