Will the Dubious Future of Libraries be the Salvation of Evangelical Seminaries?

I have a vested interest in the future of libraries and will understandably rage against the dying of their light. My interest is both professional and personal, and though the professional literature says I should be concerned that my bibliographic responsibility and bibliophilic personality may soon be at odds, and though part of me laments this reportedly dubious future with an increasingly sentimental sigh, I am made more willing to see the centrality of bindings and casings go somewhat peacefully into that good night because of an even greater affection and purpose. The unique experience of encountering true eloquence in words and true elegance in print, though regrettably irreplaceable, is not the reason why I am a seminary librarian.

Kenneth Kantzer, in a 1983 Christianity Today article, recounted his perspective on the role of a library in preparation for ministry:

I began my own advanced study for the ministry when I graduated from college in the 1930’s. I sought an accredited school committed to a consistent biblical theology, with a scholarly faculty, a large library, and a disciplined intellectual atmosphere. I couldn’t find any. The nonevangelical schools had great libraries, strong scholarly faculties, and impressive reputations as accredited centers of learning. The evangelical schools had no libraries to speak of, unknown faculty (J. Gresham Machen, the last evangelical scholar, had just died), and no tradition of high scholarship. (“Documenting the Dramatic Shift in Seminaries from Liberal to Conservative,” CT 2/4/83)

Access to a large library caused Kantzer, at least in part, to choose Harvard over an evangelical institution for his Ph.D. studies. Other options did exist. Just not any with large libraries.

Today, it would appear that quite a few evangelical seminaries have libraries that measure up well. As R. Albert Mohler points out, books are more affordable today than at any point in history. This glut of available print has enabled seminaries to build formidable libraries — and just in time for the digital age. I read at least an article per week about the dubious future of academic libraries and the varying theories on how to help your library survive. Serial subscriptions in academic libraries have been on the decline for years because of their digital availability and rising print costs. This availability renders the content more ubiquitous (or, at least, access to that content) and payment is often a bit more budget-friendly. This is just one example of the modern change and evolution of information delivery in libraries.

Modes of information delivery change and evolve. They always have. These changes in the means of information propagation are always accompanied by significant cultural progressions as well, though the order of these two is often debatable (see Paradigms Lost: The Life and Deaths of the Printed Word). The point is that we are in one of those times. That may be unfortunate for libraries (time will tell), but it is not necessarily bad for the reason why I became a librarian.

Would Kantzer have chosen Harvard today? Perhaps. But not if the tipping point is access to information in the form of a sizable library like he faced over a half-century ago, and neither will future Kantzers in the next half-century since the information formerly housed in physical silos will be more ubiquitously available digitally. The challenge of academic research during Kantzer’s time was the scarcity of information. Reference services were needed by students to help identify, locate, and access necessary works. Today, however, the challenge of academic research is the glut of information, not the lack of it. Reference services are needed in order to help navigate this glut to identify what is truly helpful and necessary. This is a marvelous problem — and one which will likely relieve evangelical seminaries from keeping up with the Harvard Joneses.

I did not become a seminary librarian in order to introduce pastors-in-training to books. I became a librarian in order to be a part of something much larger. The experience of losing yourself in a library of books is indeed marvelous (remember William of Baskerville’s lingering experience in the abbey library?), but the experience of losing yourself in order to gain Christ is of infinitely greater worth. If the library prophets are right and the coming generation will know less of libraries but have greater access to information, then seminaries — though filled with book-lovers — stand to gain the most. As the amount of available information increases with the ease of access to that information, more pastors will find a seminary theological education a viable option for them. Investing truth in those who will invest in others also is the calling of ministry, and the present revolution means that services such as our library’s new digital repository may help advance the purpose of the seminary and push resources, services, and training out into the lives of those desiring to be equipped for the work of ministry.

As for the library? I do hope we are not yet reading the library’s elegy and that the library’s remarkable ability to withstand the “forces of change and the power of princes” will indeed prevail, but as Matthew Battles rightly points out,

From age to age, libraries grow and change, flourish and disappear, blossom and contract–and yet through them all we’re chasing after Alexandria, seeking a respite on Parnassus, haunted by the myths of knowledge and of wholeness that books spawn when massed in their millions. The divine irony that Borges discovered while groping his way through the stacks strikes the sighted librarian just as powerfully: preserving themselves, the books elude us.

But to borrow from both Dylan Thomas and Umberto Eco, I will rage against the dying the light before we hold the empty name of yesterday’s rose. All the more, however, should I borrow from our Lord himself: “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30, ESV)

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Hey Paul,

    Perhaps you remember me…perhaps not. I visited Southern during the week of Together for the Gospel. My friend and I were lost and you helped us. You were with your son at the time.

    A little while later we visited you in the library as a part of our campus tour.

    Thanks for being so kind to us.

    I ran across your blog from a link on challies.com. It sent me to your article concerning the future of libraries and the effect this has had on some evangelical seminaries. Nice work.

    Thanks again for being so kind and hospitable to me and my friend. And I share your love for books, though probably not to the same degree you do…I mean, you are a librarian.

    Deek Dubberly

  2. Wickiser says:

    While currently pursuing undergrad studies at Union University (not the best library, but quite helpful), I can’t personally see books ever really going “out of style.” It might be that I am in the Christian Studies department, which fosters bibliophiles, but books are indispensable to me. Any paper resources are. They are easier to read, produce less headaches, foster fewer distractions, and are more interactive (yes, sounds strange) than digital media.
    While you can’t really write in a library book, you can’t really write in today’s digital media without editing the basic fabric of its existence as the form it is. And the internet is über-distracting when using computers. The biggest part for me is that it is just easier to hold paper product in my hand and read for long periods of time. You never need a power source as long as there is light. Books are just a great invention that will never be obsolete.
    I’m just a bibliophile though…

  3. Adam Winters says:

    How about this reference:
    “Suppose we quietly agree that in God’s providence the library may die… but we will die first!”

    Can you guess who I’m channeling? 😉

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