CEBTS - Consortium of European Baptist Theological Schools

Theological Libraries and Change of Media: Part 2

Katharina Penner
March 8, 2007
IBTS, Prague

European theological libraries find themselves in the midst of transitions caused by changes in society, changes in expectations of the younger generation, changes in theological education. However, changes in technology and the breadth of available media at the end of the last and the beginning of this century have probably had the main impact on the tasks of librarians.

We remind ourselves that (1) professions do not stand still (the job of a nurse, of an accountant, of a teacher, of a microbiologist have changed; librarians also have to adapt to new developments (maybe even push them)); (2) library is a service profession, but what our users (and parent organisations) want has changed so we have to find new ways to be useful; (3) we don't really have a choice to go or not to go with the technology: if our users like and need technology for their research we need to become proficient with it (professionals who don't keep up with the technologies that affect their work go out of business).

1. Libraries as service institutions of parent organisations

Our parent organisations are the theological schools we serve. In a previous session we have considered how libraries fit into a theological school and in what ways they serve the institution (see Tasks).

1.1. So if libraries are service institutions of parent organisations, what do our students and faculty want/need? In spite of the mentioned changes, it may really not be much different from the past: users will need the full range of resources to be able to do their theological research. However, it is not as easy (even for users) to decide what these resources are: books and journals? Electronic databases with searchable full-text? Information in other media? The answer will probably also depend to some extent on the area of study (STM (science, technology, medicine) and humanities have different needs) and on the generation that these users represent. One will see differences in preference between faculty and students, undergraduate and doctoral students, returning older students or students representing a generation that has grown up with computers.

Unfortunately we don't have sound research results on how scholars work in theological studies in our part of the world so that we can use them for decisions about which materials to purchase and how much money to spend on each of the media. Usually we have observations, assumptions, informed guesses, and these may indicate that theologians are slow to embrace new technologies. There certainly is a difference between faculty and students and between students of different generations. But generally we can probably agree with what Donald Vorp observes in North America: "the discipline of theology continues largely to be print-based discourse, with print-based publication and print-based reading" assignments (2004:37). How many of our faculty write for the Internet (which needs different structures of thought, hyperlinked ideas, etc.), read and are able to write texts that are feasible for reading on the screen (brief, concise, clearly organised)? Can theologizing be done in these thought patterns, or does it lie in the nature of theology that the discussion requires a solid foundation, knowledge of various points of view, a lengthy process of exegesis and deduction before some conclusions can be formulated which again are multi-faceted?

How can we as libraries change if professors insist on lecture based teaching and students expect to learn through face-to-face conversation and discussion and not necessarily through library based research covering all available formats? At IBTS we often observe the clash of educational models with which students grow up, for example, in Central and Eastern Europe, and the British model of a research degree, where independent research and not necessarily lecture based teaching is at the centre. It seems that being service institutions it does not make sense for libraries to speed away into a direction that its constituency is not yet ready to embrace and they will usually follow developments in theological schools rather than lead.

Nevertheless, even though our parent institutions are slow in moving toward new technologies, I believe as librarians we are responsible to introduce and encourage technological developments and expose faculty and students to electronic resources. I appreciated the heading in an 2004 editorial emphasising that a librarian should be a "catalyst rather than a clerk" (Stewart 2004:vii). Often one can find at least one person among the faculty who is excited about technological developments in the area of theology and who is eager to cooperate on introducing electronic resources in their courses. It seems, however, if we don't change and don't effectively and creatively offer electronic resources, we may need to accept lower funding, less space, loss in importance to the educational process because "everything is anyway found on the Internet".

1.2. Problems with e-resources. In our context I have tried very hard to get administration excited about electronic resources, especially because I felt that we fall so very short of serving our remote students, only to realise that little really good and applicable theological resources are being produced in the area of theology and religious studies that would actually be of significant help to our students.

The issues are broader: there are questions about long-term accessibility, about the additional infrastructure needed for electronic resources, of whether preservation of digital materials is secured in an electronic environment Note 1 What influence will emphasis on new technologies have on community building, and what about spiritual formation that we consider so important in a theological schools?

Forms of human communication change and this will not remain without consequences for the educational process and library services. If we say that knowledge is developed through conversation (see Tasks and skills presentation), how can such conversation function in an electronic environment? There is a hype at the moment about social software (blogs, wikis, instant messaging, Flickr, MySpace) which is intended to encourage conversation. If library is a participant and facilitator of conversation, do we need to get involved in blogging (for example, announce our newly acquired books on a blog), use IM for reference (reference questions from resident and remote students), design our websites with Wiki software to involve our readers in the design?

Will schools of theology take on virtual character? How will the future church function? The contemporary church has been shaped by the book, how will the emerging church look like? Many recent studies have attempted to address these questions and to discuss the interrelationship between technology and church. Some provide somewhat simplistic answers and remain in the black and white perspectives perceiving only the dangers of technology, some are more balanced. Note 2

Jardine, for example, presents in The making and unmaking of technological society the following summary observation about oral, literate and technological cultures (2004:236): "People in oral cultures experience the world primarily through sound, that is, through the spoken word, and therefore tend to think in personal, concrete, and poetic terms, while people in literate cultures experience the world primarily through vision, and therefore tend to think in impersonal, abstract, and analytical terms." The "real reality" is what can be seen, analysed, abstracted; anything not fitting these qualifications, such as spiritual phenomena, is less real, resulting in a fact/opinion distinction with a denigration of ideas that are mere "opinions". Literacy, in Jardine's opinion, "flattens human experience" and leads to a "loss of a sense of the spiritual dimension of human existence" (237). Television and computers, even worse, although using sound, dramatically "intensify the visual orientation brought about by literacy [and] destroy the capacity for analytical thinking" (239). This "postliterate visual culture of images" results in "an almost total loss of the spiritual dimension" and in a "radical distinction between facts and values" (239).

Electronic cultures fares a bit more positive with Shane Hipps in that, beside other effects, it intensifies a right brain encounter with reality as well as with God (2005:82). In describing the book-oriented church he follows Marshall McLuhan who believes that "The printed book added much to the cult of individualism, the private, fixed point of view became possible and literacy conferred the power of detachment, non-involvement." Note 3 We each have our own Bible and don't depend on the community to know God and so become quite individualistic in our spirituality. Books with letters that have no basis in reality encourage abstract thinking and a notion of rationality and objectivity that allows one to stand outside of ideas and judge them. It is possible to create a distance from emotional life by self-reflection, externalizing thoughts and being suspicious of non-rational feelings (53-61).

From what Hipps (82) perceives, electronic culture reverses our capacity for abstract thought and critical reasoning skills. This has positive and negative implications of which the church and its theological educators need to be aware. He believes to observe a circle of influence: "We shape our tools and afterward the tools shape us" and "our thinking patterns begin to mirror the specific form of media we use to communicate" (64).

2. Theology of technology?

I believe we should step back somewhat and clarify our view of technology in general. Is there something like a theology of technology for libraries? What is technology supposed to do for us? What and how much of it is a solution, in how far is it a problem?

It is not that technology and thinking about technology is something new in libraries. If one watches the humorous Norwegian video about the monk Ansgar calling Helpdesk to receive an explanation on how to handle a book as opposed to his familiar scroll (, one may be comforted to know that some 500 (or much less?) years later future generations will laugh about our questions toward technology.

Nevertheless, one can agree that "the role technology is playing in determining the shape of the library has never been so great" (Ammerman 2004:22). We can discuss advantages and disadvantages, changes it brings to our work, costs it causes and a different thinking that it requires, but we also need to think about how we perceive its value for the library. What does it do with us, with the way we operate the library, with the way we communicate with our users? Can we influence whether technology will be disruptive or enhancing by a certain way of looking at technology?

My thinking has been changing throughout these years, from excitement and great expectations for the future to more realistic estimates when I started to realise the problems and shortcomings. At first I put too much faith in technology; by now, I believe, I have come to see it simply as an instrument, a tool, nothing more or less, and not worthwhile in itself. When technology is to bring holistic results it needs to be perceived as something that can enhance the capabilities of a human person, fill in for their shortcomings and weaknesses, but not replace the person or become a goal in itself. McLuhan's book, that first brought him into the discussion on a philosophy of media, is remarkably titled "Understanding media: the extensions of men", already indicating where he would locate the limits for technology's value: extending human capacities.

Handy, an influential writer on organizations and their structures, underlines the difference between tools and machines (1999:358-9). He envisions in future organisations a return from modern machines, that control humans, are independent of them and merely need to be serviced by humans, to pre-modern tools, that "extend the capacities of the individual" allowing humans to be fully responsible for the work. Information technology used in libraries needs to be subordinated to human objectives; it can only support human activities and should not be considered to dictate them. Learning from experience in countries that are more advanced in their use of technology in theological libraries we have to discern our current use and future plans in order to avoid the same mistakes and fall for the all-dominating pressure to follow technological developments. Much thinking needs to be done on how technology will influence the changes to our jobs and whether it is possible to direct the influence to the positive.

Again, to have holistic results we need to consider whether people are ready for the technology. As Buchanan and Huczynski state (2004:73): "sophisticated, flexible, expensive equipment needs sophisticated, flexible, expensive people to operate it effectively." If these are not available, technology will not drive but hinder processes. Many who in Eastern Europe believed that automating a library is "merely a matter of technology and equipment" (Francis 2002:173) found themselves confronted with unexpected managerial questions the solutions to which decided whether the introduced technological improvements were used to their full potential or not. Another observation is that "expensive information resources [where available in CEE]… remain heavily under-utilized" (Pejova 2002). Implementation has gone before informed research on information needs and competencies of users, on the emotional and technical preparedness of staff and readers, on levels of acceptance of information technology and on the specific contribution that technology can, in fact, make to information supply in this part of the world.

3. Predictions for future

3.1 Death of print - formats replaced? It seems to me that for the foreseeable future we will remain hybrid libraries, combining both: our many print and other format materials with the emerging electronic resources. There is no way that the predicted paperless society or library can become true because, in spite of all predictions and expected trends, tremendous numbers of books are published every year all around the globe (see also previous presentation by Dr. Hall). There is no evidence of a change in publishing in theology or of mass digitization of existing collections. We may develop digital collections inside of our traditional ones, some special collections may be digitized (and this is a very good phenomenon) but I don't expect to see a theological school with a purely digital library.

New media and technologies rarely replace older ones rapidly or entirely unless the old form presents a serious problem, and maybe not even then. Radio didn't replace reading. TV didn't replace the cinema or radio. Although there was (and is) much talk about how television is a great evil and a threat to reading habits, it seems that young people today don't really watch that much TV anymore because they are busy chatting, blogging or spending time on Flickr and MySpace. Note 4 Also, from an aesthetic point of view it is not easy to replace the beauty of printed materials if one only thinks about the experience of visiting a museum with ancient richly decorated books. Browsing library shelves and flipping through book pages remains an important way to find information and many electronic resources attempt to emulate this.

As Roy Stokes (1993:203) aptly observes, "matter does not transfer well or easily from one medium to another", if one only thinks of the disappointment after watching a disastrous film adaptation of a book. So, even if mass digitization of theological materials seems a necessary pragmatic solution for distance education, it will be only partly successful if one neglects philosophical issues behind it. As Hipps (2005:23) states, media are "neither evil nor good. Yet this in no way means they are neutral." To simply transfer the same content from one media to another may not really be the answer. In our situation with many remote students I prefer to concentrate on content for pragmatic reasons (and am excited about access possibilities with electronic resources) but we must also consider the power and unintended consequences of the media. They are not only more or less convenient channels that deliver the content but they also shape students in ways we may not yet have thought about. Each content will ideally be packaged into a proper medium to offer the envisioned learning experience and retention. It is interesting to view the success of an ipod for digital music and, on the other hand, recognise that the ideal device for e-books is probably not yet found. Note 5

3.2. To operate a hybrid library certainly poses problems and challenges. Such library will need to house "a vast amount of material in an ever-increasing variety of forms" (Stokes 1993:205). Before accepting any technology for use in the library we will need to scrutinize it, which means librarians must be well familiar with various technologies and, in a sense, must move to being IT persons while maintaining a librarian's thinking. A hybrid library creates double expenses: there are additional high costs for technological infrastructure and costs for the materials themselves while acquisition and maintenance costs need to be continued for the physical collection. Librarians have a moral and spiritual responsibility in dealing with technology, as mentioned before, to not blindly follow any trend of faster, bigger, and better but rather discerningly weigh the influences of various media on society, individual students and theological education in general.

The already mentioned changing expectations brought before librarians and the views of librarians' jobs will need to be different. A very helpful summary of roles and skills of librarians in managing electronic resources is found in Pinfield (2001).


  • Multi-media user - comfortable with a wide range of formats and equipment
  • Intermediary - with a good knowledge of sources and user requirements
  • Metadata producer - creating records of information sources in a variety of schemas
  • Communicator - formally and informally liaising with users
  • Team player - working with colleagues in library, IT services and academics
  • Trainer / educator - taking on a formal role to teach information skills and information literacy
  • Evaluator - sifting free and paid for resources on behalf of users
  • Negotiator - dealing with publishers and suppliers
  • Project manager - leading on development projects to enhance the service
  • Innovator - not just following the routine but also looking at improved ways to deliver the service
  • Fund-raiser - working for greater income from the institution and beyond


  • Professional skills
  • Technical and IT skills
  • Flexibility
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Ability to learn quickly
  • Communication skills
  • Negotiating skills
  • People skills
  • Presentation skills
  • Teaching skills
  • Team working skills
  • Customer service skills
  • Analytical and evaluative skills
  • Subject skills
  • Project management skills
  • Vision

As I mentioned before, it seems that, instead of being able to choose between formats and tasks, theological libraries will for still some time remain hybrid libraries that deal with many activities and that integrate various formats. In closing, I will adapt for theological libraries a few predictions offered by Walt Crawford earlier this year for academic libraries:

  1. Theological libraries, as libraries serving humanities (and maybe even more so), will still have a substantial and growing print collection;
  2. Libraries will continue to serve as places where hospitality is practiced and conversation is encouraged and initiated. They will, however, also increasingly offer place-independent services.
  3. We need to get away from a "majority" and "one size for all" thinking. Even if a majority of users may prefer or demand electronic resources, or, to the contrary, most theologians may tend to remain print-bound, libraries need to serve each individual user with their sophisticated needs and abilities.
  4. Working against digitization efforts and Internet is not an option so for successful services we need to find ways to work with them and include them into our overall perspective of resources.

Used Sources

  • Ammerman, Jack W. "Jam To-morrow and Jam Yesterday, but never Jam To-day: the Dilemma of Theology Libraries Planning for the Twenty-first Century."
    Theological Education 40/1 (2004): 11-30.
  • Buchanan, David and Andrzej Huczynski.
    Organizational Behaviour: an introductory text. Essex: Prentice Hall, 2004.
  • Crawford, Walt. "Predicting the future of academic libraries."
    Cites and insights, Phantom issue, Jan 10-23, 2007. Available at
  • Francis, Simon. "Implementing the VTLS library management system at Tomsk State University Library: impact on management."
    Program 36/3 (2002): 166-175.
  • Handy, Charles.
    Understanding organizations. Penguin, 1999.
  • Helm, Burt. "Curling Up With a Good E-Book."
    Business Week, December 29, 2005. Accessed at
    April 15, 2007.
  • Hipps, Shane.
    The hidden power of electronic culture: how media shapes faith, the gospel, and church. Zondervan, 2005.
  • Jardine, Murray.
    The making and unmaking of technological society: how Christianity can save modernity from itself. Brazos, 2004.
  • McLuhan, Marshall.
    Understanding media: the extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
  • McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore.
    The medium is the message: an inventory of effects. San Francisco: HardWired, 1996.
  • Pejova, Zdravka. "Information literacy: an issue which requests urgent action in developing countries and countries in transition", July 2002, White paper prepared for UNESCO, the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, and the National Forum on Information Literacy, for use at the Information Literacy Meeting of Experts, Prague, the Czech Republic, available at Accessed April 2005.
  • Pinfield, Stephen. "Managing Electronic Library Services".
    Ariadne, iss. 29, Oct 02, 2001. Accessed 13.02.2007 at
  • Reagan, Brad. "The digital ice age."
    Popular Mechanics, iss. December 2006. Accessed at on April 15, 2007.
  • Stewart, David R. "Editor's Introduction: the Prospect in View."
    Theological Education 40/1 (2004): iii-ix.
  • Stokes, Roy. "Shadow and Substance." American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 47 (1993): 196 ff. Time: European edition. 168:27/28, Dec. 25, 2006 - Jan. 1, 2007.
  • Vorp, Daniel. "Changing Libraries, Changing Collections."
    Theological Education 40/1 (2004): 31-47.

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