The future of academic libraries is a topic of concern these days, and the gloom and doom predicted by some scholars, and even some librarians, have people wondering what the libraries of the future will be. Some are forecasting a library largely stripped of books, fully digitized, sparsely staffed — essentially a study hall with a vault for special collections.

What should the boards of theological schools be thinking when they read these predictions? They know that the library is one of a school's largest cost centers. But if board members are listening at the door of library conferences these days, they may be getting a false impression.

To be sure, board members should understand the larger trends that are affecting library decision-making. But board members should base their decisions on solid information about their particular institution, the actual world of theological publishing, and the research needs of students and faculty. Beware the highly provocative statements that grab headlines!

The first thing to remember: Undergraduate libraries are not the same as the libraries of graduate schools of theology. While undergrads may visit the library to find a couple of books or articles to cite in a paper, this is not generally true for theological students. Further, unlike schools of science or law where the call for up-to-date, already digitized sources trumps the need for printed texts, theological studies are still heavily dependent on older materials. Biblical exegesis serves as one example — most biblical scholars consult a variety of commentaries available in print, search databases such as ATLA Religion Database and Catholic Periodical and Literature Index for journal articles, and perhaps consult electronic resources such as BibleWorks. While recent scholarship may be at the forefront, historical works are also essential. Right now, solid research in theological studies requires books, journals (both print and online), and online resources too. And this is not likely to change in the next few years.

What about the "library of the future?" Some of the prognostications can't stand up to the light of scrutiny.

Assumption 1

Libraries will be largely stripped of books; resources will all be digitized

It is true that more and more books and journals are being digitized, and ever more resources are "born digital." But theology is lagging behind other disciplines in this initiative. A major example is biblical commentaries. Seminary librarians are still waiting for a truly comprehensive array of online commentaries!

Digitization of books will certainly continue, with projects like Google Books making accessible large portions of our collections. But many observers say that the adoption of digital resources actually increases the use of physical books. Many people discover a book online, but then they want the physical copy for any number of reasons — for ease of reading, to verify something unclear in the digital version, or simply to satisfy an urge to own.

Further, unless individual libraries can digitize, many really interesting works will never be scanned. Every graduate theological library holds unique titles that are of interest to the broader world, but how can digitization of small collections be accomplished? For example, the library of the Catholic Theological Union, where I am director, has three volumes of a five-volume mimeographed collection of Cistercian essays. I am diligently working to find the other two volumes, but WorldCat says that no other library has them. If I could get all five volumes, I could digitize them and give access to scholars everywhere, but so far, no such luck. Statements like "everything is on Google" are simply not accurate.

Assumption 2

Libraries will be sparsely staffed

The sad reality is that most theological libraries are sparsely staffed already. Perhaps in a dreamy future where everything is freely online and no mediation is required to find and use an infinite number of free online resources, libraries will be able to cut staff. But in the world we actually live in, there are very few signs of excess staff. For example, most libraries report higher circulation and stronger use of interlibrary loan today than in the past. The internet and online databases have made the discovery of resources easier, but once discovered, resources must be procured. At my institution, lending to other seminary libraries has increased 300 percent this year! Seminary librarians have long been leaders in collaboration and work diligently to provide needed resources to fellow libraries. But it takes time and money to send books, time and money to scan and send articles by e-mail.

Trends in acquisitions and cataloging are similar. Even a cursory look at the publishing industry shows that book publishing in theological topics is strong — indeed, so strong that very few libraries can begin to collect more than a small portion of the newly published material. Further, the increasing internationalism of our student bodies makes it essential to collect resources published outside of the West. This creates an even more labor-intensive process for selectors, acquisition clerks, and catalogers.

Finally, the requirement to provide online resources to all students — on-campus students, commuters, and distance learners — makes additional demands on library staff. At least one member of the library staff must understand issues such as proxying and URL resolvers, making e-reference and online journals available seamlessly.

Assumption 3

Study hall + special collections = library

This line has been around for quite a few years: "Since everything will be online, the library of the future will be a study hall, with a room on the side for special collections." But these days, many libraries report surges in gate counts and circulation. In the Internet age, libraries are increasingly sites for collaborative learning. Furthermore, students continue to need instruction in the use of specialized resources. Few online resources use the same platform, and each resource has its own idiosyncrasies. International students sometimes need extra help with technology or research methodology. All of these keep the library busy as a vital place where scholarship happens.

As for special collections, some theological libraries own magnificent special collections to which serious researchers will always need access. And with the increase in collaborative catalogs, many librarians are finding ways to distinguish their collections — finding what is unusual or distinctive, making available materials that were previously hidden. The result will almost certainly be even more visits by researchers.

This includes archival material. Many academic libraries actively seek unique archival collections that bolster the strength of their holdings. For example, the library at CTU has a strong collection in Catholic religious life. We recently acquired the archival collection of Sister Margaret Nacke and Sister Mary Savoie, who documented the lives of nuns arrested and tortured under Communism. Where else but libraries will important resources like these be preserved and made available to future scholars?

The board's concerns

While I fully agree that librarians should be looking for ways to save money, the search for savings has been going on for years. Librarians are masters at forming consortial agreements that enable the discounts of everything from copier paper to online databases; we tend to search diligently for vendors that offer a slightly better discount, and we even curtail hospitality to maintain library acquisition budgets for print and online resources.

Melody Layton McMahon (standing) examines a rare mimeographed collection of Cistercian essays in the collection of the Paul Bechtold Library at Catholic Theological Union.
(Photo by Kathryn Dill)

But nevertheless, prices are rising dramatically for the resources that libraries must acquire. Digitization is not making resources cheaper. E-books are not less expensive than print books, nor are most e-journals less expensive than print journals. Often libraries need both print and electronic versions of the same title, which means paying twice for the same content. Many digital products are so expensive that we simply cannot justify their prices. The Acta Sanctorum, a digital product I would love to make available at my institution, was over $20,000 when last priced. The Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, which is being published in 30 volumes over 10 years, is $300 per print volume on standing order and $900 per year for an online subscription — or $14,500 to purchase the online version. Needless to say, many of my colleagues at other theological libraries will not be purchasing this resource in any version.

Meanwhile, periodical prices are rising as  scholarly societies sell their journals to market-driven publishing houses. A number of theological journals have risen from $60 to $500 dollars in just the past two years. And book prices too continue to rise much faster than inflation.

At my institution, our mission statement reads (in part):

Through its degree programs and other educational and formational opportunities, CTU strives to educate effective leaders for the Church whose mission is to witness to Christ's good news of justice, love and peace to people of all nations.

I am guessing that the mission statements of most schools contain something similar. The librarians I most admire are seeking to fulfill missions like these. They do so in a number of ways:

  • By looking for savings without reducing services and resources. 

  • By striving to maintain the heritage of the book while making online resources available to students wherever they are. 

  • By collaborating on open-access projects that benefit scholars all over the world. 

  • By encouraging scholarly societies and individual scholars to make their works available through open-access publication or at least at reasonable prices. 

  • By giving support for tenure and promotion to faculty who publish with open-access publishers, which are every bit as reputable as those who charge exorbitant prices.

When librarians do these things, they are helping to fulfill the mission of the theological school. 

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More