The Seminary Student’s Guide to the Library

This post was contributed by Michael Farrell. Michael is the Associate Librarian at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando Campus.

As a librarian in a seminary, I’ve noticed that in general students can be divided into two different types. There are those who consider themselves bibliophiles, haters of all things digital, old school. They spurn the internet and electronic resources and consider themselves above such “innovations.” They complain about reading computer screens and they enjoy the musty smell of old books. These folks are a little bit pretentious and sometimes annoying, but I must admit that they keep librarians like me in I love them.

The second type of student thinks that libraries are passe. This student loves their Mac and thinks that anybody who uses something other than a Mac to get information is a Neanderthal. This student only darkened the door of their undergrad library when the wireless was out in their dorm room and Starbucks. He believes that everything he needs is just a point and a click away, easily found, and easily used. Most dangerously, he believes that whatever he is reading on his screen is good information and should be used in his paper.

As in much of life, neither extreme is very good. The book lovers are right, there is a wealth of excellent information found only in printed material and it is often easier and faster to get information in a book than to wade through all the irrelevant fluff that is available electronically. On the other hand the book lover is also wrong. There are four big lessons our book lover needs to learn.

  1. A lot of scholarly interaction is taking place on the web, and if you neglect internet resources, your paper or other assignment will suffer. For instance, if you were to avoid the internet completely, you never would have had the opportunity to read this excellent article on how to make the most of the library during your seminary education.
  2. If you are going into seminary, you are probably going to enter the ministry. If you are going into ministry you should be familiar with how your flock finds information. If the only way you know how to get information is by reading a book, you are at a disadvantage.
  3. Sometimes information is only available electronically. Rare books and archival material need to be preserved. To allow access without destroying artifacts librarians and curators are turning towards digitization projects. You will probably never have the chance to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls or Codex Sinaiticus, but you will be able to look at digital images of these online.
  4. Sometimes information is most easily accessed electronically. If you want to take a look at the PCA’s Book of Church Order, (BOCO) you can run down to your library, search the catalog, for “book of church order” scroll the 180 returns on the PCUSA BOCO, the UPC BOCO, the OPC BOCO, and the many other Presbyterian BOCO’s, not to mention all the editions from each denomination. Or you could just go to the PCA website and click on a .pdf version of the most recently adopted BOCO.

Our laptop lover is also correct. A lot of excellent material is freely available on the internet and is easily found and used. On the other hand, our laptop lover is also incorrect. There are four big lessons the laptop lover needs to learn.

  1. The best information in the humanities is often still coming to the world in print form rather than electronic form. If you are writing a paper on Hugo Grotius’s apologetic work, De Veritate Religionis Christianae you might be able to fill up 10 pages by surfing around the internet, but if you really want to learn about how Grotius defended the faith in this book, you better pick up a copy of Hugo Grotius as Apologist for the Christian Religion by J.P. Heering. This is a Brill publication and would set you back a couple of hundred dollars. This might be a good time to take a trip to the library.
  2. There is a lot of incorrect information out there. Not all websites are created equally. Much information is incomplete or false. Much information is biased or commercially motivated. You must be diligently discerning when you look to the internet for information. In general print media is better edited and reviewed and a bit more reliable. You should always be skeptical and diligent, but in general you need not be on guard as much when reading a book as when reading a computer screen.
  3. Even if information is correct and reliable, it is not necessarily appropriate to cite anything you find on the internet. For instance, think it is wonderful that you are reading my little essay. However, if you were to cite my essay in a paper you are writing, and I were grading your paper… well I might have to dock you a few points. It is best to use material that is peer reviewed and professionally edited for formal assignments. Even the founder of Wikipedia has said that high school students should not be allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source in papers. You are going to be a graduate level student; you should be using graduate level resources. This is not necessarily a problem of “print versus electronic.” This is a problem of “appropriate versus inappropriate.” It would be just as foolish to cite a children’s book in a paper as it would Wikipedia. However, it seems that the problem of using inappropriate resources in research has only gotten worse in the so-called information age.
  4. Much of the best electronic information still needs to be accessed through your library. A general rule of thumb when it comes to the internet (and indeed much of life) is, “As soon as something becomes really useful and valuable, it stops being free.” Much content is password protected and your library may subscribe to such useful databases. In most cases, you can still point and click from the comfort of your own home without a trip to the library, but you may need to talk to your librarian about what kinds of databases are available, and you may find that your librarian has some good advice on how to use those databases.

The good news is, the seminary librarian can help both our book lover and our laptop lover. This leads to my second point. Use your librarian! A librarian can help you find electronic information; a librarian can help you find books on your topic; a librarian can teach you how to find things for yourself. You can bounce ideas off of librarians; you can come to your librarian if your professor is unavailable; you can ask your librarian for quick answers to simple questions.

Your seminary will most likely have at least one and probably several trained professional librarians. What does this mean? Most professional seminary librarians have earned a graduate degree in theology or religion and have earned a Master’s Degree in Library Science (MLIS). Librarians are trained in connecting people with information. We learn about how people find, seek, and use information. We learn about the kinds of information that people look for. We learn about teaching people how to find the information they need. We learn about how to organize information and how to help others organize information. As I just mentioned, your librarian probably also went through seminary himself. He can help you learn how to use the library to its best effect in your seminary career. Contrary to popular opinion, librarians love to be bothered. We may look stern and severe and like we do not want to be bothered. But we love helping students find information and solving problems. A good librarian will not do your work for you. We will not hand you a list of books, websites, and articles when you hand us a paper topic. A good librarian will teach you how to find information and how to approach research problems. Your librarian is happy to help you… all you need to do is ask. If you are coming to my seminary, you are paying my salary… use me!

This leads to my next point… learn about the services your library offers. This is especially important if you are one of those people who have not used libraries very often in the past. Most seminary libraries will have some sort of instructional program where the librarians will teach you how to use their resources and services. This will likely include a tour of the library where you can learn how your library organizes its books and periodicals, how to find the specific books and articles you need, the kinds of databases your library subscribes to, and the policies and procedures you will need to follow as you use the library. Most libraries have a free inter-library loan program. This means that in about a week’s time you could have in your hands any book from any library in the country or even world. Your library probably has a “reserve shelf” where you can pick up and read any of your assigned textbooks. Your library may have other special services such as a computer and printing lab. Our library has what we call the “Writing Mentor Program” which offers proofreading services and teaches research and writing skills. Many seminary libraries now offer “instant reference.” You can IM with a librarian with reference questions without the inconvenience of having to talk on the phone. Learn what your librarians do and take advantage of what they do.

Finally, as with many things in your seminary career it is important to plan ahead when you use the library. The big problems in life are not solved in 10 minutes. Similarly, the big research questions in life are not answered in 10 minutes. You should not expect to run down to your librarian 5 minutes before closing with a reference question and 5 inter-library loan requests and expect answers and books before the doors are locked. Humanities research in general and religious studies research in particular is something that needs to be “slowly sieged,” not “shocked and awed.”

Written by
Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns is a past Marketing Manager at Faithlife and now works at Redemption Hill Church in Richmond, VA.

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Written by Ryan Burns
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