AN ATTENTION-GRABBING MYTH these days is that libraries are dead. And they’re dead because books are dead. Not so! At least, not in theological education. Contrary to popular wisdom, not everything is online. In fact, in our discipline, too little scholarly material is on the web.

While reports of print’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, it’s true that digital content is exploding. In fact, a recent policy brief from the American Library Association states that the “digital revolution” is causing the library community to struggle — both to keep up with a tidal wave of information and to envision library services for a future that does not yet exist.

To deal effectively with books and online content, librarians must do more and more, usually with the same funding or even less.

What’s involved in running a library these days?

Technology pervades every aspect of librarianship — services, resources, facilities. In fact, when you’re discussing technology, you can’t make the librarian’s traditional separation into “services” and “resources” — proxy-servers, link-resolvers, online databases, multimedia software, and apps meld the two categories together.

Just among media formats, the variety is dizzying. Print books are not going away and still need room on the shelf. Yet for distance and online learners, books also need to be available online, and librarians must be knowledgeable about how to make them accessible without violating licenses. Librarians often must make difficult decisions about whether to purchase a print book, an online book, or both.

Other media like CDs, DVDs, and even videocassettes are still in production and in demand, which is a challenge for librarians. Moreover, many producers of media for theological education are not updating the formats of resources they have previously published. Whereas streaming video has taken hold in many humanities fields, so far very little streaming content is available in theology and religion.

One recent innovation that is making collection development more cost-effective is “demand-driven acquisition,” which makes the library’s user—the student or faculty member—into the collection developer. With demand-driven acquisition, either a book vendor or a librarian adds entries for carefully chosen but as-yet-unpurchased e-books into the online catalog. The library purchases the e-book only if a patron clicks on the link and uses the re- source. Demand-driven acquisition can even be configured so that the first few uses are charged to the library only as a loan, incurring lower costs than an outright purchase.

Demand-driven acquisition eliminates the guesswork about what faculty and students need. But librarians are also pursuing other ways to provide books online, such as subscribing to aggregations of books through providers like Project Muse, whose humanities collection is very useful for theological libraries.

Journal articles are one of the most prevalent electronic resources made available in any library, and indeed, almost all theological libraries subscribe to ATLASerials, a database from the American Theological Library Association that provides full-text articles. But there are many other online databases that can be helpful for theological researcher. To give students and faculty access to these requires the library to license the databases and make the material discoverable through indexing.

Cost is always a constraint. Since 2009, journal prices in philosophy and religion have risen by 23 percent, while some journal publishers are posting profits of 40 percent. For journals held by an institution’s library, librarians must make decisions about holding print or digital formats—or both—depending on the special circumstances of the institution, keeping in mind whether patrons might also be able to access the journal through online journal aggregators.

At first glance, Internet resources appear to be free, but librarians provide other services that make academic and other high-quality Internet resources discoverable for students. Many web resources have been described and added to library catalogs; some libraries prepare research guides covering a variety of topics to help their students know which online resources are recommended for research. As more scholarly resources become available on the Internet, this will become even more necessary. Evaluative websites like the Wabash Center Internet Guide to Religion are helpful, but librarians still must identify the resources that have specific interest for their own institution.

Staffing for all this is complex. At Abilene Christian University, several librarians have responsibility for these resources and services, including a digital research librarian and web-services librarian. At Catholic Theological Union, the electronic resources librarian is responsible for much of this, including selection, implementation, and instruction, although the director participates in this work as well. In addition, other seminary staff members, in information technology and educational technology, are involved in the management of digital information resources.

Ted Eytan

Teaching digital literacy

How does the library contribute to the core competencies that theological educators try to develop in students? Librarians teach students to find, evaluate, and use resources for their own research and ministry. In the past, many librarians taught content only—an instruction session might have involved taking a full book truck to a classroom for a “show and tell” about each book.

Today, librarians help students decide whether print or online materials are more appropriate; how to find each type of resource; how to access them; how to use the technology that digital resources require (on various devices), and how to use the content that these digital resources provide. Librarians know that using library resources on PCs and Macs requires specific knowledge of each system, while tablets and smartphones have their own peculiarities.

Many librarians also help teach post-research tasks to students, including how to use software that maintains databases of sources used and generates citations for sources. What the librarians teach to students helps prepare them for their ministry after graduation—not just research skills, but creating content. Pastors will blog. Lay ministers will teach classes and tell stories digitally. Directors of service agencies will give speeches and presentations. Counselors will direct hurting people toward online help. All these people need digital literacy, which librarians teach every day.

What resources do libraries need?

Is there a basic group of electronic resources that theological libraries should subscribe to or purchase? And what makes certain resources necessary?

The standards of the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools are clear:

The library is a central resource for theological scholarship and education. It is integral to the purpose of the school through its contribution to teaching, learning, and research, and it functions collaboratively in curriculum development and implementation. The library’s educational effectiveness depends on the quality of its information resources, staff, and administrative vision. To accomplish its mission, the library requires appropriate financial, technological, and physical resources, as well as a sufficient number of personnel. Its mission and complement of resources should align with the school’s mission and be congruent with the character and composition of the student body.

These accrediting standards require that the library provide the resources necessary for all of a school’s programs. Assessing the library’s effectiveness in contributing to the school’s mission is part of the accreditation evaluation that takes place once a decade.

If an institution offers online or distance education, librarians need to provide what is necessary for off-campus students. A library with a large distance-learning user base will usually want to acquire online resources when possible. And then they must offer a way to communicate with these students through chat, Skype, or other means.

In terms of content, theological libraries should provide materials that allow students to “read into the literature.” Comprehensive resources offer a breadth and depth within the theological disciplines, but they also help connect theology with other disciplines. For example, eHRAF (which stands for “electronic Human Relations Area Files”) is a cross-cultural ethnographic database that provides primary sources, while “Iter: Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance” distributes online resources specific to the years 400 to 1700.

Libraries are hubs

More than ever before, teaching and learning are becoming interpersonal, interdisciplinary, and media-rich. If properly resourced, libraries can be at the hub of this kind of learning, with networked resources and expert knowledge that support faculty and students in a complex learning environment.

The theological learning environment is in a time of abrupt transformation, requiring theological schools and everyone in them to learn and grow. The library, staffed by knowledge experts who are themselves engaged in lifelong learning, continues to be of critical importance to theological schools in the 21st century.

Creating multimedia resources in the library

How can the theological library contribute to creating digital video and audio content?

Anyone can make a video on a smart phone, upload it to YouTube, and have millions of people watch, but to do this well requires a lab with specialized equipment and software. Some institutions implement this in the library. The Learning Studio at Abilene Christian University is a model of this, with a “One Button” system allowing faculty to create video for use in a “flipped classroom,” where faculty present original content ahead of a class so more discussion can occur in the classroom. Library staff offers instruction for this service.

At Catholic Theological Union (above), an iMac set up with the basics for creating multimedia is used by students, particularly in their preaching and presiding courses.

Credit: Melody Layton McMahon




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