CEBTS - Consortium of European Baptist Theological Schools

Tasks and skills of theological librarians

Katharina Penner
March 7, 2007
IBTS, Prague.

The following discussion of tasks and skill of theological librarians will on purpose be very broad. There is no way that I will be able to define in a short reflection like this what possible tasks may be encountered by librarians working in theological schools from such a broad context as we see represented at this conference. On the one side, these expectations have tremendously changed throughout the last years; on the other side, they also very much depend on the school itself, on the number and kind of library personnel and on the general context of the school. I am sure in our conversations we will realise in what differing circumstances we all work and what duties and jobs are expected of each of us. I hope, however, that we can agree on the general principles, such as the purpose of the library in a theological school and our main involvements based on that. I also hope that in spanning the framework broad enough there will be new perspectives and impulses for each one.

Purpose of the library

  1. We often say that the library is no "warehouse" for books but an agency for the circulation of information; it is not about storage but about providing access. The library is responsible to provide not only physical but intellectual access to needed information and do such for a concrete community of users. Nevertheless, we do collect many materials and - beside cataloguing, organizing, making them accessible - we need to store them and take care of their preservation. So some of our tasks are similar to a warehouse manager: we need good space planning skills, organizational skills, good numeracy skills (for the many invoices that often come in different languages and currencies), IT skills (spreadsheets, databases, website management, etc.), conservation knowledge and skills (watch moisture levels and temperatures, prevent mould, dust the books and fight little animals who may destroy our materials). I am very glad that we will have a workshop on the preservation of materials by a professional conservator.
  2. We also like to say that librarians are "mediators between patrons and the universe of information" (Lincoln 2004:4). This puts librarians in charge of accessibility, they become the gatekeepers and the finding aids. What this may mean is that we will need to intimately know our collection. This is probably the privilege of a One Person Library [PPT presentation, 1839 kb], where the Librarian will have ordered, received and processed each item and know where to find it. It will be more difficult to achieve when several persons are responsible for different areas. To serve as a good finding aid requires that (because a user has forgotten to note down the title and other information) you develop excellent detective skills and can find a book by its colour, by the purchasing date, by an article inside the book, and certainly also by its location. It also means an emphasis on logical and user oriented classification as well as instruction of users in the differences between natural and controlled language, between browsing and searching. For our library, it usually means that users know the way search engines work but are not really familiar with library catalogues (controlled language) and, because they are not native English speakers, don't have the broad vocabulary or readily available synonyms for searches. The universe of information has drastically expanded and continues to grow - can we still mediate between our readers and the WWW? Are we proficient in searching and "taming the Web", can we claim to be a guide in the ocean of knowledge? Again, several workshops will cover this area: Finding theology resources on the Internet and Creating gateways for theological information.
  3. There is also much discussion on the library's educational mission. The library is considered to support the education that theological schools provide, but can we say that library is also actively teaching? I believe, yes, we need to educate our users toward information literacy, that means, teach research skills, teach effective use of the local library, teach how to best approach available software and databases. The extent to which this educational mission is fulfilled will very much depend on the person of the librarian and the vision this person has for the library.

There are objections to this however. Recently I read on a blog: "When libraries were solely about books, did we teach the illiterate how to read? Did we teach librarians how to teach people to read? Rarely that happened, but mostly we didn't do those things" (

But in the information age we need to teach users toward technology literacy, information literacy (find and use relevant and reliable information), research skills. This seems especially important for students coming from educational systems that do not include these skills in general education (Eastern Europe, Majority world) and for students who have been out of school for some time and need to re-learn research or learn it on a new level in the information society.

It is interesting to see how one by one topics on information literacy have come together or workshop emphasis has shifted to include the teaching aspect that, I believe, is vitally important and must be present in any library. The "Finding theology resources" workshop intends to teach librarians to train students how to go about the finding; we have a workshop on creating materials for instruction, moving the teaching online so that instructional materials would be accessible anytime anywhere. And we have a whole session on various models of library instruction [(PPT Presentation, 83 kb)] which by itself presupposed that, yes, the library is there for actual teaching and not only for supporting the teaching of others. There is a real contribution we can make in instilling in students a desire as well as the skills for lifelong learning. Students may be sitting at the feet of distinguished professors while they study, but we can teach them to continue to sit at the feet of distinguished teachers in print and in bites.

Why theological librarianship?

Most of these activities and emphases are relevant and applicable anywhere in information centres, not only or not necessarily at a theological school (the hassles in other jobs would be less and the pay probably more). Why then did we, probably consciously, choose to (continue) be involved with a seminary, Bible School, theological faculty? Why did we remain in a theological library, in spite of difficulties, and some of us for many years? What is the payoff: is it the community of like-minded united under a common goal that attracts us; is it a sense of meaning and purpose that we gain through this work; is it because of some "calling", however we define it? Does this calling help us to overcome the problems - working in Christian organisations (and being confronted with the fallibility and hypocrisy of Christians) sometimes causes people to become bitter and cynical? Do we stay because this seems to be a place where I can most strategically minister and impact the most strategic group of people? Can we ask such questions at all, or is this an expression of pride and narcissism? Is it emotional and sentimental, taking oneself too seriously? Or is it rather the idea that I am responsible for my talents and gifts (in systematisation and mediation) and this seems to be a suitable area to invest them more fully?

I will not provide answers to the many questions above but will list a few quotes of how others have understood theological library and its place in a theological school. Focusing on the image of the church as the body of Christ, some have attempted to liken theological librarians to the (1) memory in the Body of Christ (responsible for the collection and preservation of the Body's resources, maintaining respect for tradition, offering in the library the "cloud of witnesses" from Heb. 12); to the (2) pointer finger (finding aid, systematisation and hierarchical ordering of information); with an emphasis on (3) stewardship and access (responsibility to open doors to relevant information and not close them (through indifference or lack of people orientation)); and on (4) hospitality (the hospitality of God invites strangers, makes them feel comfortable, lets them be who they are and find what they need. When asking "What does the customer need?" we can reverse the phrase "the customer is always right" to "the customer is seldom right but we will give them more than they expect"). Note 1

Others rather concentrate on how the library fits into a theological school (Dunkly 1991:228-229): "theological librarianship is done in the twofold setting of school and church. The library is one of the four primary centers of theological education: classroom, chapel, field site and library." As such it serves and informs the other centres. This, however, means that a theological librarian must have a sense of theology as a whole, a sense of the church, a sense of the community of scholarship, and a sense of care for people (ibd, 230-31). There is considerable variation in mode and degree of involvement in these areas because of personality differences but a clear dedication to all four areas is vital.

These four areas are to a great extent about communication and conversation, esp. if we find ourselves relating to the area of theology and church. Some educational theories say that knowledge is created through conversation: people learn through conversation, interaction, discussion of concepts with others. Even listening to a lecture and reading a book involves conversation: there are always two parties engaged in an act of communication while trying to find some understanding - in the here and now as well as across centuries and geographical barriers.

If library is to inform all of these areas it must be both facilitating as well as participating in the conversation; it needs to adapt, redefine all of its tasks as conversational, or participatory tools ( I find myself only at the beginning of such thinking while searching for a conversational paradigm of the library. One possible way as we have tried to initiate conversation is by organising book signing ceremonies with visiting scholars together with the possibility for attending students to engage in a discussion with the scholar. The social software movement has generated various ideas to initiate and foster conversation in the library, such as offering reference service through chats, disseminating news by way of blogs, starting RSS feeds about recent acquisitions to push the information to users. But libraries also have such static and non-conversational aspects as catalogues, lists of periodicals, subject guides that do not talk back or offer suggestions if, for example, one does not find what one needs. Are there ways to make these areas more interactive?

More on roles and tasks

Sharon Taylor (2002:51-58) in her article on responsibilities of theological librarians includes a list of qualities that have been appreciated in people who were considered "movers and shakers" in libraries. These are "community builders, visionaries, mentors, activists, innovators, collection developers, scholars, team players, service providers." Did we learn these skills or functions in library school, if we ever went to one? A questionnaire on successful library directors from College and Research Libraries (2002) lists the following professional qualities: knowledge of financial management, understand the complex environment in which the library functions (awareness of the library as part of broader campus initiatives), scholarly communication, knowledge of trends in information technology and higher education, public relations, facilities planning and many other things. Under personal qualities, beside all positive characteristics one can possibly possess when dealing with others - accessibility, treating people with dignity, good listener - there is again a long list of virtues (and I quote only a few): articulate (good oral/written/presentation skills), honest, intelligent, able to handle stress, comfortable with ambiguity, energy and dedication to the job (even it is a tough one), service orientation (including liking people), creativity in solving problems and seizing opportunities (79-87).

Are you tired just from listening to all the good qualities and skills that we are supposed to display? As I said before, I realise that it will very much depend on the library context what will actually be applicable. It seems that a person working in an OPL will require almost every of the listed skills and qualities. When there are several colleagues, one may possibly divide some "general", job related skills between them (job and task sharing). It becomes dangerous, though, if certain tasks (such as technology or other specialised activities) are pushed off to one person and that person leaves. The needed skills will also depend on how much professionalism and initiative faculty and administration of the theological school expect of the librarian. Even until now in many theological schools it seems more important to attract a strong faculty rather than to carefully select a well prepared and multi-skilled librarian. So it is possible that leadership may keep library outside of the larger discussions and it will depend somewhat on the knowledgeability and personality of the librarian what image and public standing the library will receive or be able to create.Note 2 We will have a workshop on "Marketing your library" that presents one librarian's attempt to justify and assert the position of the library in a theological school.

Many of us don't really fit into the traditional image of a librarian because we come into this profession from other areas: from a theology, secretarial and managerial, or a technology background. Some have completed librarianship education in addition to their previous education, others not. The standard preparation and socialization into the profession is missing or only partially available (esp. if one went through distance education). We bring along different perspectives, styles of work and expectations to librarianship than traditional librarians would have, and this again generates different dynamics in the library team and in the theological school. An article in the Library Journal compares such "untamed" librarians to the "domesticated", or properly socialised (Neil 2006).

On the one side, this kind of librarians is more open to take on roles and styles that were not traditionally seen in the library. This can be publishing (and we will have a workshop on the synergy between library, bookshop and publishing house), education (incl. an emphasis on information literacy), supervising and organising research, software development, counselling. Usually the "additional" interests are at the intersection of humanities and technology, and often these are areas for which librarians receive no training in library school. On the other side, to integrate such librarians it requires a different way of training and presents challenges to provide creative opportunities for them; one will need to work on developing compassion with their perspectives and understanding the backgrounds from which they come. More effort is needed to grow together as an organic team, to share an understanding of the mission of the library. Neal states, "they may fit effectively or be creatively disruptive in the transformed libraries we are seeking to create. Either way, they are needed for their important contributions to academic library innovation and mutability." Although Neal describes a North American trend, this is a reality in recently established Eastern European as well as in many Western European evangelical theological schools.

In view of the changes that librarianship, including theological librarianship, is going through, we all need a widening of our horizons. Professionally trained and experienced librarians will need to evaluate their values, learned tasks and expected skills in light of the new demands placed on the library. Those who come into librarianship from a teaching background may place primary emphasis on the service and educational mission of the library but will need to learn organizational skills of cataloguing (thinking inside a controlled language) and realise the importance of material preservation. Those who come from a technology background may need to appreciate the coexistence of materials in various formats, see the educational mission of the library and become more people-oriented. Those previously involved in secretarial work may need to move away from an understanding of the library as "warehouse" that needs to be managed (loans, reports, preservation) to see the library as an information centre and take initiative in developing the collection and mediating it to people with a service attitude.

I realise that during my short reflection I have not presented a full overview of possible, expected tasks and skills of theological librarians. I hope, however, to have sketched a broad framework of theological librarianship while indicating how the various topics of plenary sessions and workshops of this conference may fit into it.

Used Sources

  • Dunkly, James. "Theological Libraries and Theological Librarians in Theological Education."
    American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 45 (1991): 227 ff.
  • Hernon, Peter, Ronald R. Powell and Arthur P. Young. "University Library Directors in the Association of Research Libraries: The Next Generation, Part Two".
    College and Research Libraries, January 2002: 73-90.
  • Lincoln, Timothy D. "What's a Seminary Library for?"
    Theological Education 40/1 (2004): 1-10.
  • Neal, James G. "Raised By Wolves."
    Library journal, February 15, 2006. Accessed at on February 26, 2007.
  • Peterson, Herman. "Theological Librarianship as Ministry."
    American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 55 (2001): 231-250.
  • Taylor, Sharon. "Power and responsibility: reflections on theological librarianship or where have we been, where are we going, how will we know when we get there?"
    American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 56 (2002): 51-58.

Conference for theological librarians 2007


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