by Timothy Lincoln
A TALE OF TWO LIBRARIES
Library buildings seem to come in as many styles as cars. Which of these two theological libraries is more appealing to you?
As you enter the first library, there is an imposing lobby, rather like a bank. The front desk is massive. You pass a sign that proclaims: Silence in the library. You quickly get the message. No one is talking. You look up and see a window that could have been taken from a church: a Gothic arch with tinted glass filtering in quiet northern light. In the glass is a Latin motto: Sola Fide. In this library, there are shelves upon shelves of books. Here and there you see busts of important cultural figures: Athena, Shakespeare, Gandhi. The library has worktables and individual places to read. If there are restrooms and vending machines, they are discretely out of sight. Being in this library seems like a mixture of going to church (in the hush just as the prelude ends) and going to a museum to view great art. You feel a bit underdressed. You almost expect the librarians to wear habits like monks. Let’s call this library the classic library.
Perhaps you are looking for another type of theological library. Let’s visit another one.
As you enter this library, you immediately smell coffee. You notice that, yes, there is a coffee shop near the front door. Straight ahead is a small desk, barely large enough to hold the computer screen that sits on it, staffed by a librarian. Above the desk hangs a sign: You have questions? Have a seat. Let’s talk. You keep walking and enter a large, open space. It’s rather noisy. A group of patrons are moving two tables together and rearranging chairs. In another corner, someone is taking a nap with a book on her lap. Someone else is walking around with a tablet computer, using one of the library’s databases. He is also talking on his phone using a Bluetooth headset. The whole building has Wi-Fi, of course; it’s a library. You walk up stairs to the second floor and notice another sign: Go left for study rooms; Go right for media lab. You decide to go right. You see more people using computers. You see others in a room listening to a professor speak. The instructor isn’t in the room; she is a large presence on a monitor, conducting class from another city. You keep walking and see more signs: Straight ahead for books and Elevator to quiet study floor. Let’s call this second library the social library.
In your mind’s eye, you may have visited a classic library and a social library. Both might be found on a seminary campus. There are virtues to both kinds of places. The classic library projects history and subtly ties you into a larger story about knowledge, faith and continuity. The classic library also carefully collects and preserves printed material for the sake of a specific set of users. The downside of the classic library is that it sends the message that you are a guest — a guest who might mess up the neat arrangement of knowledge standing at attention on the shelves, a guest who needs to understand the explicit and implicit rules of silence and respect for order. On the other hand, the social library seems much more like a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Come in and look around, it says. Have a cup of coffee, check your email, hang out, read a book. We are sure that you will see something you like. The social library feels like it has less of an obligation to identify with the past. This library is focused on what you want to do today. You may want a quiet place to study (and it’s there), but the social library teases you to into noticing the other people around you. The kind of scholarship going on here feels less solitary and more collaborative than what happens in the classic library.
WHY ARE THEOLOGICAL SCHOOLS BUILDING SOCIAL LIBRARIES?
As North American theological schools make choices about building libraries, most choose to build a version of the social library. In addition to the profound improvements in information technology that have developed since the rise of the Internet, the reasons are related to what today’s library users want a library to do for them.
Seminaries are building social libraries because of the way that the library supports the school’s mission of teaching and research. The mission of a seminary library is tied to the mission of the school that it serves. Having visited many theological schools as part of accreditation visits, I can say confidently that the mission statements of virtually all seminary libraries affirms that they collect information related to what the school teaches and the research interests of professors. Given a limited budget (and the library budget is always limited), libraries spend their money to support teaching and learning first and foremost. So, a Presbyterian seminary library is going to buy three new biographies of John Calvin in a given year because Calvin is taught as a key theologian. In the same year, a Methodist seminary library might buy one Calvin biography — if the budget allows. In short: Seminary libraries support the local needs of students and faculty.
Because libraries at theological schools hold teaching and learning in privilege, the design of seminary library buildings takes into account research findings concerning how students go about getting an education. In 2016, fewer students studying for master’s-level theological degrees attend seminary full time than in 1990. Fewer of them live on campus. They may live and work miles away from their school and come to campus only when their classes meet. Current students want access to needed library resources without making a special trip to the library. To meet this need, it makes sense for libraries to purchase information in digital form when it’s available. These resources now include specialized encyclopedias and the complete texts of academic journals spanning many years. Many theological libraries in North America subscribe to resources like ATLASerials, a database that indexes and provides instant online access to thousands of articles in more than 300 major religion and theology journals. Students and faculty can access these databases from any place they have an Internet connection. For the same reason, many theological libraries also subscribe to e-books. These virtual books can be accessed (checked out) without setting foot in the library.
Because theological schools often teach in ways that require students to collaborate on projects, it makes sense to create spaces in new libraries where students can work in groups (including talking in the library) rather than emphasizing quiet study spaces like individual study desks. Research about how students study shows that many are quite comfortable reading on their smartphones while riding on the bus or doing academic work while hanging out in a coffee shop. Students and faculty have access to the Internet (and thus to the electronic resources of seminary libraries) almost anywhere there is cell phone service. In other words, the library is in competition with other inviting places for students to read and study. Architects and librarians design buildings with social spaces, informal furniture and coffee shops — in part, to lure library patrons into the library. Once there, they will discover not only a pleasant place to study and a collection of materials specifically chosen to meet their academic needs, but staff to assist them in finding information.
The coffee-shop atmosphere of areas of seminary libraries — with free Wi-Fi for all and espressos made to order — is a response to the stunning spread of cheap, effective access to the Internet in so many places. Students expect that going to the library should not be a trip to a history theme park (Booklandia, perhaps). Theological students want the library to be as technologically connected as the rest of their lives. The social library is thus also a connected library.
SOCIAL, CONNECTED AND VALUABLE
In these musings, I have painted the classic library and the social library in contrasting colors to make the point that North American user expectations about what a good theological library is have changed since 1990, before information technology became inexpensive and ubiquitous. Like the classic library, however, the social library of theological schools also acknowledges its links to the history, traditions and enduring witness of the church. Indeed, in a time when social media pumps out a torrent of smiles and sighs on every subject, the distinctive role of theological libraries in the formation of future church leaders stands out in striking contrast.
Seminary libraries are places that provide access to a winnowed subset of information about Christian doctrine and history, a far cry from the blunt instrument of Google searching. They employ professional staff to assist students and professors in exploring millions of pages of texts to find what is most pertinent for an assignment or research project. Seminary libraries take seriously the mission of theological education and how students study so that seminary graduates can lead with heartfelt passion that is informed by the patient whispers of the great cloud of witnesses who have thought deeply about the Christian faith. Social and connected, seminary libraries are an indispensable gift to the church.
TIMOTHY D. LINCOLN is the director of the David L. and Jane Stitt Library at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is the vice president of the American Theological Library Association. He is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.