Building a Theological Library, Part 3: Tips on Building a Digital Library
We live in exciting times. At no point in human history has it been easier to collect and maintain a ministerial library if one chooses the route of a digital books. As write this third and final essay, I do so from Zambia where I have been teaching this week. Last Saturday I did a three-hour seminar on the Trinity which was an entirely new prep for me. The great thing was that I had sufficient resources on my computer to put together the presentation with simplicity (if one can make the Trinity simple) and clarity. I could read what some of the Fathers said about God, since I have the Church Fathers in my Logos collection. Ok, let me confess up front that I am an unashamed Logos user and have been for thirteen years. What I like most about Logos is the numerous resources that are available to download if you have an internet portal. I currently have nearly 4,000 books in my Logos library including biblical studies, exegetical material, church history, devotional, and the list goes on. To be fair, other programs also have digital books. I started with Logos and have kept my Logos up-to-date. If you are going to build a digital collection, you will want to pick one program and go with it. Logos, (FaithLife) at this point, seems to have the most resources available, but other programs are working to catch up.
Since this year is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I thought I would read some of Luther’s writings. As I have The Works of Luther on Logos, I was able to download certain books to my tablet to read these works on the go. I also have the works of Edwards, Calvin and others at my fingertips, even in Africa, ready to be called up if I need them. What a day to study!
So how does one go about building such a collection? Since most of us do not have unlimited resources, we will need to plan our purchases. First, I recommend that you start with a base package of basic resources. Logos has a number of these packages with various resources available to be purchased as a bulk buy. This is the cheapest way to get started. By the way, if you are a student, you can get the best deal on Logos or other programs. So, start while you are in seminary and build from there. If money is no object, you can buy one of premium Logos packages with “thousands” of titles, but most users will not use many of the books in these collections. I personally don’t think these are a good investment. Even in my Platinum collection, there are many resources that I will never use . . . like Pulpit Commentary. But the stuff I will use is great!
When adding resources to a digital collection, try to add them in ways that reduce the price such as pre-publication pricing or multi-volume-set prices. Oft times, a book or collection of books will be offered at an attractive prepublication price to generate revenue for the cost of preparing the digital version or to anticipate the demand. When the material is finally available, the price rises substantially. I bought my Works of Jonathan Edwards in this way significantly under the current price. Also, buying a set of books like The New International Commentary series will be spendy but the per volume price is far better than buying the books one at a time. I used to recommend that printed books not be bought as sets because sets tend to be uneven, some authors contributing stronger volumes than others. Rather I recommended that one select the best commentaries from these sets. However, the way digital is priced today, buying the set seems to make better sense.
Timing is everything, especially in buying digital books. Unless you need something right away, watch for sales and buy when the prices are at their lowest. Also, FaithLife is producing collections of resources around common themes. This may be another way to gain resources cheaper. Get on the program’s email list and watch for special promotions.
Logos is not the only avenue to build a digital collection. Kindle or some other e-reader is another great way to buy books. I have gotten where I prefer to buy books I hope to read soon on Kindle (I use the Kindle app on my Macbook and iDevices) as the portability is just terrific. If I need something right away, I can find it and download it immediately rather than waiting until I return to the US for the mail to deliver a book to my door.
Finally, consider starting a PDF collection. Google Books and archive.org have thousands of older titles available for download free of charge. I have been building a Baptist history library in this way and my file containing these resources includes 3000 items and consumes 43 GB of space. If you have access to a good seminary or public library, you can also download journal articles into a digital file for ready reference later. Many journal search engines have PDFs available of the articles. The net effect of all of this is that when I travel I have nearly 7000 digital resources at my fingertips! This is amazing.
When I was finishing my PhD, one of the highlights of the graduation season was a meal at the president’s house. As a courtesy, students were able to see his substantial library. It was impressive to see walls in multiple rooms lined with shelves and the shelves filled with books. I hope he stays a long time where he is at, because the thought of moving all those books is making my back ache even as I write! I still have a substantial print collection and I still buy print books. Books will not go away anytime soon.
But more and more, my digital collection is growing while my print collection grows at a slower rate. Some books will not be available in digital in my lifetime, of this I have no doubt. But many of the most important books that a pastor will use are right now available in some digital format. Digital libraries, IMO, are the wave of the future. I know there has been discussion on the long-term viability of digital vs. the continued preference for print. I still think that the advantages of digital far surpass their potential limitations, especially if you are starting out building a new collection for use in a lifetime of ministry.
Either way, whether you choose books or digital, make the acquisition and assimilation of a good library a part of your ministerial journey. Your people will thank you! I love what Erasmus said in this regard. “When I have a little money, I buy books. If I have anything left, I buy food and clothes!” One thing more from the pen of the great Humanist—“Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself.” A good library is no substitute for a good education! Both will enhance your ministry.
Jeff Straub is Professor of Historical Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary