Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary: Post #20 (Thoughts on Building a Theological Library)

When I began seminary, I had a large library (>3000 volumes) mostly centered on the biological sciences. I knew a crucial part of my journey through seminary would be building a preaching library – a theological library if you will –because after seminary I would enter the world of the church and the theological academy. Because I had not been a bible major, this would be a fresh task that I would tackle from the ground up because I owned very few biblical and theological works.

Where to begin?

Tip 1: Think about content first

Depending on what your emphasis is in seminary, the content of your library will vary from person to person. I am a preacher and likely have a more robust library than others ministers. This is an assumption on my part but one that has proven true over time.

When I mention thinking about content first, I mean the kinds or categories of books you will place in your preaching/teaching/ministry/theological library. Here is a look at the categories of books held in my theological library.

General References to the Bible

Books on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament

Books on the New Testament

Biblical Languages

Theology/Systematic Theology

Church History and Historical Theology


Missions and Missional Theology

Evangelism and Discipleship


Marriage, Family, Children, and Home

Pastoral Theology/Ministry

Christian Education and Leadership

Worship Theology/Liturgy

I think these are all the major categories that should be represented in a well-rounded theological library. That’s not to say that there won’t be other categories represented. For example, I have several shelves devoted to the category of Theology and Science, because of my background and interest in the sciences. Increasingly, I am purchasing a book here or there from Jewish sources, for example, Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Admittedly, these are shelved within the Old Testament category, but they are additions that are unique and different.

Now, some might want to know what specific books need to be purchased for each category. I won’t offer suggestions here because it will depend so much on your seminary training, denomination, interests, ministry area, etc. Whatever I compiled would be too unique to me and probably marginally helpful to you. A good way of putting some of the most relevant works together in your initial efforts is to approach your professors and ask what they would recommend. 

Obviously, some of the first book added to your library will be the textbooks from your classes.

Tip 2: Consider hard copy or electronic resources or both

The interesting challenge I faced right from the start of procuring a library was centered on whether I would build a library of just “hard copy” books or a library that was mostly electronic (e.g. in bible software, Kindle books, etc.). 

What to do?

I decided, based on the way I tended to use books, that I would build a “hybrid” library – one composed of both hard copy and electronic resources.

In terms of hard copy books, they can be obtained from whatever bookseller you prefer. As a seminary student on a budget, I would recommend buying used books for as inexpensive a price you can get when possible.

When it comes to electronic resources, you have a number of decisions to make. Some seminaries have special relationships with certain bible software producers and if your institution does, then it might make sense to opt into whatever deal your seminary is offering. For example, some institutions get big discounts on Accordance or Logos Bible Software and these companies offer great ways to build an electronic library.

I chose to invest in a Logos software library (www.logos.com) and have not regretted it. I don’t necessarily want to become an ad for Logos Bible Software but the advantages of using a theological library that exists in large part on my laptop has been huge. The resources in my electronic library are interlinked, easily accessible, and most importantly, searchable. This has saved me lots of time of the course of the past five years as I have built bible lessons, written seminary papers, and of course, prepared sermons.

Years ago, it wasn’t an option to have an electronic library, but now it is, and the convenience and power of having a large library right at your fingertips is unmatched. Bonus: it goes with me even when I travel. This has been very helpful for me when I’ve traveled for conferences and needed to prepare a sermon for Sunday.

Tip 3: Preview it before you buy it

One thing is often true of commentaries and theological books – they can be expensive. Before buying anything, obviously ask yourself if this is something you really need and it you think it is be sure and try to preview via the library at your institution or through library loan. It can be tempting to just spend, spend, spend money on books. Watch yourself though.

Tip 4: Don’t buy it just because it is cheap

I am so so so guilty of this one. I’ll think to myself, “well, I might use it one day and look how cheap it is…” Do this for several years and the next thing you know your library has lots of volumes of stuff you are not really using. Just because it is cheap or its written by an author you like doesn’t mean you are going to use it.

I remember when I was first in seminary, a publisher released a relatively inexpensive set of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I was very excited, as were many of my colleagues. We all bought the set around the Christmas season and posted nerdy theology library pictures on social media of our newest acquisitions. I think I may be the only who ever really read the set. Not to knock my buddies, but sometimes it pays to wait and ask yourself if you will really use it. Most seminary libraries have a set of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and you can check out volumes anytime.

Tip 5: Check out older works online

Granted, older works are not always better. Except when they are classics, like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc. and you can access them freely online (for example, through the Christian Classic Ethereal Library, CCEL). Lots of great theologians who are now not among the living have stuff available freely online. Avail yourself of these resources! 

Tip 6: Whatever you have in your library, organize it!

Now that I have lots of books, I find it to be very helpful to be organized. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to find a book when you need it. If I know I have a hard copy book on ethics, then I also know it is likely that I will find it on the several shelves devoted to…you guessed it…ethics.

The same goes for the other categories. Meaning, keep your stuff organized and consider using an app to track all that you have in your library. I use the Delicious Library app to track my stuff, and this helps prevent me from making duplicate purchases.

So there are some tips for thinking about building a theological library. Like a good car mechanic, these books will be the tools of your trade. Assemble them well and reap a rich reward.