CEBTS - Consortium of European Baptist Theological Schools

Theological Libraries and Change of Media: Part 1

Dr. Penelope Hall
March 8, 2007

We live in an information age; information is a necessity of life but it needs people who know how to handle it. Many times it seems to me that it is more like an information overload age because the information is not handled correctly or with expedience. Everywhere we go and everywhere we look we are bombarded with information in all forms. People are always clamouring to learn something new, and sometimes to get the upper hand, by getting hold of new information before anybody else does.

The prophet Daniel, in his visions, saw a time when "many will go here and there to increase knowledge." We live in such an age when the world has become a global village, when people travel freely and easily across this planet seeking for new adventures and new information to add to their growing store of awareness. No longer are we content to wait for the delivery of a message by the post-snail mail; we want answers immediately or even yesterday, were it possible.

Libraries have always been the storehouses of information and in such an age as this we must rise to the challenge of the role of not only being the storehouse but of distributing and handling the wealth of information that comes to us. Today we have much competition from information sources on the internet, but as theological librarians, I believe that we still have a vital role to play in supplying information, the best information, for our users.

Traditionally libraries have held only books, manuscripts and other printed materials. Ancient libraries, such as the library in Ur of the Chaldeans, held tablets of stone among their collections, but still it was the written word-or in today's jargon, hard copy-that was stored in the library. The written word is still important today and comprises the greater majority of the collections in our libraries and will continue to do so. The written word is our heritage which we dare not lose, lest we fall into the same perils as the children of Israel did when they neglected the law and the prophets on Old Testament times.

Some years ago, I remember hearing somebody say that the forests would soon be safe with the increased use of electronic materials, with the increased use of e-mail, and with the availability of information on-line. Such has not proved to be correct for recently I read some statistics about the increased use of paper in the electronic age. There is always the tendency to print something out so that we can hold it in our hands and file it for reference at a future date without worrying that it will disappear into the ether. Even yesterday I went looking for a website that I thought I was going to use as part of my presentation on Saturday afternoon, only to discover that it was no longer available on-line. Things come and go quickly on the internet, sometimes disappearing altogether. Furthermore there are times when we are nicely settled to read the information that has come up on the web page, when something goes wrong in our connections and everything disappears before our eyes.

In case you haven't caught on, I am building a case for the continuing value of the written word, the continuing need for books and printed documents. Not long ago I was travelling on a trans-Atlantic flight, shortly after the Police at the New Scotland Yard had uncovered a plot to disrupt flights out of London. New security regulations were hastily put into play and all travellers were given new guidelines for carry-on luggage. (Virtually nothing useful was allowed on the plane.) I learned that I was not going to be able to carry my laptop with me on the flight as I had always done in the past. In fact, for a while they were even doubtful about allowing me to carry a book, but eventually I was informed that I could carry a book to read, but I could not carry any electronic devices whatsoever, not even a mobile telephone. Once again this situation made me appreciate the availability of books; once I had been able to carry needle work on board a flight, but now all that was left to keep one occupied on a long flight were good books and with some good fortune, perhaps a decent on-board movie. This past week there was once again an alert concerning electronic devices on board airplanes, in that the lithium batteries have been know to cause outbreaks of fire, a problem that is never associated with books. Thus, we may be forced once again to value the portability of the printed word.

So much of our heritage and our traditions would have been lost were it not for books, and today in the theological world we continue to put much value on the collection of books, manuscripts and periodicals, both ancient and modern. I do not believe that we will ever be able to completely replace the book as a most valuable tool for study and instruction.

Having said all that, however, I want to take a realistic and more wholistic view of present day libraries. We all know that our young people are tuned into the audio-video materials and that many times they can learn something more readily through instruction that involves audio-video presentations. Thus, if we are going to serve the young people who are coming to our institutions to study we must also collect audio CDs, DVDs, video presentations, movies (usually also in DVD form), along with the numerous on-line resources that are now available on the internet. We must be aware of what is available for our students and be able to distinguish the useful from the useless, in order to give guidance to our readers. We must encourage and teach our readers how to use the various internet facilities in a profitable and beneficial way to the furtherance of their studies. We cannot just turn them loose on the internet-they have probably done that far too often at home already. We must teach them discernment to help them evaluate the resources of the net, for we all know how easy it is to find materials that are not in the least reliable on the internet, i.e. wikipedia.

There are other advantages that technology brings to us to help in research. Gradually some documents that were once reserved for the very few are being made available to a wider public via digitalisation. Manuscripts, incunabula and other rare texts are being digitalised to preserve the text and the art work found in these materials, ultimately making these more available to scholars and researchers. Resources once considered to be far away from us and therefore inaccessible are now just a click of the mouse away from us. I can search the library catalogue of the seminary in Singapore and send a question to the librarian there via e-mail, fully anticipating that the reply will be in my mail box either within hours or by the next day.

All of these resources should and must be used in order to reap the maximum benefit from our libraries today. While continuing to preserve our precious collections of books, manuscripts and periodicals, let us also embrace what the new technologies have brought to us for the benefit of our readers and theologically speaking for the "good of the Church".

Conference for theological librarians 2007


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